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Of all the instrumental companies that have participated in the rise of the steel-string guitar, Lyon & Healy stands out from the bunch, in that it was one of the very first to produce and distribute musical instruments in large quantities, thus falling within the pure American economic line that is the mass market, a market which the companies Martin and Gibson will certainly join little by little, but with the concern of maintaining a certain idea of craftsmanship. Lyon & Healy was founded in 1864 by Chicago-based distributor Oliver Ditson (1811-1888), luthiers George Washburn Lyon (1825- ????) and P. J. Healy (1840- ????). With the help of the industrial revolution, the company’s policy was to offer under several brand names – notably Washburn, Ditson, Haynes, Bay State, Tilton, etc. – a wide variety of instruments, from the low end at US$10 to the high end at US$240. Manufactured on a semi-mechanized assembly line, the quality of these instruments is praised by an aggressive advertising strategy steeped in self-satisfaction.

The result of this strategy did not take too long to show as in 1897, for example, the annual production of the company showed nearly 100,000 guitars, mandolins, zithers and double basses, at a time when the annual production of Martin reached, at best, 1,000 guitars in 1919. In view of these astronomical figures, and if we consider that supply meets demand, we can better grasp the unprecedented development of musical practice associated with the aforementioned instruments at the turn of the century. With the exception of the introduction around 1900 of the tenor guitar, and in addition to its propensity to saturate its guitars with large and fine mother-of-pearl inlays, the contribution of Lyon & Healy in terms of the metal string guitar lies precisely only in its industrial bias in mass production, distribution and distribution, which greatly contributed to the democratization of the instrument. Thus, randomly in photographs from the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century, it is not uncommon to find in the hands of a penniless black or white musician a low-end guitar from Lyon & Healy. Never – or rather not yet – a Martin or a Gibson.

In the tradition of large companies such as Lyon & Healy, let us simply mention the companies Stewart & Bauer of Philadelphia, Rettberg & Lange and Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company based in New York, Oscar Schmidt Musical Instrument Company of New Jersey City or even Sears & Roebuck of Chicago and the Chicago Music Company, distributing among one hundred other brands Lange, Paramount, Orpheum, Kay, Biehl, Harmony, etc. The case of the more artisanal company Maurer & Co founded in 1886 in Chicago, where the talented brothers and luthiers Carl (1876-1946) and Peter (1873-1944) Larson worked before buying it, deserves to be highlighted. Under the brands Maurer, Prairie State, Stetson, Euphonon, Dyers and Stahl, were probably born at the very end of the 19th century and before the Orville Gibson models, some of the finest quality guitars designed to be set up exclusively with steel strings. Previously, the use of these, which appeared around 1860, was at the player’s own risk: Washburn, for example, guaranteed in its catalogs its instruments from almost all evils except the “ravages of steel strings”, already available on the market. The Larson brothers took this new and growing practice among musicians very seriously and developed from the contemporary Martin or Washburn type guitar shape instruments with bracings in very resistant wood, such as rosewood or ebony, with a slightly domed but not carved top and back, and featuring one or two metal rods stiffening the guitar from the headstock to the tail block. If the fine quality instruments of the Larson’s Brothers were the first to meet the expectations of musicians, the dispersion and multiplicity of brands under which they were marketed and the relative volume of production from which they benefited did not allow them to meet the same success as future Martin or Gibson guitars. The fact remains that they are essential in the history of the acoustic guitar with steel strings and very appreciated by connoisseurs. It may be added without too much conjecture that if the house of Larson’s Brothers had had any descendants, it would have very seriously thwarted the destinies of Martin and Gibson.

Today mainly the prerogative of a few collectors, the creations of all the companies mentioned above are to be taken into consideration insofar as they were immensely successful in their time and are still the object of a cult for some, if not a renewed interest among sharp musicians eager for original vintage instruments.

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