Ca. 1857 Ashborn Style 4

 

Prior to the 1830s, all guitars purchased in the United States were imported from Europe. That changed when C. F. Martin started his factory in New York and then Nazareth, PA, but Martin’s early guitars were largely custom creations and everything was done by hand. Around 1848 came a new development in American guitar making: one man introduced standardized models and mechanized equipment, thereby applying modern ideas of mass-production to musical instruments for the first time. His name was James Ashborn.

Born in England around 1816, Ashborn emigrated to the US in the late 1830s and settled down in the village of Wolcottville, CT (now part of the city of Torrington). Wolcottville was then a burgeoning center of manufacturing, and Ashborn found plenty of work as a mechanic. By the late 1840s he found a business partner who funded the construction of a guitar and banjo factory. A water wheel on the Naugatuck River turned mechanical cutting and sanding devices that greatly improved the efficiency of the operation. In the early 1850s, the factory’s 10-person crew produced an average of 54 guitars per month, sometimes rising to more than double that figure. No other shop was nearly as prolific.

Ashborn’s use of standard model designs also helped streamline production. There were six styles, numbered from least to most expensive, and all shared the same dimensions and basic construction. They varied in the woods used and levels of decoration, though the specifics changed over time for each style; fortunately for modern archaeologists, Ashborn stamped the style number next to the serial and retailer inside each guitar. This particular guitar is a Style 4, the most expensive style that was produced in large quantities. It features a spruce top, a laminated back with spruce on the inside and rosewood on the outside, an ebony fingerboard and multiple rows of purfling around the top binding and rosette.

Ashborn built as much as possible in-house, including gut strings and tuners of his own design. Almost all of his guitars have brass gears which still function surprisingly well, but a few of the more expensive instruments featured his own patented friction design that was supposed to allow for smoother operation and greater precision. This guitar was originally fitted with such tuners, but one owner decided to replace them. Sometime between 1870 and 1890 (judging by the style of the replacements), the holes were plugged, a new cap fitted to the headstock, and slots were drilled to accommodate conventional geared tuners. Judging by how few other Ashborns were originally fitted with these friction pegs, it’s likely that gears simply worked better.

While the headstock is something of a mongerel, the rest of this guitar is exquisitely preserved. There are no cracks in the top after a century and a half, and even the back and side veneers have a minimum of waviness. The neck has been reset, but the guitar is now quite playable. The original coffin-style case is intact, its interior still shrouded in printed cloth and its wrought iron hardware still functioning. Ashborn’s factory ledgers stopped listing serials in 1854, but my analysis of those serials provides an estimated build date of 1857. Sources vary on when the factory closed; my own conclusion is about 1861. All Ashborn guitars were sold through two New York City stores: Firth, Pond & Co., and William Hall & Son; this guitar is stamped with the latter name.

The Ashborn factory no longer stands, but its approximate location is still accessible. Here is a picture of this guitar within a few hundred feet of where it was built, resting on the rail line that shipped it to New York, over the branch of the Naugatuck River that powered the factory.

 

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