Ca. 1913 Bohmann Octave Mandolin


Joseph Bohmann was the greatest luthier of his time – and that’s according to him. Never one to shy away from self-advertisement, Bohmann’s instruments carried unusually large labels that boasted of the awards their creator had garnered. His literature offered a $125,000 prize to anyone who could disprove the claim that his instruments were better than the competition’s. It was nonsense, of course, that one high-end instrument could be empirically proven superior to another, but the challenge was typical of Bohmann’s confidence in his own craft.

Bohmann was born in Bohemia in 1848 and immigrated to Chicago by the end of the 1870s. There he set up shop building guitars, mandolins, violins and zithers, awarding himself the title of the earliest mandolin builder in America (impossible to prove, but plausible). He is also thought to be the first builder to create a finish approaching a modern sunburst. Bohmann’s early instruments were relatively crude, but the 1890s saw him win a string of awards for his creations at various expositions. By that time, too, his instruments were being sold through a variety of dealers including Sears, Montgomery Ward, and Lyon & Healy.

Most of Bohmann’s output were relatively inexpensive instruments comparable to guitars and mandolins by other major builders of the time, but his presentation-level instruments were quite impressive. As time went on, his high-end guitars and mandolins began to resemble the central European designs of his homeland, and they were fitted with some unusual features. A unique harp guitar featured extra strings from the end of the body to the sides, doing away with a separate neck. Guitars and mandolins alike were given unique headstock and body shapes, and they were fitted with Bohmann’s unique patented tuners and bridges.

This octave mandolin – a relatively rare instrument from any builder – demonstrates many of Bohmann’s trademarks. The body is effectively that of a shrunken guitar, with separate upper and lower bouts, but with such a wide waist that it is closer to a two-point design than anything else. The spruce top has a center stripe (something normally seen only on the back of instruments) and is arched by the Z-shaped bracing. The tailpiece appears to be designed to take pressure off the loop end of the string, perhaps to minimize string breakage.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature is inside the body: six metal rods running from the neck block to the tail, tuned to vibrate in sympathy with the strings when the instrument is played. The actual effect on the instrument’s sound is quite small, but Bohmann went so far as to specify different materials (copper, brass, steel, and German silver) for different pitches when he patented the idea. There’s even a spring-loaded mute for the rods, accessible through the top of the body next to the soundhole. This mandolin is in remarkably good condition, with all of its original parts.

Bohmann did not use serial numbers, so the normal method of estimating the date is to reference the last patent listed on the label. However, this instrument is somewhat unique: “PAT APLD. FOR” is scrawled across the neck block in large letters. Assuming this refers to the design patent for the arched top and sympathetic rods, that narrows down the date of construction to between October 1911 and February 1915 - the dates the patent was filed and awarded.