1910s Favilla Mandolin

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the founding of many instrument manufacturing companies by immigrants. There were Swedes in Boston (Vega), Slovaks in California (National/Dobro), and Germans in New Jersey (Oscar Schmidt), to name just a few. New York City was the center of a large Italian-American community from which emerged a number of respected builders such as Puntolillo and Favilla.

Like many of their contemporaries, brothers Giovanni and Joseph Favilla learned the craft of instrument building from their family; their father had previously built instruments in Italy. The brothers started their own business in 1890. It moved around several times between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, but the company found success building mandolins, guitars, banjos and the occasional violin. The Favilla brand is primarily remembered for its ukuleles, but its other instruments were constructed to similarly high standards.

Favilla Brothers instruments were interesting but rarely revolutionary. Like most of the builders in New York, their mandolins were almost exclusively bowl-back instruments whose design had changed little in several centuries. Orville Gibson and the company that bears his name redesigned the fundamentals of the mandolin but their approach took several decades to foster imitations. Meanwhile, flat-backed mandolins existed in the 1890s as mandolinettos, but the classic flat teardrop body only began to gain traction after 1910.

By 1915, however, such instruments were becoming commonplace in manufacturers’ and distributors’ catalogs. They were frequently described as “lute mandolins”, which can be confusing since lutes typically feature a bowl back similar to Neapolitan mandolins. The Favilla Brothers followed the prevailing trends and began to build flat backs as well as bowl backs. Alas, very little documentation on the company’s products has survived from any era. However, surviving instruments from the pre-War era show that the company was willing and able to customize instruments for customers. This was common among builders of all sizes at the time, and sure enough there are a number of early Favilla instruments around with players’ initials inlayed into headstocks. It’s likely that the company welcomed walk-in customers; after they opened a store around the corner from their factory, both addresses were included in advertisements.

This mandolin may be the result of a player’s quest for personalization. Not only does the headstock bear the initials GM, but the shape of the body is most unusual as well. However, I have found one Favilla mandobass that features a similarly lumpy double-cutaway shape, so it’s possible that this was a company trademark used on more expensive instruments. The canted top and 10th-fret neck joint are common for early flat-back mandolins, and they jive with the pre-1920 label. Although the back and neck are made of mahogany – and the neck is a single piece – the custom-inlayed pickguard, purfling, center stripe and headstock decoration indicate that this was an expensive instrument. The overall decoration is reminiscent of bowl-back mandolins, and is among the most lavish I have seen on a Favilla mandolin. Unfortunately, there are no surviving catalogs to compare with; in fact, it appears that no Favilla model names or numbers are known from before World War II.

The instrument is all original except for the bridge and in excellent condition. It's remarkably loud, but despite the extra-deep body it has a clear, bright sound.