Ca. 1903 Howe-Orme Mandolinetto

Guitars weren’t always the most popular stringed instrument. In the 1920s and 1930s, the banjo reigned supreme as the rhythm instrument of countless jazz and pop bands, and with good reason – it was the only stringed instrument capable of being heard over a brass section. Before the banjo, though, the mandolin was the instrument of choice for countless professional and amateur entertainers. Before he started working at Gibson in 1919, Lloyd Loar was renowned as a virtuoso mandolinist. While Loar created the modern standard for mandolin construction and sound, the instrument had been evolving for decades before his work came to fruition.

The dominant mandolin design of the 19th century, with steel strings, a canted top and a bowl-shaped back, was the direct descendant of earlier gut-stringed members of the lute family. The instrument was small and therefore highly portable, and its short neck was easy for most people’s hands to maneuver. Orville Gibson’s revolutionary carved-body designs in the 1890s and 1900s eventually lead to the modern instrument that bluegrass players love, but flat-backed mandolins in the first half of the 20th century provided an important intermediate step. The best flat-backed mandolins (usually with canted tops, but occasionally with flat tops) are loud and have a lot of bassy projection. Manufacturers constantly tried to get as much volume out of their instruments as possible. Sometimes this required enlarging the body to create a larger vibrating surface and a larger resonance chamber inside. (For example, the Weymann “Mandolute” series were mandolin-scale instruments with oversized bodies).

A few innovative designers tried arching the tops or backs of their instruments for the same purpose. The Vega “cylinder-backed” mandolins of the 1910s and 1920s are the most famous examples, but this creation by Howe-Orme is another. Head-on, it may look like a ukulele or tiple, but its eight strings belie that it’s actually a mandolin. This style of mandolin with a guitar-shaped body is often called a “mandolinetto”, though the word was probably made up by manufacturers looking for any new advertising edge. Most mandolinettos had flat tops and backs, but Elias Howe created a new design that made his instruments sound much bigger than they looked.

The top is curved outward, enlarging a very narrow body by a considerable amount. It’s not carved but rather bent into shape, necessitating a similar curve in the floating bridge. The back is flat. While it looks like only a curiosity, the result is remarkable – this is every bit as loud as my Gibson F-2, but with much smaller dimensions. It has a tone much closer to a flat-backed mandolin than an archtop – mellow, with firm bass and sweet highs. The bass isn’t quite as loud as the best flat-tops, but the volume and overall tone easily measures up. This particular mandolin was undoubtedly from the bottom of the Howe-Orme line, with no binding or purfling and mahogany back and sides; more expensive ones were built of rosewood and considerable quantities of fancy trim.

The serial number can’t be dated exactly, but it probably puts the date of construction midway between 1900 and 1905. Aside from the shape of the body, the mandolinetto is a fairly normal product of its time. It has an ebony fingerboard with a 13” scale. The tortoise pickguard is inlayed into the top, complete with the one fancy feature on the instrument: the “EH” monogram. The monogram represents Elias Howe, the designer, while the label says “Howe-Orme”; G.L. Orme was a distributor, and it was common at the time for distributors to have their name somewhere on the instruments they sold.

My mandolinetto is all original and in far better shape than most instruments from its period. There are no cracks, only some very slight damage to one edge, and thanks to a neck reset the instrument is in excellent playing condition. I also have the original case, though one of the latches was replaced a very long time ago (all the hardware is iron, not steel, including the replacement latch).

You can read about the history of the Elias Howe’s instruments on this excellent page. Luthier Rick Turner talks about Howe’s guitars here.