1920s Victoria Mandola

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, gangs of mandolin players roamed the land terrorizing the population with eight-string arrangements of classical and popular songs. The mandolin orchestra became such a popular phenomenon in the US, Europe and elsewhere that composers created entire evenings’ worth of music intended specifically for eight-stringed instruments. Manufacturers and vendors were quick to catch on as well, and they used these orchestras as a vehicle for promoting instruments in the days before “signature” models were introduced.

The exact makeup of a mandolin orchestra varied by its size and degree of professionalism (many were local clubs open to anyone who could play well enough not to ruin the performance). Mandolins were obviously abundant, but other instruments were needed to fill out the lower frequencies: mandolas, octave mandolins, mandocellos, mandobasses (or double basses), guitars and occasionally banjos were all heard filling out the arrangements. Manufacturers stepped forward with an ever-increasing number of variations, so that an instrument catalog from the early 1920s reads like a museum register of antiquated curiosities.

Then, as now, the lines between manufacturers, distributors and retailers were hazy. Individual factories turned out dozens of brand names, and stores and catalog companies often developed their own brands without ever building a single instrument. This mandola is an excellent example: the label reads both “Victoria” and “B.&J.” – very much the predecessor of “Squier by Fender”. The initials stand for Buegeleisen & Jacobson, a New York-based distributor that sold a wide variety of instruments through mail-order catalogs. While they would eventually distribute guitars and mandolins for manufacturers like Kay, National-Dobro and even Martin, until the end of the 1920s B&J focused on brand names that they owned. S.S. Stewart and Serenader are two of the more famous ones, and Victoria was another. The distinction between these brands was often hazy, even when they appeared on the same catalog page, but Serenader appeared mainly on cheaper instruments while Stewart and Victoria were further up in price. Mandolins bearing all three names were sources from Harmony, Regal and Stromber-Voisinet/Kay; banjos appear to have another source, possibly Lange.

I have not located this exact mandola in a B&J catalog, but a nearly identical one appears in this book on Regal instruments. That nails down the manufacturer and gives a rough estimate of the age, but it leaves the original price point open to guess. The mandola in the book was built of spruce and mahogany while mine is built of spruce and birch, a cheaper combination of woods but still a step up from bottom-line mandolins of the day (which usually had a birch top as well). The birch neck, covered tuners, tortoise pickguard and multi-ply top binding mark this as a mid-priced instrument. It is in excellent condition, the only structural flaw being a separation in the top where the shrinking pickguard has pulled the wood apart at the grain (now repaired). Other than a few minor marks in the finish, the mandola is very clean overall. The neck is straight and very playable, and the original frets are low but not noticeably worn. The tone is not as refined as my Larson Brothers mandola, but the volume is the equal of that more expensive instrument.