". . . What the few historians who know anything about these instruments do know (and love to tell you about) is that Elias Howe, the designer of these "mandolinettos," was the famous inventor of the first sewing machine. However, a quick stroll over to the encyclopedia reveals that Elias patented his sewing machine in 1846 and died in 1867, which leaves twenty-six years until he would patent "his" mandolins. Since said historians have denied my request for interviews and "cannot be reached for comment," maybe someone out there can explain this to me . . ."

The Great 
Elias Howe 

by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)

I’ve received more questions, feedback, information, and confusion on this topic than anything in my entire Armchair Musicologist’s career. But I’ve finally received enough information from concerned readers to sift through and present the following:

My original CD blurb was to poke fun at those who made the above assumed leap of logic without the simplest of research (and to express my frustration, as a budding historian, of realizing that it was up to me to constantly disseminate misinformation). I have a lot of areas of interest, and wasn’t up to the research on this fairly esoteric item – but thankfully, a lot of others were (don’t you people have lives? I know – I should talk).

Here’s the skinny:

As most of us who bothered to check the encyclopedia already figured out, the famous Elias Howe who invented the sewing machine (and I have to wonder – why do so many of us musicians even know about the sewing machine thing?) is NOT the same Elias Howe of mandolinetto fame.

The guy we’re concerned with (and by the way, the two were related - both descendants of John Howe of the 1600's - and both born in Massachusetts within a year of each other!) was born in 1820 in Framingham, MA and died in 1895 in Watertown, MA. And his father was an Elias also!

Elias Howe, Jr. was at one time or another:

  • A Farmington farmer
  • A Boston fiddler
  • A music store proprietor
  • A prolific music publisher (including the still available Ryan's Mammoth Collection of fiddle tunes)
  • A collector and dealer of vintage musical instruments (apparently the country’s largest collection at the time!)

He didn’t invent the mandolinetto, however – this was patented by his son, Edward F. Howe. And it was patented, not as a mandolinetto, nor even as a mandolin, but as a "design for a guitar-body" with "strings arranged in pairs" (#27560). No dimensions are given.

Interestingly, two other instruments with the same cylindrically arched top were simultaneously patented: a bowl-back mandolin by Edward, and a guitar by J.S. Back (see below) – this also as a "design for a guitar-body" – but with no mention of stringing (and the standard six guitar tuners shown)(#27561).

My take on it is this:

Between the three patents, they were introducing, not the "mandolinetto" concept, but the "arch-top" guitar and mandolin – Orville Gibson’s were six months or more away! Their tops (termed "having a longitudinal central swell") were to be pressed, Gibson’s carved. Instruments to be made with this new, patented top would be a series of guitars and mandolins – the mandolins in both typical bowl-back versions and a family of guitar-shaped mandolins in four sizes. These were marketed as mandolin and three sizes of mandola – "tenor", "octave" and "cello".

Some individuals have previously stated that these instruments were called "mandolinettos" by the inventors, and/or sold as such. But as no one has yet come up with any evidence of this (any takers?), I’ll stick by my naively-written CD booklets and maintain that the Sears catalog is the first we hear the term "mandolinetto" (they carried a "generic" brand, supplied by one of the large manufacturers). This now seems to be standard terminology for the guitar-shaped mandolin – but I don’t know how or when this became accepted (Since the turn-of-the-century? Or only recently by collectors?). 

And my take on "Howe-Orme":

The "Howe" was Elias - who passed away before these instruments were developed – or more specifically, the Elias Howe Company – formed in 1840 and inherited (and incorporated) by sons Edward and William  in 1898 (with a store surviving until 1931).

The "Orme" was G.L. Orme - a Canadian manufacturer & distributor (the same as Geo. N. Orme, listed as a patent witness?).

James S. Back was an employee of Orme.

I postulate that either, A) Edward Howe and James Back, working for different companies, somehow "co-invented" this new "arch-top" concept – or, B) Back invented it (see below) and Edward Howe created a further variation - the "mandolinetto" concept. Either way, the two clearly went together to file the basically identical "design for a guitar-body" patents (with eight vs. six strings & guitar vs. mandolin bridges)(#27560 & 27561). Again, # 27559 , the bowl-back, has the exact same top.

It is not known exactly when the first of the "mandolinettos" were produced. The "Design Patent" above (sent to me by Randall Merris) has a date of 1897. Labels inside the instrument give two other patent dates: Nov.14, 1893 and Apr. 23, 1895. Michael Holmes of Mugwumps Online (see my Links page) directed me to the 1893 patent, which is another guitar by James Back – with the same cylinder top (and a strange, extra double-soundboard inside!). I assume the "mandolinettos" list this patent to cover and include the earliest "cylinder top" invention. Someone only needs now to dig up the 1895 patent and see what clues it reveals! The earliest ads seem to come from 1898.

And speaking of dates: I’d heard vague claims that other companies also beat Gibson to the "mandolin orchestra" concept. I just learned that historian Paul Ruppa has information that two companies – Waldo and F.O.Gutman – both produced mandolas and mandocellos prior to 1900. Now who came first? Howe-Orme? Waldo? Gutman? Yet another?

As far as we know, there wasn’t a Howe-Orme company, but everyone agrees that the two had some sort of arrangement (due to the patent sharing discussed above) to co-produce and/or market the instruments under the "Howe-Orme" name/label. I say "and/or" because researchers believe (quite plausibly) that H-O’s instruments were built by another Boston manufacturer (Vega is one suspect – due to the fact that both lines used the same engraved fingerboard inlays – perhaps only a coincidence). Michael Holmes also suggested the Orme factory as a very good possibility. An intriguing new clue just received from Eddie Sorila: While purchasing this wonderful Howe-Orme tenor mandola at an auction, he also saw a fancy model Howe-Orme "mandolinetto" - same "H-O" pick guard, but with "G.L. Orme" and a Canadian address on the otherwise similar label (!?).

And for those of us who are wondering - Elias Howe's rare instrument collection was dispersed in 1931. Wonder what was in it?!

And there you have it! More than any of us ever hoped or wanted to know about Elias Howe, the guy who did not, I repeat, did NOT, invent the sewing machine.

I had to study and digest quite a bit of material (some still contradictory!) from many sources to come up with the above. A HUGE thanks to the following, who generously sent me material (and anyone with more details, send 'em in!):
Randall Merris, Bob DeVellis, Marc Perdue & Michael Holmes. And previously published material from Patrick Sky, Scott Freilich, and the Grove Dictionary of Music. And Rick Turner for showing me, oh-so-long-ago, his complete set of H-O "mandolinettos"! (go to this page to see a picture)

AND - if you’re not yet sick of the subject, read a much better written, stupendously-detailed article by fellow Howe-Orme fan, Bob DeVellis!

Plus! More mandolinettos here! 

If you need every last detail on Elias Howe, Jr., you can look up Pat Sky's detailed introduction to Ryan's Mammoth Collection (1050 jigs & reels for fiddle - published by Mel Bay); and the New Grove Dictionary (now online!) of Music & Musicians.

 to Unique Mandolins


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