Friday 4/29/2011 ~ Lyon & Healy
Have you ever wondered if anything you've done will be remembered in 100 years? Yeah, me too.
(We should probably get started on our Wikipedia pages.) (Wait...will they still have the internet in 100 years?)
In the interest of remembering things from more than 100 years ago, I'd like to mention two guys. And some other guys.
The musical instrument biz has always been a tough one... but it was certainly a challenge for two men who opened a shop in Chicago in 1864. George Lyon and Patrick Healy started their small store in October 1864. By January 1870 they were doing well enough to move to a new larger location. Unfortunately, in September 1870 a fire burned down the entire block, including their building. (Fires are an issue even today, but they were certainly a bigger problem years ago.) Undaunted, George and Patrick reopened in a new location before the end of the year. But, remember that fire issue? Ten months later, in October 1871, thirty-four blocks of downtown Chicago (including George and Patrick's new store) burned down in what is now known as the Great Chicago Fire.
After two store-destroying fires many folks would have given up, but these guys opened yet again in 1872! And they expanded into musical instrument manufacturing. By 1880 their company, Lyon & Healy, (operating out of a new, six-story fire-proof building) was manufacturing thousands of instruments a year. And included in their catalog, along with horns, zithers, violins and pianos, were our favorite instruments, guitars.
In 1883 they decided to offer a premium line of guitars, to compete with the young and highly regarded C. F. Martin Guitar Company. The name chosen for these more expensive Lyon & Healy instruments was George Lyon's middle name: Washburn.
Here's a picture of a Washburn Style 6, circa 1885.
Here's a Style 308 from 1890.
Here's a catalog page from 1896.
And here's a wacky Style 805 from 1885.
Lyon & Healy sold instruments through dealers and catalogs around the country, with great success. By the mid-1890s they were the largest musical instrument manufacturing company in the world! Their 1896 catalog bragged that the company manufactured 100,000 instruments per year. Not bad for two men who were burned out of business twice!
(The "100,000 instruments" were not all guitars, of course. That figure included tambourines, harmonicas, and every other musical item. But it did include a lot of guitars. And the top of the line guitars were the Washburns.)
An example of the quality and expense of the Washburn line is evidenced in the 1890 Sears Catalog. Lyon & Healy's cheapest Washburn (the Model 101 for $22) was more expensive than any other brand of guitar in the catalog.
(The average price of a guitar in the early 1890s was under $10... but $10 was a lot of money in those days!) (In fact, have you seen the Pittsburgh Guitars cash register? The buttons allow you to type in a sale, and the most expensive price you can enter is $9.99. Here's a photo. I don't know what type of retail store originally ordered this cash register, but they clearly couldn't imagine selling something for more than $9.99!)
Now you're probably saying to yourself, "If Lyon & Healy was the once biggest musical instrument manufacturer in the world, why haven't I heard of them?"
Well, for one thing, it was 100 years ago and they never had a web site. And despite their success, economic times took a toll. The company was strong enough to survive a stock market crash in 1893 (The Panic of 1893), but like many companies they were impacted by the stock market crash in 1901 (The Panic of 1901) and the stock market crash in 1907 (The Panic of 1907). And World War I didn't help, either. (In case you aren't familiar with WWI, here's the link.) Furthermore, George Lyon died in 1894, and Patrick Healy died in 1905.
Without the original founding fathers, a series of company presidents made a series of executive decisions about the future direction of the company. The biggest impact was made by Raymond Durham, Lyon & Healy's company president in 1927. He noticed that, thanks to ever improving roads and methods of transportation, a new concept was springing up: suburbs! Durham decided that the future of the company lay in a proposed nationwide chain of city and suburban retail stores, rather than in manufacturing instruments. In May 1928 he sold Lyon & Healy's guitar factory, machinery, and the Washburn brand name to another company, J.R. Stewart. And would you like to guess what happened next? In October 1929, to be specific?
Yep, the big Stock Market Crash of 1929 followed by the Great Depression. (Hey, I'm sorry this email has such bad economic stuff in it! But maybe it will make us feel a little bit better about the current times...) J. R. Stewart went bankrupt, and Lyon & Healy's chain of stores never materialized. The Washburn brand name was purchased by another Chicago company, Tonk Brothers, but the 1930s were not the best of times. When World War II hit, Tonk Brothers went under, and in 1941 the Washburn name disappeared.
And the point of this story? I just wanted you to know that 147 years ago two men in Chicago started a company, and despite early hardships, that company grew to be the largest musical instrument manufacturer in the world. And along the way they manufactured a fine line of quality guitars under the Washburn brand. From 1884 through 1928 Lyon & Healy made approximately 75,000 Washburn guitars, which was more than any other guitar manufacturer of the time.
Oh yeah... you may not be familiar with Lyon or Healy, but you probably have heard the Washburn name. In 1974, a guy named Tom Beckman (no relation to the original company) started using the Washburn name on some inexpensive imported acoustics. Since the name had been out of use since 1941, I don't know if Tom bought it, or just re-registered it. In 1978 Tom sold the name to Rudy Schlacher, who has since developed it into a well-known electric and acoustic line. Today Rudy's company, US Music Corp, makes nice guitars, but the "History" page on their web site is a bit misleading. Other than reusing the name, the current company has nothing to do with the original Lyon & Healy company. So, when you see articles like "Washburn Celebrates 125 Years of History," take them with a large grain of salt!
And if 100 years from now you see someone using the name "Pittsburgh Guitars, since 1979!" tell them to cut it out! (Unless, of course, it's John, and he's still running the store...)
See you soon,
PS: Prior to re-using the Washburn name, Rudy Schlacher's most famous venture was "Nashville Straights." "Nashville Straights" were guitar strings sold in long straight boxes, rather than coiled in square pouches like other strings. It was just a gimic, but I do remember seeing them in stores. Here's an ad.
PPS: Tom Beckman sold Rudy the Washburn name in 1978, to start "Roland US" with Roland's original Japanese founder, Ikutaro Kakehashi. A few years later the international Roland company bought out Tom's share of Roland US.
PPPS: If you've spent time with a symphony orchestra, you might actually know the name Lyon & Healy. Way, way back in 1889 Patrick Healy noticed that his company was doing a lot of repairs on non-roadworthy, European-made harps. And I don't mean harmonicas... I mean big, ol' heavy harps. Healy decided that Lyon & Healy should design and manufacture the world's finest harps. And they did! In 1928, when company president Ray Durham decided to sell off Lyon & Healy's manufacturing businesses, he kept the harp factory. Perhaps he knew it was important to the late Patrick Healy. And Lyon & Healy makes harps to this day! Here's their site. And when they say "120 Years of Experience," they're telling the truth!
PPPPS: Speaking of names that should or shouldn't be familiar, here's one from 150 years ago that very few people know: William B. Tilton. In the late 1840s Tilton experimented with ways to improve the sound of a guitar. As we all know, the quality of an acoustic guitar's tone is related to the vibration of the top of the guitar when it is played. Tilton felt that the top would vibrate more freely if he reduced the mass of a guitar's internal neck-block and end-block. (Those are necessary wood blocks that help the instrument withstand the tension of the strings.) To maintain the stability of the instrument with reduced wood, he designed a supporting rod that ran inside the guitar, from the neck-block to end-block. And, for publicity purposes, on that rod he mounted a silver-painted disc labeled "Tilton's Improvement." The second part of his "Improvement" was a uniquely designed trapeze tailpiece. W.B. Tilton patented "Tilton's Improvement" in 1854, and manufactured instruments until the late 1860s. His "Improvement" was then used by other manufacturers until the 1890s.
Was "Tilton's Improvement" actually an improvement? The jury is still out on that one. Did it last until the 21st Century? Not really. Should we know W.B. Tilton's name in 2011? Ah.... er.... well, he may have been a very nice guy....
From the Pittsburgh Guitars collection, here's a Wm. B. Tilton guitar from 1860. Note the fine looking Brazilian rosewood on the back & sides. And the promotional marketing discs!
PPPPPPS: Customer of the week: Imagination Movers