It’s an extraordinarily rare event to find a high-grade, historically significant mid-1800s guitar in a pawn shop, but that is indeed where this Martin was discovered.
When found in Nashville in the mid 1970s, it was recognized as an exceptional instrument with ornamentation far in excess of any typical Martin of that time, but only recently has documentation surfaced to provide detail about it – and its depth is seldom encountered on any instrument of this age.
There are three remarkable letters in the Martin archive related to this instrument. A letter from Peters & Sons, a music-instrument retailer, dated October 12, 1852, makes the following query:
“N.B. Please write us at Cin(cinnati) the cost, or supposed cost, of a Guitar of the following description: A Guitar of the very finest make (same shape as the fine one we have on con(signment)) with rosewood inside case. The Patent Head to be of Plated Gold and end of screws etc to be pearl tiped (sic). Frets to be Gold (18 carat) and the fingerboard to be covered with pearl, instead of ebony. The man is not particular about the price but wants the best in the country.”
Another letter, dated November 8, 1852, continues; “The gentleman who wants the elegant guitar is at our elbow. He wants as good a guitar as you can make for $100 wholesale. The head to be patent head – the metal part of the head to be galvanized with gold. The fret to be 14 carat gold – worth 50 cts per pennyweight. The spaces between the frets to be made of pearl.
“There must be an extra case, of rosewood, such as the one we have of yours. Also, the shape of the instrument to be the same as the one we have. Above all, the gentleman wants to know soon he can have the instrument, as it for a lady who is about to be married.”
The final letter, dated November 24, 1852 fixed the specifications:
“Make the fine Guitar, with a black neck veneered with ebony. Make the sounding board or top – pale yellow.
“Make the Guitar, same size as the one we have on con(signment)
“Make the neck a little narrower.
“It must not cost us more than $110 dollars, but the frets must be gold as we last wrote you.
“You must cheapen it a little on the Rosewood case and above all, don’t forget to send it away within three weeks from the receipt of our letter.”
In the mid 1980s, an article [co-authored by George Gruhn and Suzy Newton] on this guitar in Guitar Player identified an interesting feature not mentioned in the letter in the Martin archive: on top of the rosewood case, the name “Lula” is inlaid in script letters. Likely the name of the lady who received the guitar as a wedding gift. The article suggests the material for the inlay was brass, but it is more likely that leftover gold fret wire was used for the inlaid letters.
The pictures reveal a very unusual headstock, one not seen on any other Martin guitar of the period. The type of tuning machines used resulted in very narrow peghead slots. Martin selected these peculiar machines because the dealer specified “the Patent head to be of plated gold.” The external mounting plates of these unusual machines would have been much easier to plate than those Martin normally used.
This guitar has what is commonly known as the “renaissance” shape. Until the connection could be made between this guitar and the archival material, it was a matter of conjecture as to when these guitars were made. C.F. Martin did not record this different shape in the day book, but we know from correspondence that W. C. Peters & Sons had at least one more in stock with the same “renaissance” shape. This guitar is one of the few “milepost” instruments from the period because it can be accurately dated. We now know that the “renaissance” shaped guitars were made from about 1843 to 1860.
Martin’s Ledger 1852-’57 records this guitar as being shipped on December 27, 1852. For some reason, it is not recorded in the day book, so we do not have the full description Martin usually noted during this period. Since Martin couldn’t have received the last letter (dated November 24) before November 25 or 26 at the earliest, it is incredible that he was able to make such a stunning instrument in only one month!
This instrument exhibits an extraordinary level of craftsmanship combined with great historical significance and collector’s appeal. At the time, it was one of Martin’s costliest creations. While today $110 wholesale cost will barely buy a good student-model guitar, in 1852, a $20 gold piece, weighed almost 1 ounce and of course represented vastly more buying power than $20 in today’s money. The wholesale price of this guitar was equivalent to 5 1/2 ounces of pure 24-karat gold. While it is difficult to make precise comparisons of the buying power of a dollar in 1852 versus today (since many products available today were simply then unavailable at any price), 5 1/2 ounces of gold today would have a market value $7,150. The cost of musical instruments and other commodities available then and today indicates that would be a very conservative inflation-adjusted price to build a replica today.
This article originally appeared in VG January 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.