The braguinha, forerunner of the ukulele, was a small four-string instrument tuned in fifths. Named after the town of Braga in Portugal, the instrument arrived in Hawaii with the first group of Portuguese immigrants in 1878. But its owner didn’t know how to play it. A second boat, which arrived in 1879, carried not only braguinhas, but also players and three makers; Augusto Dias, Jose do Esperito Santo, and Manuel Nunes. Within a short time, a more guitar-like body constructed of native Hawaiian Koa wood, and a guitar-related tuning, was developed, giving birth to the modern ukulele. King Kalakaua took up the uke, and in 1888 featured it for the first time with hula dancers.
In 1915, the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce sponsored a $100,000 Hawaii Pavilion at the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco. This was an astronomical amount at the time in view of the fact that prices of that era would need to be multiplied by 35 or 40 to convert to equivalent buying power in today’s dollars. But their gamble paid off not only in greatly increased tourism and sales of Hawaiian products in the mainland, but within a year Hawaiian music was hugely popular in the United States such that by 1916 the Victor Company sold more Hawaiian records than any other style of music.
It wasn’t long before American manufacturers began producing ukuleles in quantity. According to Martin’s records, the company produced its first ukes in January, 1916. The first few featured construction remarkably similar to a standard Martin, with spruce tops and serial numbers. But by July of that year, Martin had switched to simple transverse bracing and offered ukes with all-mahogany or all-Hawaiian Koa bodies, and no serial numbers. While spruce tops may seem more sophisticated, it was quickly discovered that very lightweight construction, transverse braces, and mahogany or Koa bodies produced a more traditional Hawaiian-style ukulele sound, which was what players desired.
During the 1920s and ’30s, Martin produced large numbers of ukuleles, rivaling that of their guitars. However, since all but the very first few experimental Martin ukes have no serial numbers, exact production totals are not known. What is clear is that Martin ukulele production in that era constituted a significant portion of the company’s total output, and was one of the factors that maintained the company’s viability during the very lean years of the Depression.
While the Hawaiian music craze faded after World War II, ukulele production continued at a significant pace until the late 1960s.
Martin’s basic ukulele line consisted of the style 0, with a plain mahogany body and no bindings; the style 1, with a choice of mahogany or Koa and dark rosewood outer bindings (later dark plastic); the style 2, with a choice of mahogany or Koa and white/black/white triple binding on the top and white binding on the back; the style 3, with a choice of mahogany or Koa and multiple white and black purfling on the top and back of the body and diamond shaped fingerboard inlays; and the style 5 (interestingly enough, there was no style 4), with highly figured Hawaiian Koa body featuring abalone trim on the top and back, ebony fingerboard with ivroid bindings and snowflake abalone inlays, and an unbound peghead with Hawaiian Koa wood veneer and an abalone torch pattern inlay.
The style 5 was the most deluxe model in the Martin ukulele line, and is the most rare today. As is typical of most instruments, when the original list price is higher, quantity sold will be lower. The style 0, which listed at $10 to $12 in the 1920s and ’30s, sold in vastly greater quantities than the style 5, at a list price of $50 to $55. While these prices may seem absurdly cheap by modern standards, in order to convert prices of the Depression era to the equivalent amount in today’s dollars, one must multiply by 25 to 30. Even so, in view of the fact that a clean original 5K will today sell for nearly $10,000, the original price seems like a great bargain.
Photo courtesy George Gruhn.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.