Had blues legend Huddie William Ledbetter (a.k.a. Leadbelly) not played a Stella 12-string, the brand might only have been remembered as the name on cheap, faux-finished birch acoustics that poured out of the Harmony factory in the 1960s.
But, in fact, the brand as represented by this circa 1932 Stella Concert, has a long and honored place in guitar history as part of the legacy of the Oscar Schmidt company.
Detailed documentation of the Schmidt company awaits further scholarship, but the rough outlines are known. Oscar Schmidt was born in Saxony, Germany, and was trained as a bookbinder. He moved to America, where in 1879 be began a music publishing company. He was apparently successful, and at some point began manufacturing musical instruments on which to play the music he published. Evidence suggests this occurred by the 1890s, at least, when American guitarmaking really took off. In the late 1890s, Schmidt began using the Stella and Sovereign trade names, although they weren’t registered until 1909. At some point he opened a large instrument factory at 57 Ferry Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey. The company incorporated in 1911.
By around 1899 or so, Oscar Schmidt was supplying the better-grade guitars offered by Sears, Roebuck & Co., as well as some offered by its competitor, Montgomery Ward, the two great retail catalogers of the 19th century. Typically, Sears catalogs, at least, would feature two pages of guitars reflecting upscale models chiefly (though not always exclusively) by Schmidt, with budget models mainly by Harmony. Schmidt guitars typically featured spruce tops and solid bodies, often rosewood or mahogany. All had, of course, ladder bracing. Many were quite ornately inlaid and featured pearl or marquetry trim. The early Schmidt bridge is easily recognized: take a common pyramid bridge and scoop an oval or teardrop-shaped piece out on the inside on either side of the saddle. Oscar Schmidt was one of the few companies to continue to put position markers at the 10th rather than the ninth fret into the 1930s, a relic of the mandolin orchestra craze of the 1880s and ’90s.
Schmidt instruments were also widely distributed by some of the top musical instrument distributors and carried brand names including Lyra, Carl Fischer, U.A.C., and Avalon. Victoria-brand guitars were built for Buegeleisen & Jacobson. Later on, Schmidt made guitars bearing the Galiano name, and may have made some Bruno guitars, though Bruno had manufactured its own in the 19th century.
While Oscar Schmidt provided better guitars with solid timbers, cheaper guitars typically were built of hardwoods and usually finished with faux wood grains. The identifiable Schmidts seen in catalogs are of the former but it is highly likely that they also made the lesser models, as well. Indeed, based on later examples, Schmidt’s Sovereign line probably represented its better guitars, while its Stella brand consisted of its more plebian, birch-bodied guitars. This was certainly true by the time the guitar shown here was made.
By the 1920s, Oscar Schmidt was being promoted as one of the largest musical manufacturers in the world, with a number of factories both here and in Europe. It operated music schools and even sold instruments door-to-door. Oscar Schmidt even operated what was probably the first music advertising agency called Manufacturers’ Advertising Company in Newark, New Jersey.
Circa 1925, Harmony, which was by then owned by Sears, replaced Oscar Schmidt as the supplier of the retailer’s better guitars.
In 1929, while visiting one of his European factories, Oscar Schmidt died. Months later, the stock market crashed. The Schmidt estate’s musical interests were held in trust by a bank that subsequently folded.
By the time the Stella Concert shown here was made, both Oscar Schmidt and the country, indeed the world, were in hard times with the Great Depression. People could not afford expensive guitars. Many of Schmidt’s Sovereigns were decked out in gold-sparkle plastic trim, known at the time as “tinsel,” instead of more expensive pearl. Stellas, on the other hand, often sported what was known as “decalomania,” colorful decals to make their humble construction seem attractive.
Based on clues from various catalogs, this concert-sized Stella is probably from around 1932. It has a solid spruce top with birch sides and back and a glued-in hardwood neck. The dark brown “mahogany” finish is fairly typical of the time. The fingerboard is ebonized hardwood. The rosette is stenciled, with the floral decalomania under the strings. The trapeze tail tells us it was made for steel strings. Since the neck is not reinforced, silk-and-steel are the better part of valor, although this guitar survived with a relatively straight neck. Like many of its kind, it required a little regluing to put the body right.
If you are an acoustic guitarist enamored of the best tone you can get, you will probably not pay this guitar much attention. The sound is a bit thin with that funky quality heard on so many pre-war acoustics. Probably a function of the birch as much as anything. But if put yourself back around the campfire on the way out of the Dust Bowl to California, playing a guitar like this can bring its own kind of pleasure!
Not long after this guitar was born, Oscar Schmidt, as we knew it, changed hands. In 1935, its guitar production was taken over by one James Carver, operating under the name of Stella Co. Carver was not able to salvage the business and sold the Stella and Sovereign brand names to Schmidt’s long-time rival, the Harmony Company, in 1938. The first Harmony Stella and Sovereign models appeared in the 1939 catalog. These sported a new, round shape almost identical to many of Carver’s guitars, suggesting they also got the jigs.
Finding good examples of Oscar Schmidt guitars is increasingly difficult, but many were made, so they still abound. Knowing what to look for is often key. And there are a growing number of collectors turning their attention to these fascinating bits of history.
To tap into the world of Stella guitar collecting, visit stellaguitars.com.
Above Photo: Michael Wright.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July. ’07 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.