At first glance, these three guitars appear to be a straightforward collection of different sizes of the same model. A comparable set of three Martins would be a 0-40, 00-40 and 000-40. However, these are Larson Brothers guitars, and when it comes to Larson models, nothing is that simple.
Aesthetically, these guitars are identical except for a small difference in the bridge inlays. They would appear to be the same model with body widths of 13 1/2″, 14″ and 15″. However, not only are they not the same model or style number, they are not even the same brand. The 15″ has the Maurer brand stamped on the inside back strip. The 14″ (with the metal tubes visible through the soundhole) is branded Prairie State. And the 13 1/2″ guitar is a Euphonon.
None of these three guitars – and, for that matter, no other known instrument made by Carl and August Larson over the course of 40-plus years – bears the Larson name. The Larsons were active and well-known in the Midwest in an era when most of the makers of quality guitars incorporated their own names into their brand, such as Gibson, Martin, Epiphone (after Epi Stathoupoulo), Gretsch, Dobro (Dopyera Brothers), and Washburn. National was the exception.
In the case of the Larsons, business began when they bought Chicago music teacher Robert Maurer’s guitar-making business in 1900, so it was understandable that they continued for a period, to trade on the Maurer’s good name. They probably didn’t see a need to use their own name, because much of their business in the early years came from mandolins, guitars, and harp guitars they supplied to the W.J. Dyer & Brothers company of St. Paul, and the Wm. C Stahl company of Milwaukee. These guitars often bore a label indicating they were made by Dyer or Stahl.
It wasn’t until the late ’20s that the Larsons introduced a new brand name, probably prompted by their new patent for an adjustable stabilizing rod. Instead of their own name, they chose one that tied in with their home state of Illinois – Prairie State. A few years later, they retired the Maurer name and continued that line under the Euphonon brand.
A close inspection of the three shows the close relationship of the Larsons’ three brands, as well as some small differences.
The Maurer, which probably is the earliest of the three, has the brand on the back strip in a large script format, with the right-side tail of the M continuing to form an oval that surrounds the remaining letters. To the left of the brand, an overlaid wood piece is wood-burned with, “Manufactured expressly for Ernest Philpitt, Washington, D.C., Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville, Fla.” Philpitt was a prominent dealer of sheet music who incorporated in Miami in 1925, so the guitar can’t be earlier than that.
To the right of the brand is “July 12, 1904,” which is the day August Larson was granted a patent for a spruce-and-rosewood laminated top-brace design. An inspection mirror and flashlight show an X-braced top, with all of the primary braces showing the thin dark line down the middle (which is the rosewood layer). There is the remnant of a three- or four-digit ink-stamped number, with only the last two digits legible – 61
The Prairie State brand is in a script style – thinner and more modern than the Maurer brand – with tails from the first lower-case R and lower-case final E joining to underline the name. The back strip is stamped with patent numbers 765019 and 1768261; the first number is for August’s laminated braces. The second is for his system of steel rods to support the body and allow for neck adjustment. That patent was granted on July 24, 1930, so the guitar can’t be any earlier than then. There is also an ink-stamped number – 486.
The two rods are visible through the soundhole. The thinner one is angled slightly and extends at one end through the neck block and rim to hook around the neck heel. At its other end, it extends through the tail block and ends as a strap button with a screw slot across it. The larger rod spans from neck block to tail block and is not adjustable. The lateral braces just above the sound hole are notched slightly to let the large bar pass freely.
The Euphonon’s back strip has the brand stamp in an all-caps typeface, encircled by an oval. There is no ink-stamped number. The top braces are the same spruce-and-rosewood laminate as the other two guitars. While it does not have the support and adjustment rods of the Prairie State, the Euphonon’s cross brace is notched so it could have been fitted with the bars. Also, there is a hole in the neckblock through which the end of the neck can be seen. And at the tail block, in addition to the hole for the end pin, there is the outline of a guide for another hole. It appears that this guitar was ready to be fitted with the Prairie State-style support rod, and some Euphonons do, in fact, have one.
The lone surviving catalog of Maurer and Prairie State models, published circa 1930, includes a model that matches the specs of the 14″ Prairie State. It is Model 335.
The Prairie State line is somewhat logically organized. The first digit is the body size. The final two digits are the wood and trim package. If all three of these guitars were Prairie States, they would be easy to identify; starting with the concert (13 1/2″ ), they would be models 235, 335, and 435.
Turning to the Maurer pages, there is a match for the 15″ guitar – Model 564. Unfortunately, Maurer numbers are not as logically organized as the Prairie State. In the three-digit Maurer scheme, the first digit does not seem to have any significance separate from the last two. In general, the higher the model number, the fancier the guitar, but there are no model numbers that match up with the xx61 or the 486 numbers stamped in two of the featured guitars.
There is no available Euphonon catalog, but because the Larsons replaced the Maurer brand with Euphonon in the early ’30s, one might expect the Euphonon numbers to be the same as the Maurers. The 13 1/2″ concert size Euphonon, if it had been a Maurer, would have been Model 562 1/2 (Model 562 is an even smaller – 12 3/4″-wide “standard” size with the same trim package).
August Larson died in 1944 and Carl in ’46. The taciturn brothers left many questions about their business unanswered, but the mysteries only add to the eccentric charm of their guitars.
For more, see Guitars and Mandolins in America, featuring the Larsons’ Creations by Robert Carl Hoffman.
This article originally appeared in VG April 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.