Some of the best advice my mother gave me in regard to collecting was that the best time to buy something was when no one else wanted it. Being an antique dealer who bought and sold mostly European silver and porcelain, she knew exactly what she was talking about. Subsequently, I started collecting vintage ukuleles more than three decades ago, when the uke was considered the un-coolest instrument on the planet (see the article on my collection in the Summer 2014 issue of Ukulele). Then, around the turn of the millennium, interest in the ukulele soared once again. When prices went up, my uke collecting slowed to a trickle.
Once that happened, I began to concentrate on collecting all manner of items associated with the ukulele: vintage sheet music, advertisements, trade catalogs, photographs, post cards, instruction and song books, 78 recordings, as well as other uke-related ephemera including pitch-pipe tuners, capos, felt picks, etc. Not only did these things complement my instrument collection, they also helped expand my knowledge and understanding of the history of the ukulele and its role in popular culture.
While uke-related printed items generally provide the most insightful historical information about our friendly little four-string (see Jim Beloff’s article on ukulele collectibles in the Spring 2017 issue), it’s the more unusual items of collectible ephemera that I think are the most interesting and fun. (Note that the word “ephemera” refers to items of collectible memorabilia that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.)
The stuff I’ve collected over the years includes all kinds of Hawaiian souvenirs and mainland-made memorabilia ranging from small sculptures and figurines to glassware and ceramics to various promotional items. Some of these items are practical, albeit a bit odd—a uke parakeet toy, for example. Others are purely whimsical, like Franklin Mint’s rowboat sculpture. Just about the only thing these items have in common is that they all feature the ukulele.
There’s plenty of zany ukulele ephemera that’s come out in more recent years—a slew of bobble heads: Betty Boop, Tiny Tim, President Obama, Olaf from Frozen, etc. Also, uke sunglasses, keychains, picture frames, earrings, mugs, bottle openers, tote bags, t-shirts, and more. (One of my favorites is a uke-shaped hard-boiled egg slicer Ukulele magazine has sold on its website). However, I’ve chosen to focus here on vintage items made between the 1920s and 2000. The captions that accompany the photographs offer a bit of insight and history about the items portrayed. I hope you enjoy this gallery of ukulele oddities.
Carnation Milk Carboard Uke
The Carnation Evaporated Milk Company was founded in 1901 and sold condensed milk that came in cans and had a long shelf life; a great product for a time when household refrigerators weren’t all that common. To promote their products, Carnation published dozens of cookbooks and recipe brochures. It’s likely that the cardboard ukulele shown here was a bonus feature attached to one of their publications; note the old tape marks in the corners. The lithographed cardboard uke was meant to be pressed out, folded up, and fitted with rubber-band strings. As the strings can’t be tuned or fretted, the Carnation uke was meant to be more of a noisemaking toy than a musical instrument.
Franklin Mint Boat Sculpture
The “Ukulele Serenade” is a pewter sculpture created by artist Norman Nemeth which shows a 1920s-era couple in a rented rowboat identified on the prow as “Crystal Lake 12.” The man in the straw hat plunks out a tune on his ukulele for a parasol-wielding lady whose facial expression indicates that she’s not exactly enraptured—hopefully the lunch packed in the woven picnic basket on the boat’s seat will please her more. The sculpture was produced in a limited edition by the Franklin Mint in 1980. Originally located in Wawa, Pennsylvania, the Franklin Mint is well known for producing mass-marketed collectibles sold through magazine ads and television commercials. After initially minting gold and silver commemorative coins and medallions, Franklin expanded its operations, producing all manner of items including plates, knives, die-cast model cars and planes, and sculptures. They even produced a porcelain Marilyn Monroe doll dressed as the uke-playing character “Sugar Plenty” she portrayed in the popular movie Some Like it Hot.
Glassware and Souvenir Dishes
Souvenir dishes were a very popular item for tourists to bring back as gifts from their Hawaiian adventures (grandma was always grateful). Glassware typically had decals or painted images of hula dancers, tropical birds, beach scenes, etc. More uncommon and unusual is the glass shown at center, which depicts a jaunty uke-strumming character named “Sparkie.” This glass was part of a series produced by the G.C.G. Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, which manufactured soda fountain glassware. Each glass in the series has Sparkie playing a different musical instrument: piano, saxophone, drum, xylophone, trombone, or ukulele. A scale on the side of the glass shows how high to fill the glass. With the set of glasses all filled to different levels producing different notes when tapped, a simple tune can be plunked out. The glasses also have poems on their reverse sides; this is the rhyme on the uke-playing Sparkie glass:
Sparkie likes to sing a song
And play the Ukulele
On Musical Glasses play along
And tinkle tunes so gaily
Ukulele Lounge Gaming Token
A one-time Las Vegas bar and hangout called the Ukulele Lounge issued this one-dollar gaming token used for slot machines and other gambling endeavors. The tropically themed lounge was located at 620 Las Vegas Boulevard in North Las Vegas. While it may seem strange to have a Hawaiian-themed bar in the middle of the Nevada desert, the fact is that native Hawaiians such as Johnny Ka’aihue (aka “Johnny Ukulele”) pioneered Las Vegas’ lounge entertainment scene in the 1950s. The Ukulele Lounge closed in 1980, but the building is still there, its exterior currently adorned with a vibrant mural painted by local artist Eric Vozzola.
B of E 1928 Medal
Cast from beautiful bronze, this medal appears to be an award given to the best female ukulele player of 1928. The medal’s pin bears the insignia “B of E,” which possibly stand for “board of education.” The back of the medal is stamped “Chicago, Ill.,” so it’s likely that the school which awarded it was somewhere in the northern Midwest.
Salt and Pepper Shakers
This cute pair of aloha salt and pepper shakers made of glazed ceramic features a uke-strumming kane (boy) and his hula dancing wahine (girl). Sets of island-themed shakers included pineapples, kissing couples, surfers, tiki gods, etc. They were a popular souvenir item for tourists visiting the Hawaiian Islands, as they were an affordable, practical gift—and small and easy to pack for the trip back home.
Bridge Score Card
Printed and punched out of thick cardboard, this stylishly dressed, ukulele-playing redhead is actually a card for scoring a bridge game. Contract bridge was an enormously popular card game in America right about the time the uke was experiencing its first wave of popularity. The back side of the card is printed with places for a couple playing as a team to write their names and table number, as well as a grid for keeping track of their game score.
Student Ukulele Pencil Case
Produced by the Hassenfeld Brothers of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, this plastic pencil case was probably made in the 1950s for young school children. It originally included three “Surprise” brand #2 pencils and a six-inch plastic ruler. The case’s black and blue top pulls off to allow access to the contents, and doubles as an eraser.
Uke Music Boxes
Made by the Knickerbocker Plastic Company of North Hollywood, California, both of these ukulele-shaped toys house small mechanical music boxes. Turning the hand-crank rotates a drum with small tines that pluck the 12 tiny metal bars, each of which sounds a different note. The pink uke plays “Three Blind Mice” and the blue one plays “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Each is fitted with nylon strings and working multi-colored tuners. Starting in the 1940s, Knickerbocker Plastics manufactured all manner of injection-molded hard plastic toys, including dolls, bathtub duckies, squirt guns, baby rattles, and other playthings for small children.
Parakeet Uke Toy
Just like humans during the time of COVID-19 lockdown, parakeets evidently need toys to keep themselves entertained when they’re confined in small cages. Made by the Inland & Coastal Products Company in Rumson, New Jersey, this circa 1940s–’50s parakeet toy is in the form of a uke made from molded plastic. It has two metal “strings” fitted with loose beads for Polly to peck at. The top of the uke houses a mirror. Evidently, parakeets mistake their own image in the mirror for that of another bird. They can spend hours preening and chattering with their reflection, which helps cheer up lonely birds, making them feel like they have a friend in the cage with them. Who knew?
Hula Girl Nodders
The first Hawaiian hula dolls appeared in the 1920s, made of unglazed bisque ceramic or earthenware. These hand-painted figures typically had fake grass skirts, floral halter tops, and cloth leis and were enormously popular tourist items. The hula nodder, aka “dashboard doll,” came out in the late ’40s, and had the torso of the ceramic figure joined to the legs and base via a flexible metal spring that allowed the top portion to bounce back and forth with a hula-like motion. The doll’s fabric fringe skirt hides the joint between the halves.
Maccaferri Hawaii Uke Brooch
Mario Maccaferri is the man responsible for manufacturing more than 9 million plastic ukuleles in the 1950s and 60s, almost single-handedly fueling a resurgence of interest in the instrument. The line featured several popular models including the Islander, TV Pal, and the Playtune Senior (the swirly-red-topped soprano uke shown here). To help promote his instruments, Maccaferri created five-inch-long red plastic “Hawaii” ukes which he gave away at trade shows. Each had a small clip on the back, allowing it to be worn as a brooch. Tabs at the bridge and nut held a pair of thin rubber band “strings.” The plastic clothes pins in the photo are present as a reminder that they were Maccaferri’s first mass-produced products, made and sold during World War II when traditional wooden clothes pins were in short supply.
Ken in Hawaii Outfit
Mattel introduced the iconic Barbie doll in March of 1959, and two years later created a male friend for her named Ken. In following years, Mattel produced dozens of accessory outfits for the couple. The “Ken in Hawaii” outfit (accessory #1404, first released in 1963) included a blue and white sarong, a floral lei, cork sandals, a straw hat decorated with flowers—and a plastic ukulele. A tag that came with the outfit proclaimed: “Barbie and Ken laughed when they found out that ukulele in Hawaiian means ‘leaping flea’! So Ken just had to buy a ‘uke’ to make his Hawaiian costume perfect!”
Elvis and Marilyn Christmas Ornaments
These plastic dangling ornaments were both released around 2000: Marilyn Monroe in a limited edition from Hallmark Cards Inc., and Elvis from Elvis Presley Enterprises. Both are appropriately styled after the movies in which they appeared with ukuleles: Marilyn in the 1959 Billy Wilder comedy Some Like It Hot and Elvis in 1961’s hit island romp, Blue Hawaii. While Elvis appeared to actually play along with the song “Ku’uipo” which he sang in his movie, Marilyn only fake-strummed her white-painted Martin uke as she sang “Runnin’ Wild,” with co-stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis pretending to play along on bass and saxophone.