BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Even if you have little interest in art or design, you’ve likely heard of Art Deco, a popular style of the early 20th century. But you might not be familiar with Art Moderne, a style that succeeded Art Deco in the 1930s during the Great Depression. While Art Deco made liberal use of decorative embellishments, Art Moderne embraced a much sparer design language that reflected the machine age, employing straight lines and streamlined and/or repetitive geometric forms that gave the architecture, furniture, and industrially designed objects of the period the look of both efficiency and functionality.
While the great majority of Americans faced severe economic challenges during the Great Depression, it didn’t stop them from purchasing inexpensive musical instruments, including ukuleles, which reached the peak of their popularity at the time. By the mid 1930s, the Harmony Company of Chicago, the largest producer of stringed instruments in the U.S., was producing dozens of different lines of ukuleles, as well as guitars, banjos, and mandolins. Ever eager to capitalize on popular trends, Harmony created a new instrument model named for the Art Moderne design style it embodied. The tops and backs of these birch-bodied ukes and guitars were decorated with an array of geometrical forms which were usually painted on using stencils to keep the patterns uniform.
Art Moderne ukes were produced in both soprano and concert sizes and came in various color schemes and with a variety of features. The concert-sized uke seen in the center at the top image here has a painted black body and neck with gold-stenciled decorations, white celluloid top and soundhole bindings, and an ivory-color pearloid fingerboard. In 1932, this model sold for $1.35—the equivalent of $26.77 in today’s dollars. Music stores purchased them through wholesale mail order houses like N. Shure of Chicago (which later became the Shure Brothers microphone company).
The decorations on the black soprano-size Art Moderne uke featured a “crystalline” finish: The green geometric patterns stenciled on the uke’s top, back, and headstock were splattered with gold paint, thus creating a spiderweb-like effect. Another variation in color schemes is displayed on the brown soprano uke seen at left in the photo at the top of this page. Its patterns were created by partially masking off shapes on the natural-color birch body and headstock and then staining them a darker color.
Probably the showiest of the Art Moderne ukes was branded the “Rainbow” (none of the other models in the line carried any labeling whatsoever). Sporting a bright green painted finish and distinctive green pearloid fingerboard, the Rainbow’s geometric patterns were created by masking off sections on the top, back, and headstock, thus allowing the natural color of the wood to show through. The dark shapes above and below the bridge were done by staining the wood in those areas. For added flair, this soprano-sized uke came with a pair of jaunty yellow and green ribbons tied to one of its friction tuners.
For some odd reason, the headstocks of Art Moderne ukuleles came in three different shapes, each commonly used on other Harmony models, including the Harold Teen and Cheer Leader ukes. Why the company changed headstock shapes over the course of manufacturing these instruments is likely to remain a mystery.
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