Exploring 100 Years of Martin Ukulele History

From the Summer 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY TOM WALSH

One hundred years ago, in 1917, C. F. Martin & Co. published its first ukulele pamphlet, announcing the company’s newest instrument to the general public and its entire network of music stores, teachers, and players. To say that Martin’s ukuleles were a success is a major understatement. In 1917 alone, Martin sold nearly 2,000 ukuleles, which was roughly the same number of guitars and mandolins it had sold in the previous ten years combined. This year, Martin is celebrating its 100th anniversary of publicly offering ukuleles, with a beautiful new display in its museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, as well as with two new Centennial ukulele models. A rich history defines the proliferation of the ukulele, as well as Martin’s legacy in its manufacturing.

Ukulele display at Martin’s museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania
A portion of the ukulele display at Martin’s museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania

By 1833, when guitar maker Christian Frederick Martin and his family left Germany to start a new life in America, a number of tourists to the Portuguese island of Madeira had already returned home and spread reports of a small four-string guitar that was the characteristic instrument of the island. By the time Martin’s grandson Frank Henry inherited the guitar business, many Madeirans had also left their homeland looking for a better life in a new world. Leaving for Hawaii under contract to work in the sugar fields, these Madeirans also brought along their cherished stringed instruments, including the diminutive four-string machete and the larger five-string rajão. In 1888, the same year that 22-year-old Frank Henry Martin took charge of the Martin company, a Hawaiian newspaper first used the word “ukulele” to describe the small four-string instrument that had developed in Hawaii, a hybrid of the machete and rajão. Nobody could have guessed at the time that Frank Henry and the ukulele would have a long and important relationship many years later. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the popularity of the ukulele in Hawaii was undeniable. It became an icon of the islands, despite its Portuguese roots. Beginning in the 1890s, a series of events led to the popularization of Hawaiian music on the mainland. Musicians from Hawaii played at world’s fairs, expositions, and in vaudeville, exposing large numbers of mainlanders to the unique sounds of the ukulele and Hawaiian guitar. More exposure came from a Broadway show called The Bird of Paradise, which featured native Hawaiian musicians, and which toured the country for years after its Broadway run in 1912. Then came the enormously popular 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Its multiple music acts at the Hawaiian pavilion introduced large crowds to Hawaiian music and its characteristic stringed instruments. Hawaiian music soon became a national craze, and the demand for Hawaiian instruments, especially ukuleles, grew quickly.

In 1907, James W. Bergstrom of the Bergstrom Music Co. of Honolulu, spent time making business connections on the East Coast of the U.S. It seems likely that he was the first to introduce the ukulele to Frank Henry, who was always willing to take on new projects at Martin. In December of that year, Bergstrom ordered six ukuleles from Martin as a trial to determine the price that Martin would charge. Martin established a price of $6.50 each, which was likely considered by Bergstrom too expensive to be able to compete with the Hawaiian-made instruments they were selling. It would be a few more years before Martin received its next request for ukuleles.

As demand for ukuleles grew on the East Coast in the mid-teens, one of New York City’s largest music retailers, Chas. H. Ditson & Co., decided to look for a local manufacturer to help meet the demand. In the only letter in the Martin archives that discusses their decision to enter the ukulele market, F.H. Martin mentions that the company is starting on ukuleles “for the New York trade.” There is no doubt that it was the New York Ditson store that made the request, getting Martin back into the ukulele business after its short-lived attempt in 1907.

In the summer of 1915, Martin began experimenting with ukulele construction. In October of that year, the company shipped its first two ukuleles out on a special order to a music teacher in Trenton, New Jersey. Soon Martin was sending large numbers of ukuleles to two New York retailers, Ditson and William J. Smith. In 1916, Martin saw the demand for its ukuleles increase greatly, and although Smith and Ditson were its biggest customers, orders stated to come in from around the country, despite the fact that Martin had not yet advertised this new product or added it to the catalog.

Martin’s 1917 ukulele pamphlet
Martin’s 1917 ukulele pamphlet

When Martin produced its first ukulele pamphlet in 1917, soprano ukuleles were featured in three models: Style 1, Style 2, and Style 3. The Style 1 is described in that first ukulele pamphlet as “a neat and durable instrument.” It featured a 12-fret fingerboard and a mahogany body bound on top in rosewood. The Style 2 was almost identical to the Style 1, the only difference being the white celluloid binding around the top and back. The Style 3 was the original top-of-the-line Martin ukulele. It featured wider white and black celluloid binding on the top and back and around the sound hole. There were also black and white stripes inlayed down the center of the extended, 17-fret fretboard. In addition, a celluloid ornament was inlayed on the bottom edge of the top of the body below the bridge, and another kite-shaped piece of celluloid was inlayed on the headstock. All three models featured wooden friction pegs.

The earliest Martin ukuleles received their own set of serial numbers, separate from the serial numbers used on Martin’s guitars and mandolins. Ditson had Martin stamp its ukuleles with the Ditson brand, and these ukuleles also received a unique set of serial numbers. By July of 1916, orders for ukuleles were coming in so rapidly that Martin dropped serial numbers altogether, after putting numbers in 143 Martin-labeled ukuleles and 167 for Ditson.

At this time, Martin made other additions to the ukulele line. In August, they began selling taropatches and also started to make a special line of ukuleles for the Ditson store. These models had the same features as the standard Martin line, but had a different body shape. The wider Ditson ukuleles mirrored the shape of the new guitars that Martin was also making for Ditson. The largest of the Ditson guitar models was dubbed the “dreadnought,” and although not a lot of these Ditson guitars were sold, the body size and shape would later become Martin’s iconic dreadnought guitar. Ukulele collectors sometimes refer to these wide-waisted Ditson ukuleles as “baby dreadnoughts.”

100 Years of C.F. Martin Ukuleles style 1, style 2, style 3 Historic Ukes
Martin sopranos, from plainest to fanciest, (L-to-R): ca. 1920 Style 0; 1919 Style 1 (with the wide Ditson body);ca. 1930 Style 2 (with original hangtag); ca. 1920 Style 3 (with “bowtie” inlay); and a koa-bodied ca. 1930 Style 5Kca. 1920 Style 0; 1919 Style 1 (with the wide Ditson body); ca. 1930 Style 2 (with original hangtag); ca. 1920 Style 3 (with “bowtie” inlay); and a koa-bodied ca. 1930 Style 5K.

Martin’s ukulele line underwent some minor changes in its first few years. By the end of 1917, all had fretboard position markers. Styles 1 and 2 had four small celluloid dots, one at the fifth fret, two at the seventh, and one at the ninth. The Style 3 had fancier pearl inlays, two squares each on the 5th and 9th frets, and two diamonds on the 7th. After Ditson ordered a large number of ukuleles with markers on the 10th fret instead of the 9th, Martin made that the standard on all of its ukuleles. In 1919, Martin first offered all three ukulele models in Hawaiian koa wood, tacking a “K” onto the style number to denote the different wood. In 1921, the Style 2 and 3 ukuleles had their wooden friction pegs replaced by “patent” tuners made by Grover.

Martin’s ukuleles were an instant success. By 1919, Martin was enlarging the factory to help keep up with the demand for ukuleles, as well as expanding guitar sales. When ukulele sales dropped off a little in 1921, many in the music business believed that the ukulele fad had run its course. Perhaps the drop in sales in 1921 is what inspired Martin to add two new models to the ukulele line. Late in 1921, Martin added the Style 0, its plainest and least expensive model. The Style 0 quickly became Martin’s best-selling instrument ever. At the same time, it also introduced the top-of-the-line Style 5K. This pearl-encrusted model was made from Hawaiian koa wood, and retailed for the then-remarkable price of $50. Although, due to its price, the 5K never sold in large numbers, the model helped establish Martin in the minds of many as the maker of the finest ukuleles in the world.

In 1922, Martin made almost 5,000 ukuleles, making it obvious that the ukulele fad was far from over. Contributing to the big jump in sales from previous years was Martin actively pushing a new line of “Customer Model” ukuleles. Early that year, Martin sent letters to many of its large ukulele purchasers offering to make these special customer models, marked only with the name of the retailer and featuring adornments unique to the particular retailer. Soon, Martin was manufacturing customer models for Grinnell Brothers, John Wanamaker, Wurlitzer, Selmer, Perlberg & Halpin, and Buegeleisen & Jacobson (B&J). The customer models were all quite similar to Martin’s standard models, with mostly small changes to soundhole inlays and fretboard position markers. These customer models allowed Martin to move into new territories and greatly expand sales. Because of their special features, customer model ukuleles had to be purchased in large quantities and ordered well in advance of when they were needed.


Martin Style 5K Style 1 Vintage Catalog C.F. Martin Uke
Archival shots of the Style 5K and Style 1 used in promotional materials.

As sales soared in 1922, it must have been difficult for Martin to meet the needs of its older established network of dealers while also producing so many slightly different new customer models. By late in the year, Martin was already starting to move away from the new costumer models. They still offered to mark ukuleles with other brand names, but they offered only the standard ukulele models and soon began marking them all with the Martin name as well as the name of the retailer.

While the original interest in ukuleles had grown out of the Hawaiian music craze of the mid- to late-teens, the resurgence in the ukulele market in the 1920s was due to the instrument finding its place in all types of popular music. Ukulele players were releasing records and performing on the radio and in vaudeville. Wendell Hall, Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, Johnny Marvin, and Roy Smeck are just a few of the performers who were using the instrument in popular music completely unrelated to Hawaii. Another big change that occurred in the early 1920s was when sheet music publishers started adding ukulele chords to their sheet music. This surely boosted sales of both sheet music and ukuleles.

Martin’s success between 1922 and 1927 was unprecedented. Martin added a large new wing to the factory in 1924, and then needed to add a second floor to that wing the very next year, as sales continued to climb. It was likely the first time in the history of the company that it was completely unable to meet the demand for its instruments. The company even had to resort to something it never would have dreamed of just a few years earlier—turning away all new customers until it could catch up with the order backlog. Ukulele orders peaked in 1925, when approximately 15,000 ukuleles were ordered. However only about 11,000 could be built that year, and they started 1926 with over 5,000 ukuleles backordered. In 1926, Martin actually temporarily halted production of its most popular ukulele model—the Style 0—to help them catch up with demand. In 1926, Martin was able to produce over 14,000 ukuleles in the newly enlarged factory. By the end of 1926, after just 11 years in the ukulele business, Martin had produced nearly twice as many ukuleles as it had made guitars in the company’s entire 93-year history.

As Martin’s ukulele sales were growing in the 1920s, so too were its ukulele models. In 1925, Martin added the Style 1C concert ukulele, a larger model the same size as the taropatch. While the taropatch had been offered with four strings since its introduction, the new concert model was different in that it had a narrower neck and a standard soprano-size bridge. It was added to the standard catalog that year and by 1927 it was outselling all taropatch models combined. In 1928, an even larger Style 1T tenor ukulele was introduced. The concert and tenor ukuleles were each only made in one standard style, although they could be special-ordered in fancier styles right up to the Style 5K.

CF Martin Earl hartzell martin ukulele factory 1920s
Martin worker Earl Hartzell mans the sander in the only known photo of Martin ukulele production in the 1920s.

After the Party, a Lull, Then a Rebirth

Later in the 1920s, ukulele sales began a long steady decline, exacerbated by the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression of the 1930s. Still, the ukulele craze had allowed the company to both expand and build up a financial surplus that helped get them through these hard times. At the same time, changes in popular musical tastes were leading to an increased interest in the company’s guitars. As ukulele production dropped off, guitar production ramped up, and in the 1930s Martin moved into its golden era of guitar-building.

There was a bit of a resurgence in Martin’s ukulele sales during World War II, when the company was able to make a good number of ukuleles in part because they required very little metal. Martin’s ukulele sales would never again reach the remarkable levels of the mid-1920s, but they did make quite a comeback after the war.

After more than 50 years in charge, an aging F.H. Martin was in the process of turning the company over to his son C.F. Martin III. The elder Martin died in April 1948, as ukulele sales were beginning a resurgence. By this time, Martin’s ukulele line had been greatly streamlined. No more taropatches were made after 1935. As koa supplies tightened in the late 1930s, koa ukulele models were slowly eliminated. The Style 5K was dropped in 1941 and replaced with the short-lived Style 5 model made from curly mahogany. This pearl-inlayed model was discontinued in 1942, after only 20 had been made. By the end of the war, all koa ukulele models had been discontinued. After the war, Martin seemed content to build just its standard ukulele models, all in mahogany. In 1949, Martin sold over 5,000 ukuleles, the most sold in any year since 1926. Ukulele sales in the U.S. really picked up in the early 1950s, certainly helped by entertainer Arthur Godfrey, who played and promoted the instrument on his various radio and television shows. Ukuleles were again an important part of the Martin business. Even after the surge around 1950, Martin continued to sell two to three thousand ukuleles every year until the mid-1960s.

In 1960, Martin added a larger baritone ukulele, Style B51, to the line. That same year the company started to stamp all of its ukuleles “Made in U.S.A.” Martin guitar sales grew greatly in the 1960s and, when the company moved to its new modern factory in 1964, it was able to increase production to meet the demand. In the 1960s, as guitar sales grew, ukulele sales faded. By 1965, Martin was making just four ukulele models—Style 0 and Style 3 sopranos, the 1T tenor, and the baritone. A combination of price increases and dwindling interest in the instrument brought Martin’s ukulele production to a near halt by the end of the decade. In the 1970s, sales were so small that the ukulele was removed from regular production, and made available only by special order. This led to increased prices and nearly non-existent sales. Fewer than 100 ukuleles were made every year from 1973 to 1994, when Martin officially pulled the plug on ukulele production in Nazareth.

In the 1990s, just after Martin had discontinued ukulele production, interest in the instrument again began a slow but steady climb. By the second half of the decade, the internet was helping unite ukulele players and groups across the country and around the world. In 1997, just three years after removing ukuleles from production, Martin began building “Backpacker” model ukuleles at its factory in Navahoa, Mexico. Soon it was making a standard-shaped soprano mahogany model at the same facility, a model called the S0 ukulele. As interest in ukuleles continued to grow, Martin decided the time was right to begin building ukuleles in Nazareth again. In 2006, Martin re-entered the high-end ukulele market by re-issuing the Style 5K ukulele, a model that had not been made in regular production since 1938. The next year it debuted the Style 5 “Daisy” ukulele, a curly mahogany instrument modeled after a ukulele that C.F. Martin III had built for his wife in the 1930s.


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More affordable models soon followed, some made in Nazareth and some in Mexico. In 2008, Martin introduced three new Style 3 models, in mahogany, koa, and cherry. In 2010, they added a more affordable 0XK ukulele, made from a high-pressure laminate. In 2011, the new line of Style 2 ukuleles debuted. Besides the soprano, these included a concert and tenor ukulele—Martin’s first larger-bodied ukuleles to be re-issued. The next year, they added C1K and T1K concert and tenor ukuleles made in the Mexican facility.

In 2013, Martin created its first-ever Commemorative Custom Artist Ukulele, the 1T IZ, in honor of the Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

Just this year, Martin introduced two new limited edition ukulele models made to celebrate the 100th anniversary of producing ukuleles. The Style 1 and Style 3 Centennial ukuleles commemorate Martin’s vintage ukulele models, and each is limited to a run of just 100 instruments. The Style 1 Centennial ukulele is produced in Mexico and features a darker stain and no headstock decal, both features of 1920s-era Style 1 ukuleles. The Style 3 Centennial ukulele includes standard Style 3 adornments, and adds an inlayed celluloid “kite” on the headstock, a feature last seen on Style 3 ukuleles of the late teens and very early 1920s.

Martin’s 100 years of ukulele production has been a roller-coaster ride featuring peaks where the company was overwhelmed with demand and valleys where production completely ceased. However, the Martin legacy lies with ukulele players around the world who agree that, throughout its history, the company has produced some of the finest ukuleles in existence.

Tom Walsh is the co-author of The Martin Ukulele: The Little Instrument That Helped Create A Guitar Giant (Hal Leonard) and director of the Ukulele Hall of Fame.