Roaring ‘20s Style: Lyon & Healy Ukuleles Rivaled the Top Makers of the Era


Martin and Gibson may be the two best-known instrument manufacturers on the mainland who produced excellent quality ukuleles during the “uke crazed” 1920s. But there’s another company that deserves to be included in their ranks: Lyon & Healy (L&H). Founded in 1864 by Massachusetts native George W. Lyon and Irish-born Patrick J. Healy, the Chicago-based company initially produced brass and percussion instruments, harps, and even pianos and organs. By the early 1900s L&H was also building guitars, banjos, and mandolins, and grew to be one of the largest musical instrument manufacturers in America.

L&H introduced its first ukuleles in 1915, expanding their line in the 1920s to include more than a dozen models, most branded with the middle name of founder George W. Lyon: Washburn. 

Washburn headstock on a vintage Lyon & Healy ukulele

The line included soprano-, concert-, and tenor-sized ukuleles, taropatches, banjo ukes, and tiples. Models ranged from unadorned ukes made from plain woods to fancy models crafted from figured woods and adorned with body bindings, inlays, and decorative decals.

The majority of L&H’s Washburn ukuleles were built with classic figure-of-eight–shaped bodies, but included some unique details that distinguished them from the instruments made by their competitors. Two of their top models, the mahogany model 5317 Solo and the koa model 5318 Superb, feature celluloid bindings, kite-shaped headstock inlays, and raised rings around their soundholes. Those two models, as well as the plainer mahogany model 5316 Collegian, are fitted with shapely “smile-style” bridges (some stamped “PAT. APLD FOR”) that are much more elegant than the simple rectangular bridges found on the majority of ukuleles. The Superb’s bridge uses ivoroid pins to secure the strings. The Solo’s bottom body bout has an attractive gold-colored floral decal. Their top-of-the-line model 5320 Super Deluxe koa uke pulled out all the stops: The instrument’s entire top, back, and soundhole ring all feature ivorine (synthetic ivory) bindings and “Oriental pearl” purfling. Its bridge, headstock overlay, and fingerboard are ebony; the latter two feature elaborate pearl inlays.

5320 Super Deluxe koa vintage Lyon & Healy ukulele
5320 Super Deluxe koa 
The model 5316 Collegian (left), the mahogany model 5317 Solo (center), and the koa wood model 5318 Superb (right) vintage Lyon & Healy ukuleles
The model 5316 Collegian (left), the mahogany model 5317 Solo (center), and the koa wood model 5318 Superb (right)

Unlike most of its competitors, Lyon & Healy produced a wide variety of models with unconventional body shapes. One of the most popular models was the Camp uke, based on a design licensed from W.I. Kirk’s U.S. patent #1,757,577. The uke featured a round body, making it appear at first glance to be a banjo uke. A 1920s instrument catalog described the instrument as “The latest and daintiest of the ukulele family.” Camp ukes featured the same smile-style bridges used on many of L&H’s regular ukes. The model came in several variations, some with body bindings and gold leaf decoration, some with f-holes, some with a thick, lathe-turned back.


vintage Lyon & Healy ukulele detail
The Superb’s bridge uses ivoroid pins to secure the strings.
vintage Lyon & Healy ukulele detail
The Solo’s bottom body bout has an attractive gold-colored floral decal. 

One of the more oddball L&H models, designed in 1925 by Marquette Healy, the son of company founder Patrick J. Healy, was the Venetian ukulele, for which Marquette obtained a U.S. Design Patent in 1928. The instrument’s small teardrop-shaped body doesn’t produce a lot of volume, but at least it could conceivably serve as a canoe paddle in a pinch. 

the Venetian vintage lyon & healy ukulele
The Venetian ukulele

But the most unique—and collectible—ukuleles Lyon & Healy created were undoubtedly its Bell and Shrine models. First produced in the mid 1920s, Lyon & Healy’s model 5325 Bell ukulele, named for its bell-like shape, was a concert-sized instrument with a mahogany body and neck, smile-style bridge, and rosewood fingerboard with 17 German silver frets. It also featured ivorine body bindings, a raised soundhole ring, and kite-shaped headstock inlay. In advertisements, the Bell was hailed as an instrument with “the unique shape (that) appeals immediately to the purchaser who is seeking the novel and the individual.” 

camp uke headstock vintage lyon & healy ukulele
vintage lyon & healy camp uke ukuleles
vintage lyon & healy ukulele back
This Camp Uke has a thick, lathe-turned back. 

The inspiration for the instrument came from the Washburn Bell guitars L&H produced in the mid-1920s. The company also made a Bell tiple in the early 1930s.

vintage lyon & healy ukulele Bell model
Model 5325 Bell 

Introduced in 1927 or ’28, the No. 5330 Shrine ukulele sported a three-sided, balalaika-like body that the company claimed was “scientifically designed.” A 1930 advertisement described the Shrine as “a professional instrument… possessing a tone quality sweeter, more resonant and far-carrying than any ukulele you have ever heard.” The mahogany-bodied concert-sized 5330 Shrine uke featured distinctive green celluloid bindings, fretboard dots, and headstock inlays, as well as uniquely shaped “gondola” bridges with four small celluloid pins securing the strings. In the late 1920s, the instrument sold for the princely sum of $20—a lot of money in those early days of the Great Depression!

vintage lyon & healy ukulele Shrine model
model 5330 Shrine 

L&H produced several variations of the Shrine: the plainer birch-bodied No. 5331 concert model and two fancier tenor models; the No. 5350 Grand Symphony; and the No. 5355 DeLuxe. The latter featured a figured koa body and neck, flashy pearl and ivorine inlays, and gold leaf decal decorations.

Because Shrine ukes didn’t fit into any standard uke cases, L&H offered a special laminated-wood hard case covered with “walrus grain waterproof black Keratol,” an imitation leather-like material made from fabric treated with phenolic resin. Likely due to its unique shape, the Shrine case cost half as much as the uke it was designed to hold!

vintage lyon & healy ukulele advertisement

Unfortunately, Lyon & Healy’s foray into the ukulele market was short lived; in 1928, all of its fretted instrument manufacturing equipment was sold to J. R. Stewart, a former L&H employee. Stewart then went bankrupt in the Wall Street crash of ’29. In the late 1970s, New York piano giant Steinway & Sons purchased the company and focused its production on concert harps, which the company is still building today.