Ca. 1910 Stahl Violin Model

William C. Stahl was a music publisher and instrument distributor, a combination of trades that was very common from the 19th century into the middle of the 20th. Like any number of similar companies – Oahu and Bronson, for example – Stahl never built instruments but added his label to guitars, mandolins, banjos, etc. sourced from established manufacturers. As his firm was based in Milwaukee, he was well-situated to deal with Regal, which built many of Stahl’s lower-end models, and the Larson Brothers, who built his more expensive instruments.

Unusually for a distributor, Stahl did make at least one significant design contribution to his instruments. In 1907 he applied for and was granted a patent for the instrument shown above. The design may have been influenced by the guitar-shaped mandolinettos which were popular at the time, though the carved top and the addition of two side points suggests that he was familiar with the early Gibson F-style models. (The patent does not specify a carved top, but heat-induced arching was rarely seen outside the Boston factories of Vega and Howe-Orme at the time). My own suspicion is that Stahl was attempting to beat Gibson at their own game but needed a unique shape that wouldn’t provoke a lawsuit from Kalamazoo.

As with his other high-end instruments, Stahl turned to Carl and August Larson to turn his ideas into a saleable product. While some of the features bear the Larsons' unmistakable touch, a few aspects of this mandolin are surprisingly crude. The routing for the tuners doesn't match well with the covers, so there are a few voids to be seen on close inspection. There is a lot of excess glue inside (which looks to be original, as I see no signs of repair) and the binding isn't quite up to their later standard. Still, while it doesn't match my later Larson mandola for attention to detail, it exceeds it in terms of tone and volume. The sound is remarkably similar to contemporary Gibson mandolins and certainly has more cutting power than Howe-Orme’s mandolinettos.

The top is made of spruce and the back and sides are made of maple. There is almost no bare wood exposed on the neck, but I believe it is mahogany. The nearly-opaque black finish appears to be another nod to Gibson, considering that few other builders at the time used any kind of pigment at all. The scale was likely intended to be 13”, in keeping with most mandolins of the time, but it intonates correctly closer to 13.5”. Approximately ten instruments of this design are known to still exist, including mandolins and mandolas, no two of them with exactly the same decoration. This example has binding on the top of the body and the fretboard, but not on the back of the body.

The mandolin is shown with a replica bridge, which is lower than the original to improve playability; I have the original bridge as well. There have been no other modifications, damage or repairs to the instrument, and with the replacement bridge it remains easy to play. Stahl featured this design in a number of advertisements between 1909 and 1911 (possibly before and after as well), and the “Violin Model” designation is his, not mine.

 

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