7/07/2018

1910s Larson Brothers-made Fancy Flatback Mandolin




This beautiful, crack-free, fancy-pants mandolin was made by the Larson Brothers in Chicago somewhere between 1900 and 1920. It most looks like the mid-teens models I'm familiar with in the Leland line, though it also looks like many Stahl-branded Larson mandos from the time, too. It is a bit fancier than average, with pearl-inlaid trim around the top edge and soundhole and binding on the neck.

It's built like most Larson flatbacks with a canted-top in bowlback fashion and a firm but light build. There are two ladder braces below the soundhole and one above (in typical flatback fashion) and the back and sides feel a little more "rigid" than most flatback mandolins from the time while the top is a little more flexible. This makes absolute sense acoustically (it's how most classical guitars function), but most builders were just building for lightness' sake in the same era. The difference with this type of construction is that notes are a little fuller, rounder, and punch a bit more. This "same mandolin"  (in general build and bracing) built in the super-lightweight Harmony or Regal mold yields a less-focused, airier sound.

This came in pretty good shape but needed one top brace brace reglue (the other had been sloppily-glued but was pat), a fret level/dress, and a replacement bridge as the original was broken. The "new" bridge is a 1920s one from my parts-bin and I've compensated it. The neck is essentially straight (the level/dress took any minor warp out via the frets), the strings are 32w-9, and the action is spot-on at a hair under 1/16" at the 12th fret.

Specs are: 12 15/16" scale, 1 1/8" nut width, 15/16" string spacing at the nut, 1 9/16" spacing at the bridge, 9 1/8" body width, 2 1/4" body depth at the endblock.

Woods are: solid spruce top, solid Brazilian rosewood back, sides, and headstock veneer, mahogany neck, and ebony fretboard and bridge. The bridge has a bone insert and the nut is bone, too.


While there's plenty of use-wear and finish aging, the instrument itself is in good order. It does have a slight sunken spot at the treble side of the pickguard where braces were (presumably) detached for a long while. They're pat, now, though. I find that a lot of mandolin tops tend to distort slightly where they have these glued-on, recessed celluloid pickguards.



As unlikely as it is, the fretboard has the barest whiff of a radius to it. The frets are very small and thin, just like most mandolin wire at the time. It's bound in white celluloid and the dots are pearl.


How about all that bling, right? The pearl has yellowed finish over it but it still catches the light like crazy (something you can see in the video clip pretty well).




The engraved tailpiece cover is a nice touch.



A fancy backstrip adds a classy look against that pretty plank of rosewood.


The tuners are recessed into the headstock. I added a couple of screws to their baseplates (which are often left un-screwed-down at the factory) to keep them snug.


One trait that seems not duplicated by other factories at the time is the completely-bound heel area on the back of Larson mandolins. The back overlaps the heel in this case.



The rosewood on the sides is gorgeous, too.



While it's not traditional, I tend to add strap buttons at the tailpiece on old mandolins while I'm working on them since most players are going to hang a strap anyhow. This is better than adding another hole later that can't be hidden.

13 comments:

Nicholas Ratnieks said...

This mandolin was on ebay recently. It's pretty much the same as this one:
https://reverb.com/uk/item/9862771-supertone-1920-s-flat-back-mandolin-free-shipping-3411

There was another on Reverb with no frets that was also being sold as a Supertone/Harmony but the top example does still show the late 1920s Supertone label. The Supertone catalogue page from the 1920s show this mandolin for sale at $14-95- the next one down from that carved Viol model.

Nicholas Ratnieks said...

Here's another- not the one without frets that was identical:

https://reverb.com/item/432533-supertone-a-style-mandolin-1930-natural-w-case

Nicholas Ratnieks said...

Here's the one without frets- it appears to have an engraved tailpiece.

https://reverb.com/au/item/9981946-supertone-mandolin-20-s-30-s

Jake Wildwood said...

OK, the problem here with linking all of these is that they're not the same manufacturer. The ones that have binding around the bottom of the heel are Larson (only one of the links). The rest are actually Harmony-made. They all look almost the same and have much of the same trim (they're all in Chicago, of course), but quality-wise they're not the same.

Jake Wildwood said...

The back of the neck where the neck meets the headstock is also a dead giveaway -- Harmony versions keep the "V" shape into the headstock whereas Larson ones have a rounded-C "semi-volute" at the back of the headstock before transferring into the C of the neck. Harmony ones are ebonized maple fretboards vs real ebony on the Larsons. The bracing is a lot more careful on the Larsons and the tops are thinner... the tuners are nicer-quality with ivoroid buttons, generally... and most importantly they just sound fuller/better.

Jake Wildwood said...

For comparison, here's a Google search of Harmony flatbacks from my site:

https://www.google.com/search?q=harmony+flatback+mandolin+wildwood&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS773US773&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjhg53cy4_cAhXJMd8KHTJVDEEQ_AUICygC&biw=1280&bih=637#imgrc=_

Here's the Larson flatbacks:

https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS773US773&biw=1280&bih=637&tbm=isch&sa=1&ei=Jg9CW7qjEYed_QamyIrwAw&q=larson+flatback+mandolin+wildwood&oq=larson+flatback+mandolin+wildwood&gs_l=img.3...145960.146471.0.146653.6.6.0.0.0.0.105.491.5j1.6.0....0...1c.1.64.img..1.0.0....0.DGAt5TcnOrQ

Not all of the images get you to the right places, but you can pull them up and count the details and draw your own conclusions. If you've had these brands side-by-side (like I have, many times), you can tell immediately that they're quite a bit different in the way they're actually built -- despite looking very similar.

Nicholas Ratnieks said...

Jake, that's fine and a good analysis. I saw that one without frets a while back- then that other similar example- which does not have the binding on the heel. Of course, they are both attributed to Supertone but only one- the complete instrument which does not have that extra binding has the label inside- while the other fretless example was sold as a Supertone- but minus the label. I did stick a photo from the ebay auction of this mandolin up on the Harmony Guys site- I mentioned that I thought it was a Harmony but others might believe it to be by Larson. I am sure your extensive "hands on" experience enables you to make the fine distinction between two very similar instruments as far as photographic comparisons go.
On that basis, I am more than happy to accept that it is from Larson but this just goes to show how outwardly similar instruments from this era can be. We know that inlays were often made by third parties and decorative styles could be replicated by various makers on extremely similar instruments. I do have the Larson book and can see the aspects that point towards Larson. Unfortunately, the Supertone catalogue page is a drawing and we don't get to see the back of the Harmony made instrument. There's no doubt they are very similar from a cosmetic point of view but not identical when it comes to the respective heels and the binding and that is the crucial difference while as you further mention, side by side, there are build differences as well. However, it's a great instrument irrespective of the maker which is clearly Larson in this case.

Jake Wildwood said...

Oh, it can be very confusing.

Harmony and Regal instruments are even closer in build except for a few details and often general sizing. Oscar Schmidt also made some models that are VERY close to Harmony designs as well, but the heel shape is always wrong on them and the finish type is a little different. If you had someone who hadn't handled all of them judge just from photos, he/she might conclude that they were all the same maker.

Fortunately I've handled about dozen or so Larson flatbacks and several dozens of the other makers' efforts, so it's pretty easy for me to figure out what's what. In the hand they're different in much more obvious ways.

As far as the Supertone label goes -- Sears used some much-nicer-grade makes for their upscale models early in the line and then pretty-much doubled down on their "house" Harmony-made instruments by the '20s.

Bowlback mandolins are similarly painful to suss-out the maker -- and often even harder for folks to figure-out in photos as they're even closer in spec.

Nicholas Ratnieks said...

Jake, it all adds to the overall knowledge to have these discussions and a close scrutiny of the differences. I own a parlour guitar that has the same inlays as this mandolin. James Ralston had one and he is certain- based on his repair work, that it is a Lyon & Healy build- not a Regal. Ascertaining who made what with the history of those two makers- especially with mandolins is a snake pit that I do not wish to jump into! I think as you pointed out, that the volute shape is another key difference between Larson and Harmony in external comparisons. I have to admit, I have seen a fair few ebay auctions where the seller is suggesting a Larson made instrument when it screams out Regal. The classic is, of course, S S Stewart where one model was made by Gibson but any number of Regal, Harmony and even Kay made S S S guitars are touted as being Gibson made! I remember an archtop guitar where the seller suggested Gibson made because of the "open book" headstock and asked for further info. I emailed over to give all the identifying features pointing to United of New Jersey bit I never got a reply!

MartinD28 said...

In addition to the heel and the neck-meets-headstock traits, the other external “dead giveaway” Larsonism is the thin ebony strip visible between the fretboard binding and the neck. That is not present here. How often have you seen this to be the case in Larson-attributed mandolins? Love, love, love this blog....Joe

Jake Wildwood said...

Joe: Took me a sec to see what you mean -- you mean when the binding is cut just a little bit above the bottom edge of the fretboard so there's the black stripe of ebony below it, right? Only on the fancier models do I see that. I see it more often, actually, on Vega instruments. The obviously-Larson Stahl flatback I worked on in the past had it installed just like on this one, but many of the bowlback models have the "edge" you're talking about. A lot of the other flatbacks I've worked-on were down the food chain so most lacked binding on the board.

Jake Wildwood said...

Nick: Yeah, SS Stewart flattop guitars, mandos, and ukes are now being hocked as Martins all the time, too, because of a few made around 1923 -- some of which I've blogged-about. The actual Martin models are pretty obvious, though, unless you're hoping to cash-in on eBay... :)

As far as Regal/L&H mandolin instruments -- Regal seems to have made all of the L&H output EXCEPT for the fancy carved-top models starting around 1915 on the mandolin-side of things. The Washburn/AmCon flatback/bowlback models are direct "sames" as ones from the Regal catalogs in-hand and in the invisible mind of the internet, too...!!!

Because L&H+Regal from 1895-1930 are like an old married couple, it's painfully-hard to figure-out where one begins and the other ends until the L&H brands names go belly-up in the depression... and then the Washburn brand gets used on all SORTS of stuff just to make us all crazier.

Nicholas Ratnieks said...

Jake, that L & H/Regal relationship thing is more than I can begin to fully decipher and understand. Indeed, the whole incestuous Chicago instrument manufacturing set up is something that will probably never be fully understood as so many components were shared. I have a mandolin that was built by either Harmony or Regal- probably in the early 1930s. I cannot work out which maker made it for the third party retailer. It has now crossed my mind that it is just possible that it was made by Harmony but the body was made by Regal as the volute area of the neck screams Harmony yet the body and the heel are absolutely Regal! The tuners have three screws and three holes- typically, Harmony whereas Regal seemed to have tuners with five holes! As my guitar maker/repairer man tells me- "I need to get out more."