Beginnings and Patents | Quick Reference | The Marxochime Colony
The Great Ukelin Rip Off and The Ukelin's Demise | The Rock and Roll Marxolin
Just Intonation | Schillinger System | Musuems | Further Reading
Misty Beginnings / Competing Patents
In the beginning was a Schwatzer bowed zither, in the shape of a violin. Please write if you have any information on its' genesis.
Also in the way of early ukelins we have the genty in the top-hat to the right. He's playing what looks to be a bowed box with frets. This photo was kindly forwarded to me by Garry Harrison, who proposed this to be the Official Uniform of Ukelinists Worldwide. (According to Ian Summers the photo depicts a Psalmodikon, developed in Norway to provide easy accompaniment for hymns, and isn't related to the ukelin. But I'm leaving the photo up anyway.)
Next comes the Hawaiian Art Violin (pictured top right), the probable precursor of the ukelin. It can be dated to 1922 from the copyright of an instruction book by Paul F. Richter. Here's a fanciful history from an original Art Violin ad:
The Hawaiian Art Violin was first introduced at the Famous Winter Resorts of the East Coast of Florida. It was received with such widespread enthusiasm, that Tourists, returning from Florida, requested the privilege of demonstrating the instrument in their Home communities. From this idea, our present Advertising Campaign direct from the Factory to the Home, was developed.
After that the trouble begins.
Mugwumps, a magazine dedicated to obscure musical instrument, claims the ukelin was invented in 1923 by Paul Richter. (Mugwumps August-September 1983, p. 14-18)
If the figure above is the ukelin's baby picture, then patent number 1,579,780 is its birth certificate. Filed December 3, 1924, this patent was awarded April 6, 1926 to Paul F. Richter. Mr. Richter then assigned the patent to the Phonoharp Company of 150 Liverpool St. East Boston, Massachusetts, and its subsidiaries (which included the Bosstone Company) who sold ukelins.
In 1926, the Phonoharp Company merged with Oscar Schmidt International, Inc. of New Jersey, and ukelins were then sold by them and their subsidiaries, which included the International Music Corporation and the Manufacturers' Advertising Company of Newark, New Jersey.
Now that traces the ukelin's lineage to Oscar Schmidt, and it seems clear enough. Or does it?
The illustration above, while the string arrangements are reversed from our first illustration, is too close for mere coincidence. It is listed as patent number 1,697,396, and was filed by John Large on August 23, 1923. This patent, while filed earlier, was granted later! This document, which lists January 1, 1929 as the patent date, pictures both ukelin-like-objects together with accompanying patent information.
A third patent under the same patent number (1,697,396), was filed April 14, 1925 by Walter Schmidt, who is listed as it's inventor. As you can see above, it more closely corresponds to drawings of Mr. Richter's patent. The filing date conflict also remains a mystery. But follow along, as the history just gets stranger.
A Quick Reference--
Some Garden Variety Bowed-Zithers
A lineup of -lins, from left to right: Hawiian Art-Violin, Banjolin, Guitarolin, Ukelin and Violin-Uke (not shown to scale).
The Marxochime Colony--
Musical Gadgets and Many-Stringed Monsters
Just who had this weird idea first? From 1927 to 1972, bowed zither instruments by the names of Violin Uke (pictured right) were mass-produced by musical inventor Henry Charles Marx (1875-1946/1947?) and his company, the Marxochime Colony in New Troy, Michigan.
Mr. Marx*, a barber and carpenter from Kansas, studied music in California, where he became a concert violinist. He also taught violin but found that his students stopped their lessons during the busy summer months. So, after moving to New Jersey, he decided to earn a living during the slack summer months by selling musical instruments door to door.
Henry, his wife and son Charles moved to Kansas, Missouri, Chicago, Boston and back to Chicago. Henry continued to travel from town to town, recruiting other door to door salesmen. He and Charles began to manufacture their own musical instruments, transforming the first and second floor of their home into a workshop. In the early 1920's they moved to New Troy, Michigan, and in 1927 built a factory. Henry designed prototypes, which Charles produced. Many of these were unsuccessful, but several proved workable.
The Hawaiiphone, a Marx contraption which was a derivative of the German zither, did not sell well. According to local legend, a young woman from Berrien Springs, Michigan saw someone playing a Hawaiiphone during a trip to Canada. When she returned home, she bought the instrument, took it with her to school where it was an immediate hit, and soon the entire stock was sold out.
Henry C. Marx explains some Marx musical inventions:
"The "Sweetheart Chorder" was the first instrument invented by my grandfather [Henry Charles Marx], but before he could obtain a patent, the idea was stolen by a large music store and marketed by them.
In the late 1920's, my grandfather and father [?], Charles Henry, invented an instrument called the violin-uke. The idea was copied by the International Music Company and came out in the form of your instrument, the ukelin...
About 1930, my grandfather and father invented the pianolin. The pianolin was a more complete instrument because it had a chromatic scale which the ukelin did not, the latter being limited to a diatonic scale..."
The jury is still out as to if Mr. Marx's bowed instruments predate the ukelin as his grandson contends. However, Mr. Marx can be numbered as one of a number of late 19th century/early 20th century musical gadget manufacturers who combined two or more instruments into one: the Hawaiian ukelele and bowed violin, in this instance. Other Marxochime Colony hybrids contributions include the Banjolin, Hawaii-Phone, Mandolin-Uke, Marx Piano Harp, Marxolin (below left), Marxophone (below right), Pianoette (bottom), Pianolin, Sol-o-lin, Tremoloa, and Violin-Guitar. Marx even invented a one-string slide guitar named the Pic-Nik. Further Marx contraptions can be viewed on the Marx page of the Guitar-Zither Clearinghouse.
Marxolin (left) with chord hammers and whammy bar from the this collection.
Marxolin (center) and Marxophone (right) from the collection of Ron "Coog" Cook.
Pianoette photo courtesy of Karen Beck
His intent in these experiments partly was making music simple for people without formal musical education. However, judging from the number of abandoned models, many found them frustrating.
Charles Marx continued to make musical instruments at the Marxochime factory until his death in 1972. As late as 1988, the factory building remained essentially unchanged. And recently a Marxochime warehouse was purchased by Elderly Instruments and Violin-Ukes were again offered for sale.
The Great Ukelin Rip-Off and the Ukelin's Demise
Ukelins and Violin-Ukes were once peddled door-to-door to by traveling Oscar Schmidt and Marxochime salesmen. As Harry West of Granite Quarry, N.C. puts it: "the countryside was literally saturated with them."
The salesmen would begin (much like vacuum demonstrations) by playing one or more tunes on the instrument (one hymn, one patriotic song and part of an old favorite). The salesmen claimed you could learn to play the instrument in a day and it was perfect for the beginner (like an autoharp). The instruments were usually offered for half the price listed inside, the rural folk being told that they should buy now, as the listed price is half what they would go for in the music stores. Of course, I know of no record that they were ever offered in music stores. For a brief period however, Marx instruments were listed in the Sears Roebuck catalog.
This explains the mystery of why ukelins often still sell for around $35, as the price printed on the decal in the sound hole is an artificially inflated price for a marketing gimmick.
Using the Marx slogan "Anyone Can Play", Violin-ukes were sold directly to Marxochime Colony (or Marx Music Co., or Pianolin) salesmen as Henry C. Marx recalls:
"Marx instruments were purchased direct from our factory for cash by salesmen and then resold all over the country. The average price to salesmen was $3.00 per instrument and the average retail price per instrument was $12.95, although salesmen could sell them for whatever the market would bear. This was during the depression and as the economy improved, the prices to salesmen went up, resulting in higher retail prices to individuals."
One such ukelin salesman, Albert Schmiedeberg, sold them door to door in the 30s. Years later, his lifelong love of the "Depression era instruments, violin uke and ukelin" prompted his purchasing and restoring thousands of instruments from the original Marx factory in Michigan.
Keith Davis, a Michigan musical instrument dealer, wrote in about two of his older clients' memories of a local ukelin salesman:
"[Violin Ukes] were made here in Michigan, Troy to be exact by the Marx Music company. They were sold off the trains by a short, fat man. He would jump off at every stop, run across the street to the feed store or bar or hotel, sit down and play up a storm, sell two instruments for $15 each and run back to the train before it left town. When he ran out he would ride back to Troy and load up.
Photo of squared Ukelin (possibly a Guitarolin) with one sound hole courtesy of Lana Snider.
Alternatively, ukelins were usually sold on an installment plan. Frequently the ukelin salesman was able to make a sale only after pointing out the availability of a time-purchase plan whereby the Oscar Schmidt factory itself, back in New Jersey, would bill the purchaser for the instrument. This system proved costly for both the buyer and the factory, which had to deal with numerous returned instruments and many purchasers who neglected to send their monthly payments. Naturally, the salesman's commission (the down payment) was paid in full.
The ukelin salesman would leave the instrument (with a time-payment booklet) and leave the area; and generally, if the buyer learned any tunes at all it was usually only one or two which were quickly forgotten and the ukelin was relegated to a closet or attic where it stayed for 30 years.
This practice continued until 1964, when Glen Peterson (1922-1989), then president of Oscar Schmidt, halted production after learning of his company's unethical behavior.
Mr. Peterson writes, from an article on the Ukelin in Mugwumps, Vol. 7, No. 3:
"...Ukelin production was stopped by me in 1964...I assumed control of this company in 1963. As you know I am Oscar's [Schmidt] only surviving male relation. I stopped making Ukelins because I learned that some salesmen were absolutely ripping people off. That didn't set well with me. My decision was not based on the premise that the Ukelin had run its course. The facts are that we were making about 100 Ukelins a week, the salesmen kept on sending in orders, but I would receive letters that started out, '...The other day some salesman came by while I was out in the pasture and sold my wife a junk musical instrument which I am returning to you.'
I checked into the whole thing. I didn't like what I learned. So I just stopped shipping Ukelins to salesmen. That effectively put an end to the Great Ukelin Ripoff. And, because there was no true demand for Ukelins in legitimate music stores, I terminated all production of the Ukelin as well. That's the true story and the whole story."
Thus brings our ukelin to a untimely, unceremonious demise. And as for the violin-uke, Henry C. Marx explains it's fate:
"Since the late 1950's the Marx Music Company has been more or less dormant due to a lack of interest in buying such instruments by the public. With the advent of television and other such diversions, people no longer had time to entertain themselves with playing a musical "hybrid" like those we manufactured. The factory was completely closed in 1972 when my father C. H. Marx died, and now stands just as it was for over forty years."
Post-Note: The Rock and Roll Marxolin
Look-out Flying V guitars! Here comes the Rock and Roll Marxolin. I can only guess that Marx dreamed up this bowed hallucination to compete with the groovy electric guitars of the 60s. I think it looks like something Spock would play. Or a Klingon spaceship.
This tricked-out marxolin features two bodies stacked atop one another, a bow with TWO ribbons of hair with a double rosin holder, springloaded hammers to strike chords, and attitude. Sporting a sci-fi/funny-car-style paint job, it even has a whammy bar! Check out all the wild details. Kudos to Sharon Kahn for bringing this to my attention. Here's her own personal Rock and Roll Marxolin.
Contemporary Milestones: Just Intonation
Duane Pitre has made ukelin history by being the first on record to tune a ukelin to the musical system of Just Intonation. As if simply tuning a ukelin isn't notable enough.
And what is Just Intonation? I'll attempt an overly simplistic explanation. Just Intonation is a system of tuning based on whole note ratios in scales. Compare this to our familiar western 12 note system Equal Temperment. Equal Temperment is designed to allow ease of movement between keys, the intervals being identical in every key. The compromise of Equal Temperment is purity of interval.
Historically Just Intonation uses ratios dating to Pythagoras' theories, and are found throughout world music. Composers Harry Partch and Lou Harrison revived and championed this tuning, are are largely responsible for the return.
Does the tonal compromise of Equal Temperment really make a difference to our ears? Adherents claim Just Intonation isn't just beautiful math: the tone is purer, therefore giving superior aestheic to the music produced. You be the judge. Meanwhile, hats off to Duane Pitre for taking the ukelin to a new place. Listen to Duane's ukelin piece here.
Contemporary Milestones: The Schillinger System and Ancient Tuning Systems
Composer Phil Cohran, who notably played with Sun Ra and his Arkestra, speaks of his work with the Schillinger System, ancient modes, and music's effect on conciousness:
"I saw a little instrument in a music store window and that was this little zither," Cohran recalls. "The reason I wanted it was that it had tuning pins on it, and I wanted to tune my own instrument to some of the modes I had discovered through mathematics. In fact, that's why I really came to Chicago: to study the Schillinger system which was available here at the time, but they were charging $25 a lesson.
"The Schillinger system is a system of mathematical variations. You get an infinite number of melody and harmonies using this system. Anyway, I'm glad I never took it because everyone I've heard using it, they have no spirit, it sounds mechanical. Once I heard it was $25, I went to the library and I bumped into folk music accidentally. I saw that there was [Indian shenai player] Bismillah Khan on Folkways, and I made selections and I'd listen to them, and I began to see the common thread in all of the music. I began to pursue it and study its structures, and little by little, I made some discoveries that all the music had come from a single source, then it became a mission once I discovered that. The little instrument, I just kept developing my technique, how to play it...
"[The Arkestra] were playing in a place on the West Side called The Fifth Jack and everybody in the place was paralysed when we started playing "Angels And Demons At Play"," he continues. "It was a multi-faceted place that had a bar, a tavern, a restaurant, a barber shop and something else. Everybody emptied all the other businesses and came over to our place - they even left the cash registers and stuff. Because we had them all mesmerised in this one corner of the building. I looked around and it was the first time I really realised how much power we had. Everybody in that place was holding their breath. It was proof that music had that power over people whether they're conscious or not. It gets inside of your body, inside your body rhythms, it mixes with your chemistry. Ever since then, I've lectured on those subjects. I've expanded on that for 40 years. That's what I deal with: music's effect on the body, and the ancient tuning systems and how ancient people were aware of these properties."
Museums Housing Ukelins and Fretless Zithers
The Berrien County Historical Association
Instruments and company papers from the Marx Music Company
The Brooklyn Instrument Museum | marxolin, ukelin
The Historical Museum at St. Gertrude Cottonwood, Indiana | ukelin
Historic Pensacola Collections | marxophone
Kenneth G. Fiske Museum | marxophone
The Klamath County Museum Complexes Klamath Fall, Oregon | ukelin
Percussive Arts Society Museum | marxophone
Stearns Musical Instrument Collection / Musical Heritage Network | violin-uke
Garry Harrison, legendary old-time music fiddler and collector, player and champion of Fretless Zithers's site. We can thank Garry for the name Fretless Zither, rather than Chord Zither for these stringed hybrids. This site features:
- Handy quick access and thumbnail photos of the instruments
- Catagories of chord-zithers such as bowed instruments and plucked, with intriguing subcatagories such as Gizmo-Harps and Their Gizmos and Chord-Zithers of Unusual Design
- Detailed directions of how to create your own replacement strings
- Lots more
This is the site I dreamed of when I first started the ukelin site.
Garry has generously donated most of his extensive collection of fretless zither to the the permanent collection of a museum. They will be on permanent display there, and thus a part of our musical history is preserved for future generations to study and wonder what just happened there. Bravo Garry!
The Guitar-Zither Clearinghouse
Kelly Williams' The Guitar-Zither Clearinghouse includes various zither subjects I didn't cover including a definition of the zither, background of the guitar-zither and Friederich Menzenhauer's History. Also have a look at his collection of Phonoharp, Columbia Zither, Marx and Menzenhauer instruments.
Hawaiian Tiple Site
Japanese Zither Site
This Japanese Zither Site has pages and photos about the ukelin, violn-uke, tremelo-harp, pianolin, pianoette, tremeloa, hawaiian triple, marxolin and so much more. Even has pages on care, string replacement, etc. Now if only I could read it.
Sharon Kahn's Zither Site
Marx Manufacturer's Page
Bob Lang has done a wonderful job assembling this Marxophone site, complete with original patents. Lovers of this obscure instrument take note!
The Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic, and Just Plain Unusual
Mugwumps, a magazine of esoteric instruments from the 1970s, published two articles on the ukelin. These back issues are available from Elderly Instruments. I encourage everyone who has an interest in odd instruments to visit and place an order. Also, Mugwumps Online is an outstanding source for instrument information.
Smithsonian's Ukelin Page
The Smithsonian website has a great ukelin page you may wish to visit. I don't know this for sure, but my guess is they put up this page because they got tired of ukelin inquiries from the general public.
The web's first and only Tremeloa site. On it you can buy two CDs worth of Tremoloa songs and an instruction booklet to boot. Don't miss the song samples.
Ukelin photo in upper left courtesy of Ulf Skogsbergh. http://www.ulf-photo.com
Many thanks to Autoharp Quarterly for kind permission to reprint articles. I suggest everyone with an interest in semi-automatic zithers subscribe, there's many ukelin-relevant articles!
Very special thanks go to Pop Spencer for his help with contributions of Marx letters, documents and photos researching these zithers, and for his love of music and playing. I recommend his video demonstration of these instruments. Special thanks also to Dr. Joel Weintraub's corroborations with Pop in fitting together pieces of this zithery puzzle.
*Much of the Marxophone history must be credited to Sam Cronk, from a 1996 posting.
The information presented on this site represents my exhaustive search for ukelin information If you have anything to add to this site, or if you find any information in this site to be in error, please notify me at email@example.com.