From the Fall 2016 issue of Ukulele | STORY AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY
When you think of ukuleles made on the American mainland during the “uke crazed” 1920s, brands such as Martin and Gibson are likely the first to come to mind. But another company also produced excellent ukuleles during this period: Lyon & Healy.
Founded in 1864, the Lyon & Healy Company, once the largest manufacturer of musical instruments in the US, was known for its wide range of stringed instruments, which included guitars, banjos, mandolins, and harps. The Chicago-based company produced its first ukuleles in 1915 before expanding its line in the 1920s to more than a dozen models, most labeled with the “Washburn” brand name—the middle name of founder Charles W. Lyon.
The line included soprano-, concert-, and tenor-sized ukuleles, taro patches, banjo-ukes, and tiples. Models ranged from inexpensive, unadorned ukes made from plain woods to fancy models crafted from figured mahogany or koa and adorned with body bindings, inlays, and decorative decals.
Most of Lyon & Healy’s ukuleles had typical Hawaiian-style bodies, but the company also made a few interesting exceptions. Its frying-pan-shaped “Camp Uke” had a round body and it appeared at first glance to be a banjo-uke. Introduced in the early 1920s as a cheap beginner’s uke, the Camp Uke came in several variations, some with f-holes, some with body bindings and gold leaf decorations. Another oddball model, designed in 1925 by Marquette Healy (son of founder Patrick J. Healy), was the “Venetian Ukulele.” It had a teardrop-shaped body that made it look more like a canoe paddle than a proper uke. But Lyon & Healy created an even more unique and collectible pair of ukuleles: the Bell and Shrine models.
First produced in the mid-1920s, the model 5325 Bell ukulele, named for its bell-shaped body, was a concert-sized instrument with a mahogany body and neck, a rosewood fingerboard with 17 German silver frets, and the same “smile”-style bridge used on many of L&H’s regular ukes. It also featured ivorine (synthetic ivory) body bindings and a raised soundhole ring and kite-shaped headstock inlay. Advertisements hailed the Bell as an instrument with “the unique shape [that] appeals immediately to the purchaser who is seeking the novel and the individual.” The inspiration for the instrument came from the Washburn Bell guitars that L&H produced in the mid-1920s. L&H also made a Bell tiple in the early 1930s.
Introduced in 1927 or ’28, the style 5330 Shrine ukulele sold for the princely sum of $20—a lot of money in those days! It sported a three-sided balalaika-style body that the company claimed was “scientifically designed,” perhaps referring to the fact that a triangle is a very strong shape. 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- and less common tenor-sized Shrine ukes featured distinctive green celluloid binding, fretboard dots, and headstock inlays, as well as uniquely shaped “gondola” bridges with four small celluloid pins securing the strings. L&H produced three variations of the Shrine: The plainer birch-bodied model 5331 concert and two fancier tenor models—the 5350 Grand Symphony and the 5355 DeLuxe. The latter featured a figured koa body and neck, flashy pearl and ivorine inlays, and gold leaf decal decorations.
Unfortunately, Lyon & Healy’s foray into the ukulele market was short-lived. In 1928 a former employee, J. R. Stewart, bought all of L&H’s fretted instrument manufacturing equipment. Stewart then went bankrupt in the Wall Street crash of ’29.