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Howe-Orme mandolin image courtesy of Players Vintage Instruments

Howe-Orme mandolin image courtesy of Players Vintage Instruments

Howe-Orme mandolins were distributed by the Elias Howe Company of Boston, Massachusetts in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, roughly from 1897 to the 1920s. Their most striking features are their guitar shape and a longitudinal ridge running along the top from the end of the fingerboard to the tailpiece. This design, according to patent information, originated with J. S. Back who shared patent rights with G. L. Orme of Ontario. The original design, however, was intended primarily for guitars. Orme formed a partnership with William and Edward Howe, the sons of Elias Howe Jr., and principal officers of the Elias Howe Company after the founder’s death in 1895.

The patent for the guitar-shaped, domed-top, Howe-Orme mandolin was assigned to the Howes. Thus, it seems that it was their idea to apply Back and Orme’s concepts specifically to mandolin family instruments. The Elias Howe, Jr. Whose name the company bears is not the inventor of the sewing machine but another distinguished New Englander who may have been a cousin to the inventor. The two Eliases reportedly did not get along, perhaps because of confusion about attribution for their respective accomplishments.

The instruments were available in mandolin, tenor mandola, octave mandola, and cello mandola sizes. In fact, Howe-Orme instruments were among the earliest mandolin-family instruments available in this range of sizes. Howe-Orme instruments also were innovative in several other respects. They were probably the first modern mandolins to be guitar-shaped, to have a domed top, and flat back. Their headstock was narrower at the far end, anticipating Gibson’s later “snakehead” design by about a quarter century. Their original design featured an elevated fingerboard extension positioned above, rather than flush against, the instrument’s top, another innovation that predated Gibson.

Each size of instrument was available in six levels of ornamentation. The plainest were mahogany-backed instruments with no binding or headstock decoration. The fanciest were very impressive: rosewood, with a solid abalone fingerboard engraved at key reference locations and a fancier-shaped headstock that was bound and inlayed with pearl. All models have a distinctive tortoise pickguard between the soundhole and bridge with an elaborate “E H Co” monogram and ornate vine inlayed in ivoroid. Also, all models were professional grade. Vintage photos show professional performers, such as Clinton Messer of the Hawthorne Musical Club of Boston and the musical team of Harley and Gail with the simple, mahogany-backed Howe-Orme instruments. Other performers, such as Myron Bickford, had somewhat fancier models. The Elias Howe Company offered a lesser University guitar-shaped mandolin without the other Howe-Orme features as its non-professional alternative. The most basic Howe-Orme instrument cost twice as much as the University model.

It isn’t certain who actually manufactured Howe-Orme mandolins. The Elias Howe Company doesn’t seem to have had its own manufacturing facility and The Vega Company may have built some or all of the instruments. More research is necessary to resolve that issue, however. Irrespective of their manufacturing origin, Howe-Orme instruments were very well made and used excellent materials. Although, because of their age, many are in a state of disrepair, more and more players and collectors seem to be taking an interest in them. Their quality, historical importance, charming appearance, and pleasing tone justify the expense and inconvenience of returning them to a fully functional state. After a long period of neglect from the mandolin community, they appear to be gaining greater recognition for the fine instruments they are.

Howe-Orme Patent showing raised body shape

Howe-Orme Patent showing raised body shape

Authored by: Bob DeVellis

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