Among my ongoing discoveries in the recently-made-available archives of The Music Trade Review (MTR) is an April 6, 1901 article, Where the “Regal” Instruments Are Made (Page 1; Page2). It is of interest to harp guitar historians due to the single unusual model produced for a few years around the turn of the last century (example at left).
Little is known about the early days of the Regal brand, introduced by the Indianapolis Emil Wulschner company in 1884 according to Mugwumps Encyclopedia. However, one can probably ferret out much of the history with a more extensive search on “wulschner” in the MTR Archive (a volunteer would be welcome). I had time for a quick search and verified that Emil Wulschner entered the music business in 1878, and brought his step-son (Alexander Stewart) into the business in 1891, changing the name then to Wulschner and Son. In May, 1900 (a month after Emil’s death), the business was incorporated as the Wulschner Music Company. Simultaneously, the Regal Manufacturing Company was born, incorporated by the same participants (however, a year later, the April, 1901 article talks about this separation of the company into these two divisions as if it had just happened). Next, it was soon after this article had come out – praising the Wulschner/Regal expansion with its amazing future – when, in August, 1901, a new group of businessmen (and women) bought the Regal Manufacturing Co. from Wulschner. Confused yet? I know I am!
So who then made the infamous Regal harp guitar? I’ll get back to that.
The MTR article tells of the expansion as the Wulschner Music Co. separated its “manufacturing and jobber interests” – an arrangement intended as a means to sell factory instruments directly to dealers rather than using additional middlemen “jobbers.”
An interesting bit of trivia for Hawaiian stringed instrument historians is the article’s claim that “the first shipment of musical instruments made to Honolulu after the Hawaiian Islands came into the possession of the United States (July, 1898) was that of the Regal.” Interesting! We’re all wondering about when Hawaiian instruments came here, but rarely the reverse. The article also boasts that in just a few years the Regal instruments were known in several countries across the globe.
The many factory images offer evidence that the company must have indeed been producing “thousands of instruments” annually (mostly mandolins and guitars), along with “distinctive lines” for other firms.
“Why, even last year and the year before, after our factory was firmly established, the experiment necessary in constructing the two instruments, the Regal Mandolin Quartet, and the Regal Contra Bass Guitar, ran into the thousands of dollars, and now some of our experts are working on a new theory that may revolutionize the manufacture of these instruments, the cost of which we can as yet barely estimate.”
I’m not sure how they’re counting a “mandolin quartet” as “one” of those instruments, but the fact that they spent a year or two of expensive experimentation to create their strange harp guitar is hard to swallow; you’d think one of the geniuses involved would have noticed during that time that the sub-basses were inexplicably shorter than the neck strings and couldn’t really do a proper musical job of things. Perhaps the “new theory” of manufacture that their “experts” finally concluded was that they had a white elephant on their hands, and it was best to not manufacture it at all.
I once wondered if perhaps the short basses were tuned higher than on a normal harp guitar – perhaps like the higher subs of Gibson’s eventual harp guitar – but no. We’re fortunate that Mugwumps’ Michael Holmes had (and donated to the site) this c. 1900 ad of the Regal, where they specifically denote the lowest sub-bass string as an F (“increasing the range almost an octave”). So, clearly, the tuning was “standard” American harp guitar (descending diatonically D to F). Note also the large width – over 19”.
This ad, along with the MTR article and dates above, implies that the Regal harp guitar was built for perhaps only a few short years, which started sometime before the May, 1900 change of the company name (as the ad is from Wulschner & Son). That would fit with the statement in the 1901 article about the harp guitar being in experimentation “last year and even the year before.”
We see it in again in 1900 ads after May under the new Wulschner Music Co. name (above and below).
Presumably, after the April, 1901 MTR article, they continued to “improve” the instrument and offer it for a time. But my gut tells me that, marginally successful or not, when the new owners of the Regal Manufacturing Co. took over just 4 short months after the article was written, the “new theory for revolutionizing the manufacture” was abandoned, along with the instrument.
There has been some speculation that the Larson brothers may have built at least one of the surviving instruments, but not others. Who knows – perhaps “some of our experts” mentioned in the article refer to the Larsons? I suppose it’s not impossible.
Curiously, there are far more historical images of the instruments shown in use than surviving instruments. Along with the “classier” players, a couple prominent vaudevillians and circuit performers were known to use these odd harp guitars into the ‘teens, so they were clearly seen as a serious option.
Two different tuxedoed ensembles with the unusual model
The Apollo Concert Company, which played the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits in the 1910’s included a fellow named Clay Smith on trombone, saxophone and Regal harp guitar.
(image courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries)
From 1912 (above) and 1913 (below), The Three White Kuhns (yes, an unfortunate racial pun) sport a 12-string mandolinetto and the Regal harp guitar
But wait, there’s more!
I’ve always held Wulschner/Regal responsible for this misguided c.1900 harp guitar experiment, but now I wonder if they actually copied it.