CHAPTER 7: Riding the Ukulele Boom
The 1920s were booming years for the Martin Company, as the ukulele captured the fancy of the American public. The first Martin ukuleles were not well received. They were made much like a guitar, with too much bracing in the body, particularly in the top, which was of spruce. The excessive bracing and the spruce top gave the instruments a dead and lackluster tone that failed to appeal to the buying public.
Recognizing the shortcomings of its initial ukulele design, Martin went to work at producing an acceptable uke. By reducing the amount of bracing and substituting mahogany for spruce, Martin quickly garnered a large share of the ukulele market. The demand for the products was such that Martin was forced to double the capacity of the North Street plant with an additional wing and increase in the work force. Guitar production in 1920 totaled 1,361 units; records of ukulele production were not kept, but Christian Frederick Martin III estimates that the company turned out nearly twice as many ukuleles as guitars during the '20s.
In structuring the organization of the company, Frank Henry Martin initially envisioned Christian Frederick Martin overseeing manufacturing with Herbert Keller Martin attending to the sales. This division of responsibility worked well until Herbert Keller Martin died unexpectedly after a few days of illness in 1927. With the passing of his brother, Christian Frederick became increasingly involved in company sales efforts, traveling extensively throughout the country.
During the decade of the '20s, sales of C. F. Martin instruments increased every year, and by 1928 annual guitar production stood at 5,215 units, over four times the output of 1920. With the advent of the Great Depression in 1929, national economic hardship forced the Martin family to discard aspirations for increased sales and concentrate on plain survival. With millions out of work and thousands of businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, selling guitars proved increasingly challenging.
Between 1929 and 1931, guitar sales were virtually halved. Responding to the harsh climate, Martin reduced its wage rate and for a time operated on a three-day week. The company also diversified, producing violin parts and even some wooden jewelry, in an effort to keep workmen busy. However, the company never vigorously pursued any of these areas. "We were always afraid that getting into some other business would hurt our guitar business," related C. F. Martin III. He added, "We entered a few other fields during the Depression, not with any enthusiasm, but out of necessity."
Striving to stimulate seriously depressed sales, Martin launched an active product development campaign during the Depression. During this period, the company added new designs to the product line, altered existing products, and explored numerous features in hopes of finding a product that would bolster lagging sales. While many of the products conceived during this period had a short life span, two major developments emerged that had a lasting effect on the company: the creation of the now famous "Dreadnought" guitar and the invention of the 14-fret neck.