On November 6th, 180 years ago, C.F. Martin set up his own guitar shop in New York City. The rest is history. In honor of today, here is the foreword of Inventing the American Guitar, by Peter Szego and Robert Shaw.
Christian Friedrich Martin was one of eight million Germans who emigrated to the United States between 1820 and World War I. Martin came to New York, a major center of industry, finance, and entertainment, to pursue success. Looking for freedom from the restrictive economic model of his native Germany’s guild system, Martin realized that there was a growing market for musical instruments in New York. The city also offered him a global trade network that made it easy for him to obtain raw materials, to import musical items for resale, and to ship finished guitars around the globe. Yet, the cultural landscape of the city was far different from what residents and visitors experienced even a generation or two after Martin. Although New York already had a bustling music scene, many of the city’s most venerable music institutions and venues would not be established for some time. The New York Philharmonic, the nation’s oldest symphony orchestra, was founded in 1842, three years after Martin moved to Pennsylvania. The Metropolitan Opera was not organized until 1880, Carnegie Hall would not open until 1891, and Juilliard would not begin educating young musicians until 1905. C. F. Martin arrived even before Henry Steinway, the music manufacturer perhaps most closely associated with the city, who came to New York City from Braunschweig, Germany, in 1850 to build pianos.
When Martin arrived, the city was in the midst of an economic boom that was the result of the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Although New York had been the largest city in the United States since the first census was taken in 1790, its growth accelerated tremendously in the early nineteenth century, topping one hundred thousand residents in 1810 and doubling to more than two hundred thousand inhabitants by 1830. Although the area of the city was confined to the southern tip of the island of Manhattan, with most of the island consisting of estates and farmland, the population would grow to more than half a million citizens by 1850.
As a German immigrant, Martin used his connections within the German community to establish himself in New York. The population of German immigrants and German-Americans was already more than 24,000 in 1840. That population exploded over the next two decades; by 1855, New York City boasted the third largest population of German-speakers in the world, behind only Berlin and Vienna. When the Martin family relocated to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, they again chose a place with a large German population that made the transition easier.
Martin opened his music store and lived in the same building at 196 Hudson Street, in an area of New York City that is now known as Tribeca, near the entrance of the present day Holland tunnel. During Martin’s time in New York, this was a growing residential and commercial neighborhood built on land that had been farmland owned by Trinity Church. The 1830s, when Martin was establishing his business, were tumultuous times in New York. In July of 1834, the city erupted in anti-abolitionist riots, and the nearby Laight Street Presbyterian church and the home of its pastor Samuel Hanon Cox were targeted and vandalized during several days of rioting. The church was a mere two blocks from the Martin shop. In December 1835, the Great Fire of New York City destroyed seventeen city blocks, and perhaps as many as 700 buildings. As a result, many New Yorkers looked to move their homes and businesses farther uptown, and many flocked to the area around Martin’s workshop. Then, in May 1837, a financial panic hit, throwing the city and the nation into a years-long recession that contributed to the Martin family’s decision to leave New York.
However, New York City remained an integral part of the Martin story even after the family moved to Pennsylvania. The city remained the most important market for Martin instruments, and it was necessary to maintain the business connections he built while living in the city. New York was so important for Martin that the city name continued to be stamped on his guitars long after his death.
C. F. Martin was similar to many other immigrants who came to New York City in the nineteenth century, embodying many of the ideals of the time.
He was a highly skilled immigrant who sought a freer economic system; an entrepreneur who tried several business models; a successful businessman who built a manufacturing company; and an innovative craftsman who combined his own knowledge with ideas that he encountered in the United States.
Jayson Kerr Dobney
Department of Musical Instruments
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Inventing the American Guitar is the first book to describe the early history of American guitar design in detail. It tells the story of how a European instrument was transformed into one with all of the design and construction features that define the iconic American flat-top guitar. This transformation happened within a mere 20 years, a remarkably brief period.
The person who dominates this history is C. F. Martin Sr., America’s first major guitar maker and the founder of the Martin Guitar Company, which continues to produce outstanding flat-top guitars today. After emigrating from his native Saxony to New York in 1833, Martin quickly established a guitar making business, producing instruments modeled after those of his mentor, Johann Stauffer of Vienna. By the time he moved his family and business to rural Pennsylvania in 1839, Martin had absorbed and integrated the influence of Spanish guitars he had seen and heard in New York. In Pennsylvania, he evolved further, inventing a uniquely American guitar that was fully developed before the outbreak of the Civil War.
Inventing the American Guitar traces Martin’s evolution as a craftsman and entrepreneur and explores the influences and experiments that led to his creation of the American guitar that is recognized and played around the world today.