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Herman Carlson Levin

1864 Herman Carlson Levin – (September 25th, 1864 – March 26th, 1948)

Herman Carlson was born in Asaka, Sweden on September 25th, 1864. At age 18 he chose a career in woodworking. He had demonstrated a talent for it at a young age and as soon as he was old enough, he sought an apprenticeship with a well respected cabinet maker in Gothenburg. During that time he also attended evening classes at the local woodwork association school.

In Sweden, at the turn of the last century, the apprentice system of training was still practiced. To establish yourself in a chosen profession, you needed to become an apprentice to someone with good standing in his or her Guild. After several years (depending on the Guild) you may feel prepared for the examinations to become a Journeyman. If you pass, you could set out on your own or you join others as a well-trained (and respected) associate. After 2 years he passed the examinations and succeeded in becoming a journeyman.

In Sweden, at the time, it was customary to take on a new surname after successfully completing one’s education. Herman chose the name: ‘Levin’.

1887 – 1900 New York

In August of 1887, Levin moved to America seeking greater financial opportunity. He worked briefly as a carpenter before getting a job in 1888 as a polisher at a guitar manufacturer. The experience allowed him to learn the business of building stringed instruments. 3 years later, he and 2 partners started a small company producing mid-level mandolins, banjos and guitars. The company was based in New York and called: the Metropolis Musical Instrument Co. It was 1891 and competition in instrument manufacturing was intense, due in part, to the vast number of emigrant craftsmen from all parts of Europe flooding into the United States. Despite all the odds, Levin managed to make a decent living and to learn about business in the bustle of the ‘New World’ economy of the day.

In 1895, Levin traveled home to Sweden to visit family and friends. While there, he realized the demand for instruments back home was higher than expected. After all, there wasn’t nearly as much competition. Manufacturing instruments in Sweden could be very profitable. Levin returned to New York to dissolve his relationship with his partners and make arrangements to return to Sweden for good. With only 4,000 kroners as working capitol, Levin opened up “Herman Carlsons Instrumentfabrik” on July 27th, 1900 at Norra Larmgatan in Gothenburg. He focused his business strategy on Europe. Let the others fight it out in America – Levin would concentrate on being the best in Europe.

1900 – 1952 A. B. Herman Carlson’s Musikinstrumentfabrik

With a small workshop at Norra Larmgatan 4, in Göteborg and a crew of 2, Levin began by manufacturing guitars and mandolins. By the end of 1901 they had successfully produced 473 instruments. The design and quality were good and the instruments found favor in the local marketplace. The business began to expand with increasing demand for the instruments and by the end of 1903, with 5 employees, Levin had produced their 1,000th instrument.

The Levin reputation spread and demand followed. Levin demonstrated a good business sense as he developed a growing distribution network and good retail dealer relationships.

Between 1903 and 1912 Levin received a number of awards for both design and quality. By the end of 1903 the company had been awarded 5 silver medals. In 1905 Levin received the gold award at the exhibition in London and by 1907 received the gold medal in Madrid for best guitar and the exhibition’s top award: the Grand Prix. Recognition of this kind was the best possible way to be noticed and acknowledged – the finest advertising of the day. With recognition came greater demand – the manufacturing continued to expand.

On October 11th, 1918 a fire damaged the factory resulting in staff reductions from 30 to 10 men. World War 1 also slowed progress through the mid and late teens but as the European economies recovered in the 1920s, Levin produced over 5,000 instruments for countries hungry for entertainment, new music and a desire to put the misery of war behind them. It was the Jazz Age and demand for guitars, ukuleles and mandolins remained high. In 1925 Levin began production of a line of banjos. By 1936 the Levin plant produced its 100.000 instrument. At about the same time Levin was marketing a successful line of archtop guitars. American Jazz was big but there were few European manufacturers making respectable archtop guitars. Levin managed to design and produce instruments on par with the best America had to offer.

Following the fire, instrument demand continued to grow. Since they had already outgrown the old factory, a new factory of 1,800 square meters was assembled in the former space of Rörstrands Porslinsfabrik (Rörstrands Porcelain Factory) on Kvillegatan 9, in Göteborg. The move took place in the summer of 1943 and the work force was expanded to 70 men. Drums were added that year and in 1948 Levin saw the completion of instrument # 200,000.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Levin employed a crew of 45 in a manufacturing facility of 1,000 square meters. The War affected everyone. Roughly half of the Levin workforce was drafted. The manufacturing of instruments was not a priority during the first half of the 1940s. Levin contributed to the war effort where required and made do as best as possible during the wartime administration changes in Sweden. The war years also brought shortages of imported woods including ebony, rosewood and walnut.

Though Herman Carlson Levin lived to see the end of World War II, he did not survive long enough to see the path of Sweden’s recovery – He died on March 26th, 1948. The company, however, did survive and prospered.

The 1950s saw changes in musical styles and instrument preferences. So many lives had been lost during the War that Levin needed to focus on the new generation (the European baby-boom) emerging in the early 1950s. They launched a line of inexpensive guitars intended for schools and young guitar players. The guitars were intended to meet a lower price-point. They were of lesser quality then the rest of the Levin line but were viewed as an investment in future musicians – who would eventually want better Levin instruments. The company celebrated it’s 50th anniversary in 1950 with 130 employees.

1952 – 1968 Jerome Hershman and Goya

Jerome Hershman was an American guitar distributor who traveled to the German music industry trade show in 1952 to see if he could find any good product candidates for American distribution. He discovered a Levin guitar at the show and was understandably impressed. Hershman convinced Levin to work with him to market Levin guitars in America. The concept appealed to Levin, who saw it as a way to deal with the American market without diluting European company resources and manpower.

Hershman felt that the brand name ‘Levin’ would be hard to market in America. Americans did not associate Sweden with guitar making. He reckoned that the average American, when considering a European guitar, would think of Spain with its long classical and flamenco traditions. Therefore, he suggested the name ‘Goya’: inspired by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya, who was well known at the time for the renditions of guitars in his paintings. The concept was simple: Levin would produce the instruments for export with the name ‘Goya’ on both the headstock and the label. Hershman Music would own American distribution.

The idea appeared to work. The Goya line proved to be successful due to its high quality fit & finish. The timing was also good: In America, the folk boom was just beginning. The early guitars that Hershman specified were largely nylon string and they fit the growing musical style demand beautifully. Hershman stayed ahead of the stylistic trends by importing a line of Goya steel string flat-top guitars in the late 1950s. This hit just as the demand for the instruments was not being well fulfilled by Gibson, Guild and Martin. The Levin built instruments were not only high-quality but remained less expensive than their American counterparts by manufacturing innovations that included bolt-on necks. Unlike the Martins of the day, the Levins also had adjustable trussrods and held up well even under rough use. To seal the deal: they sounded very good.

In the early 1960s a line of cross-over folk guitars were introduced with wide flat fretboards (similar to nylon string guitars) but fitted with steel strings. These were developed in cooperation with American folk-singer Oscar Brandt. Two 12-stringed flattops were also launched during this period. In 1967 the Levin Company signed a contract with Goya Music (former Hershman Music) for 120,000 instruments over a period of 10 years. The American Goya export made up approximately 70% of the Levin companies total production (30,000 instruments per year, mostly guitars).

1968 – Broken Contracts

In 1968, Goya Music broke the contract with Levin. Goya Music had been sold by Hershman to Avnet Inc. This was the period in American musical manufacturing where it appeared that the instrument demands of the folk boom and rock’n’roll would continue for years. Larger American and Foreign companies were clamoring to acquire instrument manufacturers to broaden their corporate portfolios and get in on the money surrounding the music industry. Avnet Inc. had already acquired Guild Guitars. Gibson was being sold to Norlin, Fender had been sold and even LoPrinzi Guitars had been bought by AMF, the same company that just acquired Harley Davidson. The problem, of course, was that these new corporate entities knew nothing about musical instruments or the music industry.

It didn’t stop there. In 1970 the Goya distribution rights were sold to amp manufacturer: Kustom Electric of Chanute Kansas. In 1972 Kustom went bankrupt and the distribution was taken over by Dude Inc., another Chanute company. It is unclear if Levin ever delivered any instruments to Dude, the sales during this period may have been the relabeled remaining stock from the Kustom bankruptcy.

1976 – 1981 C.F. Martin

In 1976 Dude sold the Goya brand to Martin. This was the natural evolution of a Martin strategy to acquire all of Levin. Martin had already purchased the majority of the Levin Company a few years earlier. In concept, the acquisition of Levin by C.F. Martin made sense: This would give Martin access to a European manufacturing facility and trained staff, a fully developed distribution chain and access to experienced archtop builders – something Martin had never quite gotten right.

Instead of exploiting the high-quality options listed above, Martin chose to follow Gibson’s example with Epiphone. Martin began to use the Goya name to import Japanese and Korean instruments. The direct consequence was that both the Goya and Levin brands reputation quickly diminished. C.F. Martin stopped offering Goya instruments during the 1990s and sold the brand name in 1999 to Goya Foods.

In 1973 when Martin originally bought Levin: they made Levin the headquarters for European Martin Guitars and their Japanese import brand: Sigma Guitars. They began producing a run of 200+/- Martin D-18 acoustic guitars, which were labeled “LD-18 – Made In Gothenburg, Sweden”. In 1981 the last guitar was built in the Gothenburg facility. This facility had produced over 500,000 instruments between 1900 and 1978 under the Levin name.

1981 – Hans Persson and Svenska Levin AB

In 1981 the remaining parts and inventory as well as the Levin brand were bought by Svensk Musik AB. They have started producing Levin classical guitars in a factory owned by former guitar neck supplier Hans Persson. Hans’s son Lennart is still producing guitars for “Svenska Levin AB” in his father’s workshop outside Mariestad Sweden. Svenska Levin offers also steel string flattops and a line of archtop jazz guitars based on old Levin models, made in Korea.

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Ⓒ 2009 Leonard Wyeth
Research derived and expanded from Wikipedia and other internet sources including the Levin collectors website.
Numerous instrument examined and compared.