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Vega, Fairbanks & Oliver Ditson

1783 – 1835 Ebenezer Battell Book Store
1835 – 1842 Oliver Ditson and Samuel H. Parker
1842 – 1857 Oliver Ditson

The Vega Company was incorporated in 1903 in Boston Massachusetts. “Vega” means star and that was the company logo – but that’s not really the beginning of the story. The Vega Company, like all historically significant musical instrument manufacturers, is best defined by the talents of the individuals that shaped the company. In this case, there were many; and over a long period of time. To appreciate the Vega story, there are several parallel stories that need to be understood in their context. One of them is the story of A.C. Fairbanks. That story follows this one, but is clearly intertwined.

The roots of the Vega story begin in 1783 at the Ebenezer Battell Book Store. A small but growing portion of Battelle’s business was sheet music. Music training was a part of all children’s education. It was expected that everyone could participate in some way in music making: it was a social norm. The sheet music business was profitable enough to be separated to its own entity in 1835 to include music publishing. This was organized by Oliver Ditson (1811-1888) and Colonel Samuel H. Parker. In 1842 Ditson acquired Parker’s portion of the business and expanded to merchandizing all forms of music related retail. This included establishing musical instrument manufacturing. The first two known manufacturers were the John Church Company of Cincinnati Ohio and the Lyon & Healy Company of Chicago Illinois. Lyon & Healy became Ditson’s exclusive Chicago agent, which was significant in the nationwide catalog distribution businesses (like Sears) that centered in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century.

Oliver Ditson kept tight reins on the organization. Through nepotism and careful control of assets, Ditson installed family members to run branch offices: Chas. H. Ditson & Company in New York (established 1867) and J. E. Ditson & Company in Philadelphia (established 1875). The Philadelphia offices operated through 1910 and the New York offices operated roughly through 1930. Note that this was about the same time that Martin was producing the first dreadnaughts for Ditson (1916-1931), well before Martin introduced a dreadnaught under its own name (1931).

1857 – 1888 Oliver Ditson & Company
1865 – 1900 John C. Haynes Company

In 1845, John C. Haynes came to work for Ditson as an office boy. By 1857 he was a partner and the company changed its name accordingly to: Oliver Ditson & Company. One of the offshoot guitar manufacturing operations was placed under Haynes control and called: John C. Haynes Company (established 1865). These instruments were built in a factory behind the Pope Building in Boston. John C. Haynes Company built guitars under contract for several other companies including: William B. Tilton, Haynes Excelsior and Bay State.

Oliver Ditson died in December of 1888. Haynes took control and headed the company until he died on May 3rd, 1907. Oliver Ditson’s son: Charles Healy Ditson then took control of the company.

1907 – 1931 Oliver Ditson & Company – Charles Healy Ditson

As with all business that involve craft and years of experience: there is a degree of cross-pollination that occurs when experienced luthiers go from one company to another. During the Civil War, Pehr A. Anderberg immigrated from Sweden to the United States and worked initially for C. F. Bruno in New York City. In 1880 he moved to Somerville Massachusetts, near Boston where he joined the Haynes Company. Anderberg managed the guitar operations there and later took over the guitar building operations of the Stewart and Bauer Company in Philadelphia. The Haynes shop during this period was also joined by John Swenson and C.A . Sundberg who went on to found what would become the Vega Company.

So, it was the John C. Haynes Company factory behind the Pope Building in Boston that would be sold to Vega around 1900 when the John C. Haynes Company ceased doing business. The John C. Haynes Company assets were absorbed into the Ditson family of companies around that time.

The John Church Company was purchased by The Theodore Presser Company in 1930, and the Presser Company went on to purchase the Oliver Ditson Company in 1931. The Theodore Presser Company is the oldest music publisher in the United States. Its founder, Theodore Presser (1848-1925) was the publisher of The Etude music magazine and a philanthropist in the cause of music education.

1881 – 1903 Julius Nelson, John Swenson and C.A. Sundberg

Fellow Swedish immigrant and cabinet maker Julius Nelson joined forces with John Swenson and C.A . Sundberg from the John C. Haynes Company to form a musical instrument manufacturing company. Nelson acted as foreman of approximately 24 employees. Their timing was very good: it was the beginning of the mandolin craze that would morph into the banjo craze and they were well positioned to provide exactly what the public wanted.

1903 – 1930s Vega – Julius and Carl Nelson

Julius Nelson, with the help of his brother Carl Nelson, eventually bought out his co-founders who remained with the company as employees. Carl managed the firm as sales director, office manager and ultimately president. In 1903, the Nelson brothers renamed the firm “Vega” and adopted the star as the company logo.

In the years before fire suppression systems, woodworking factories were not exactly the safest places to work. Prior to electronic motor driven sawdust extraction systems, the risk of fire was too great. The Boston Commercial Street factory building suffered 3 fires in the early years before they moved to the old Standard Band Instrument Company at 62 Sudbury Street. They expanded out of that facility relatively quickly and moved again in June 1917 to 155 Columbus Avenue. Here they settled for about 30 years.

With success came capitol and they continued their expansion by acquiring the A.C. Fairbanks & Company banjo manufacturing. Fairbanks had suffered a devastating fire in March of 1904 and was sold for $925 out of financial necessity – quite literally a ‘fire sale’. Acquisition of the venerable and respected Fairbanks Company brought the respect of the reputation of the Fairbanks name but also brought the potentially greater asset of the experience of many of its employees. Fairbanks veteran David L. Day became the Vega General Manager. (See the accompanying story: A.C. Fairbanks)

1904 – 1919 A.C. Fairbanks and Vega

Vega understood the value of the A.C. Fairbanks name. Vega sold banjos under both the Vega and Fairbanks brands. In 1908 the Whyte-Laydie (See the accompanying story: A.C. Fairbanks) was re-designed again by David L. Day with a scalloped tone ring and in 1909, the famous Vega Tub-a-phone tone ring and banjo was introduced. The Vega Tu-ba-Phone featured a perforated metal tone ring – a ring-shaped, square-sectioned metal tube that sat between the instrument’s wooden rim and calfskin head – that gave the banjo a volume and tone still admired by many players. It was available as a 5-string or plectrum; No.3 or No.9, with mild or intense ornamentation. By 1910, Vega was marketing banjos as ‘Fairbanks Banjo, made by the Vega Company, Boston Mass.’

On October 10th, 1919 Albert Conant Fairbanks died. Shortly thereafter his name was dropped from the Vega labels. Banjos were simply identified: ‘The Vega Company’.

From 1913 onward, Vega used style designations instead of model names for its banjos:

Brass rod tone ring:

  • 5 String
  • Tenor
  • Mandolin Banjo

Little Wonder tone ring

  • Tenor

Whyte-Laydie tone ring

  • anjorine
  • Mandolin Banjo
  • Tenor

Tu-ba-phone tone ring

  • Banjorine
  • Tenor
  • Mandolin Banjo
  • Tenor

American musical tastes were rapidly changing with the constant influx of new cultural influences. The Tango craze hit between 1910 and 1914. The result was a demand for tenor rhythm instruments. Vega/Fairbanks rose to the occasion and provided tenors that were 16 or 17 fret, short scale open back versions of the 5-string models. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) was a world’s fair held in San Francisco, California between February 20 and December 4 in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. The Exposition introduced America to Hawaiian music and the resulting demand for acoustic guitars and ukuleles was felt for years to come.

David L. Day continued to develop new ideas. In a push to develop louder instruments with richer tone, he introduced the cylinder-back as a style of mandolin, mandola, mandocello, mando-base and guitar built between 1913 and roughly 1925. The design patent (US patent number D44838) was issued on November 4, 1913 to David L. Day. The unique design (originally called mando-lutes by Vega) is a cylindrical bulge running longitudinally along the back plate from the tailpiece to the neck heel. This body shape was inherently structurally stable and created a larger internal resonating volume. The instruments performed as designed. Vega also produced a guitar that had a longitudinal bulge along its back, like the company’s cylinder-back mandolins, and a similar longitudinal bulge along its top. The top bulge is reminiscent of the design used on Howe-Orme instruments, also built by the Boston firm: the Elias Howe Company.

David L. Day left the Vega Company in 1922 to work for the Fred Bacon Banjo Company which ultimately became known as Bacon & Day (B&D) though the company always remained in Fred bacon’s name only. Following Day’s departure, Vega redesigned their model offerings as the Vegaphone and (the new) Vegavox models.

The Vegaphone was available as (in order of ornamentation and cost):

  • The Professional
  • The Artist
  • The Deluxe

As Vega redesigned their models, the tenors banjos became longer with 19 frets and received a flanged resonator.

The banjos of the day were adorned with all manner of inlay, carving and decoration. There did not appear to be any level of ornamentation that would be considered too much. Banjo artists worked under contract and independently for many of the banjo builders. Fredrick J. Bacon, working from Vermont, was one of the popular banjo players of the era. Click Here to hear Fred bacon play Massas’s in the Cold Cold Ground in 1912. Ultimately, Fredrick J. Bacon and David L. Day would join forces in 1922 in Groton Connecticut to form Bacon & Day (Though that was not the company name at the time). They experimented with and manufactured some remarkable banjos. (Most guitars that carried variations of the Bacon & Day name were actually manufactured under contract by Regal).

By 1925, American’s musical tastes were changing again. In October of 1927 the film “The Jazz Singer” was released: the first full length ‘Talkie’ – motion pictures with sound. The music was Jazz. Radio was broadcasting the new music to every corner of the land and it felt as if the nation was thrust into a brave new world: automobiles and aero planes were ubiquitous and were beginning to reshape the urban landscapes. Information now traveled at the speed of electricity and people could travel across the country in hours rather than days. The way Americans heard and perceived music had changed forever and the music styles changed with it. It was the Modern Era – everything was new. In this setting, struggling to figure out what the public would buy: Vega betted that guitars would be the future and introduced the Vegaphone line.

The crash of 1929 hit the industry hard. Vega spent several years trying to find some way to cope with the depressed marketplace. The banjo market appeared to be dead so Vega refocused on Guitars and mandolins. Unfortunately, the mandolin market had also fallen apart. In 1933 Vega introduced the newly revised Vegaphone line: They sported carved tops to break into the market that Gibson had pioneered, and steel reinforced necks. They had, after all, acquired expertise of neck reinforcement from years of manufacturing long skinny banjo necks. Gibson had recently, however, patented the adjustable truss rod in 1921.

1930s – 1970 William W. Nelson

Gibson and Epiphone launched into direct competition for dominance of the archtop and flat-top guitar markets by increasing the size, decoration, power and quality of their instruments. Martin introduced the Dreadnaught (under its own name) in 1931. Gibson and Epiphone archtops had grown to 18”+ by 1932 and 1933. Vega responded with Seniorita and the Sultana-Grande. The instruments were manufactured under contract with Regal who later released basically the same guitars under its own name. In 1936 Vega introduced the Electrovox electric guitar with Dual-Tone pickup and an amplifier. The pickups had been designed by William W. Nelson.

Carl Fischer Musical Instruments Company became the sole national distributor for Vega in November 1936 and offerings were expanded to include an electric violin, the Vibra electric footpedal (volume control for electric guitars – possibly the first footpedal accessory), a 6 tube amplifier and an electric guitar outfit that could operate on direct or alternating current, electric mandolins and electric Hawaiian guitars. During this period in the 1930s they are said to have produced more than 40,000 guitars.

World War II brought massive change to the musical instrument industry. Manufacturing for the war effort was the nations highest priority – certainly above instrument building. All manufacturing fell under the control of National Defense restrictions. In 1943, War Production Board order L-37a governed the use of critical war materials for non-military purposes. These included nickel, cobalt, aluminum, copper and steel – critical for the production of instruments. The instrument lines that suffered the most were the electric instruments due to the larger requirement for restricted materials. Alnico magnets, for example, are made of aluminum, nickel and cobalt. William Nelson took a sabbatical from the company in September of 1942 to support the war effort and John A. Allen took temporary control of the company until the war was over.

The post war years saw the return of hundreds of thousands of young men with some money in their pockets and the education that comes from travel and worldly experience. They were a market force that could not be suppressed and bought cars, houses and services. The manufacturing world had geared up for the war effort and suddenly had to realign itself to a civilian market. The workforce had expanded and both men and women had become breadwinners. Americans had experienced foreign culture and music and were ready for radical change. The cultural upheaval brought new musical tastes. The big band era of the 1940s gave way to Be Bop and the birth of Rock and Roll.

Vega was a major wholesaler as well as a manufacturer. They introduced new models in 1947 including the Duo-Tron and the Supertron Spanish guitars and in 1949 they introduced a line of cut-a-way guitars. They were buying bodies from Harmony as well as making their own. In 1950 John Allen had become General Manager and William Nelson was Treasurer.

Vega’s market share declined over the 1950’s. The musical styles were changing faster than they could respond. Fender’s introduction of the solidbody electric guitar followed by Gibson’s introduction of the Les Paul in 1952 had rendered their versions old-fashioned and they quickly fell out of public favor. In 1961 the Vega factory moved to 40 Leon Street in Boston and then moved again in 1966 to 155 Reservoir Street in Needham Heights. The company was shrinking.

Vega suffered labor problems during the 1950 as did many other manufacturers. The old style administrations were not inclined to be dictated to by unions. The relationships became strained and the net effect was loss of efficiency and quality. By the 1960’s folk boom, there was a market for some of the Vega offerings including banjos but the workforce was aging and the ability to ramp up to the new demand was not there.

Martin had wanted to acquire a reputable banjo manufacturer and bought Vega on March 15th, 1970 from William Nelson, who was the sole owner at the time. Nelson felt it was a good time to sell. Martin did not appear interested to trade on the experience and talent of the existing staff and crews and laid them all off. The remaining assets were moved to Nazareth, PA. The company had only 18 employees left by that time. Without the experience, the tools were of no use. Martin applied the name to an imported line of instruments during the 1970s and ultimately, in March of 1979, sold the name to Sun Pyo Hong, president of Korea’s Galaxie Trading Corp. Deering Banjos purchased the name in the mid 1980s and have been making modern versions of some of the Vega banjos since.

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ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth