The Process of Cataloging an Unsigned Tuba
by Ken Drobnak, National Music Museum
Most of you play on an instrument that probably has the manufacturer’s signature stenciled or stamped on the bell and a serial number on the valve casing. These items are the primary identifying marks catalogers research to begin to determine an instrument’s history. However, prototype and experimental models often lack this information, as do many nineteenth century brass instruments. In addition, experimental models often lack plating and may be missing slides or other parts. Cataloging these instruments can be quite a challenge, as preliminary research on this unsigned upright tuba lasted nearly a month (Figure 1).
Figure 1. NMM 13,807. An unsigned tuba in the Holton Factory Reference Collection. Donated by Conn-Selmer, Inc. in 2008. Photo by Bill Willroth, Sr.
This tuba, donated to the National Music Museum by Conn-Selmer, Inc. in 2008, arrived with only a serial number as an identifying mark (Figure 2). In addition, this upright tuba was not finished with any plating or lacquer, but it did arrive complete. Since most of the tubas donated with this collection were manufactured by Frank Holton & Company, I began checking Holton catalogs to find a similar model. The serial number placed the year of manufacture as 1948, however, photolithographs in Holton’s catalogs from this time period did not match the design of this tuba. In addition, the condition of the instrument suggested an earlier date of manufacture.
Figure 2. Number stamped on second valve.
Looking for specific characteristics that could be compared with other models, I decided that the two sets of double engraved rings on the ferrules were the best detail (Figure 3). The lever near the bellpipe was assumed to be of experimental design and thus not helpful in determining the maker.
Figure 3. Engraved lines on ferrule.
Compiling a list of possible manufacturers, I went through tubas in storage and took snapshots of the ferrules on instruments by C. G. Conn, H. N. White, Besson, York, and others. Many manufacturers used ferrules with one engraved ring on the end of a ferrule but not two rings. On some instruments, including early models by Holton, large pipes had ferrules with a convex center, delineated by a single engraved line at the top and bottom. After about a month of investigating a list of primary possibilities, I decided to take a break and catalog a couple of sousaphones that arrived as part of the Holton Factory Reference Collection.
These two sousaphones were manufactured in the early 1960s by The Martin Band Instrument Company, when the company was part of the Richards Music Corporation. Both instruments had ferrules with double sets of engraved rings (Figure 4)! If this unsigned tuba was a Martin product, the serial number placed its year of manufacture in 1955. Other Martin tubas in the museum’s collection from this time period also contained this same ferrule decoration.
Figure 4. NMM 13,797. Sousaphone by The Martin Band Instrument Company, 1962-1963. Engraved rings on ferrule. Photo by Ken Drobnak.
An illustration found in several circa 1960 Martin Catalogs confirmed this unsigned tuba as a Martin product (Figure 5). This illustration, or photolithograph of an illustration, matches the tube layout and general size of NMM 13,807. In addition, the illustration includes part of the experimental lever design, the rod to the tuning slide, which is connected to the lever attached to the bellpipe on NMM 13,807 (Figure 6). The one noticeable discrepancy is the detachable bell found in the catalog illustration, whereas NMM 13,807 had a one-piece upright bellpipe (Figure 1).
Figure 5. This lithograph of an illustration appears in Martin Catalogs, early 1960s.
Red marks, made by a grease pencil, contributed to the analysis that this instrument was designed as an experimental model. One mark can still be read as a measurement on the leadpipe (Figure 7), thus other red markings were likely measurements as well. The lever on the side of the instrument, another experimental design, allows the player to control the position of the tuning slide with his left hand while playing. The resting position of the tuning slide can be adjusted with a nut that attaches the rod to the straight brace on the tuning slide (Figure 6). A very consistent tab seam is visible on the bell (Figure 8).
Figure 6. NMM 13,807. Tuning slide lever and rod.
Figure 7. Measurements near leadpipe.
After years of storage in the Holton Factory in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, the tuning slide lever does not move easily. Even if it moved smoothly, however, the combination of the weight of the instrument (nearly thirty pounds!) and the placement of the top-action valves make it a significant challenge to keep the instrument stable when playing. This is a likely reason that this experimental model did not go into production. However, Martin did produce a number of recording basses of similar size that were constructed partly of fiberglass (Figure 9).
Figure 8. Tab seam on bell.
Figure 9. 1962 Martin advertisement.
With a fairly large bore (.812 at the main tuning slide [valve slides are all stuck]), the low range of the instrument is quite full and resonant. Playing low excerpts are quite fun and rewarding. The sonority of this BB-flat Upright Martin Tuba would blend well in a large ensemble. <