DECALCOMANIA (DECALS) – Guitar Decoration Pt. 1

(Coming soon: Guitar Decoration Pt. 2.SCREEN PRINTING & STENCILS)

The term decal is the shortened version of the word ‘decalcomania’, which is the English pronunciation of the French word décalcomanie. It entails the transferring of a printed image on paper onto ceramic, wood or any other material. The image is then varnished over to protect it from damage.

1930’s Oscar Schmidt Stella Guitar with decalcomania imitating wood and pearl inlay

OSCAR SCHMIDT and other makers using DECALCOMANIA

“With decals, inlaid marquetry can be closely imitated and various shades of wood and even pearl can be reproduced with exactness.”  In the USA, from the end of the 1890’s, this decoration was used on pianos, mandolins, guitars and zithers etc.
Music Trade Review 10 Aug 1899 p.16.

In the late 1890’s Menzenhauer and Schmidt started using this decalcomania decoration on their highly successful fretless zithers and autoharps:

Late 1890’s, early 1900’s Menzenhaur & Schmidt Zither decals

A few years into the 20th century, Oscar Schmidt started making guitars, and to make them seem more valuable he often added decal decoration to the soundboard, and occasionally to the fret board.  (More about Oscar Schmidt and his company in this post OSCAR SCHMIDT COMPANY. )

Other manufacturers followed, and decalcomania decoration on guitars reached its peak in the 1920’s and 1930’s:

How DECALS were APPLIED (in 1926)

It appears the decals were supplied by the manufacturers front side down on a special paper.

“The proper method of applying a decalcomania transfer on lacquered work is first to bring up the finish in the lacquer to all but the last coat. This is then sanded or rubbed smooth and the back of the transfer is coated either with the cement which is furnished by the manufacturer of the decalcomania transfer or with a good grade of rubbing and polishing varnish which has been thinned down considerably with turpentine”.

It was applied in the correct position and smoothed out, then the paper was soaked with water and pulled away from the transfer, then smoothed down again.  When dry a clear lacquer was put over the work to protect the decal.  Music Trade Review 15 May 1926

Harmony had a slightly different method for some of the decals they used on Supertone guitars around 1930, starting with the  Bradley Kincaid Houn’ Dog, c.1929.

Bradley Kincaid Houn’ Dog Decal by Harmony Supertone 1929-30

I received the information below about these Supertone decals from someone I contacted many years ago:

“These images were a bit different from the normal decals. They were printed onto a very fine paper, almost like a rice paper, then applied to the guitar after the lacquer finish coat was applied and still wet, the paper pretty much melted in, and the art was left intact. Then another coat was applied just over the picture, giving it a slightly raised effect. It also caused it to crack even though the guitar’s finish was fine”.

I personally like this crackle effect:
Harmony used these ‘paper transfers’ on a few of their guitars apart from the Houn’ Dog. The others had Hawaiian themes, all dated 1929 or 1930:

This seems to be the same technique used by Stromberg-Voisinet on a Hawaiian themed guitar around the same period:

Late 1920’s Stromberg-Voisinet Hawaiian Decal Guitar

The use of DECALS for HEADSTOCK LABELS and logos

Decals were an easy and inexpensive way to brand guitars and other instruments.  Some examples from 1920-40’s:


DECAL SUPPLIERS to the Musical Industry in the early 1900’s:

1. W. Atkinson & Co.

Decals were imported into the USA most likely from Germany from around 1860.  It seems highly likely that Oscar Schmidt, with his frequent trips to Germany in the 1890’s, purchased decals for his zithers there.  One company that was importing and selling decalcomania in New York was W. Atkinson & Co.

W. Atkinson & Co. Advertisement 1870, New York City Directory

2. The Meyercord Company

The first decals to be manufactured in the USA were by George Meyercord in Chicago Illinois in 1894.  The Meyercord Company was registered in 1896, and by 1899 had branches in New York and St Louis.

For a number of years, it seems to have had a monopoly on decalcomania for the music industry, with decals for pianos being one of its important products.

Meyercord made many decals for instrument makers, and most likely supplied the gold decal headstock labels for H.A. Weymann & Son.  Weymann started displaying those gold labels on their instruments at the same time, or a little after, Meyercord commenced manufacture.  That combined with the many variations of gold labels that Weymann changed regularly points to the likelihood of an American manufacturer rather than importation.

This US based decalcomania company was a big success and for a number of years it had a monopoly on decalcomania for the music industry, with decals for pianos being one of its important products.  The company advertised for many decades in the Music Trade Review.

Meyercord Ads from the Music Trade Review, the one on the left is from 1st April, 1899 p.41.

Meyercord continued to manufacture decals through to the 1960s.  Its success was based on its head start over competitors. The company expanded into other areas such as sign writing, and it wasn’t long before they made a name for themselves as an advertising sign maker. They produced wood veneer signs and “Vitrolite” glass signs with a decal graphics adhered to the front for various companies and industries across the USA. Some examples:

Meyercord Decal Signs from the early 1900’s
Meyercord Decal Lettering Kits

The Meyercord Company became an American institution and a Saturday Evening Post double page advertisement listed some of the thousands of companies that used their products:

Saturday Evening Post double spread Meyercord Advertisement 1927

At the height of their success in the 1930’s, they commissioned a building to house their company.  As far as I understand this is still standing today, albeit having lost some of the gloss of its former glory:

The MEYERCORD Company building, 5323 W. Lake St, Chicago, with its extensive use of glass blocks, was designed by Abel Faidy and Julius Floto, and built in 1938. It was linked via tunnel to a former factory (a section of which can be seen on the right). It is now a Masons Lodge.

This Meyercord building in Chicago is a beautiful piece of architecture and deserves to be restored and be part of the nation’s architectural heritage.

Sadly, other techniques began to overtake decals as a preferred use in advertising, and eventually Meyercord found a niche in making decals that appealed to the domestic market. Many a home in the 1940’s – 1960’s decorated nurseries, furniture and toys with their decals. (Designs featuring fruits and flowers can still be found at antique stores and eBay, some are very valuable and collectable).

The Meyercord Company name still exists but it is a company that has nothing to do manufacturing decals.  I contacted them a few years ago to see if they had any of the old records from the original company, but unfortunately they didn’t.

3. The DECALCOMANIA Co. (originally U.S. Decalcomania Co.)

 “Chicago, Illinois., March 7, 1908. The Decalcomania Co… of Chicago, has been incorporated with a capital stock of $30,000, by John H. Coulter, C. L. Spencer and S. H. Roberts. The company succeed the U. S. Decalcomania Co., which recently failed, and Mr. Coulter, who bought the assets of the old concern, expects to establish the industry on a stronger basis than ever before.” Music Trade Review 14 March, 1908 p.61.

There’s not a lot I could found out about this company, or the failed company it replaced.


The Brown-Sinramm Company was a bit different in that it was based in New York rather than the hub of the music industry in Chicago. It appears to have commenced business in 1911:

The Brown-Sinramm Co., 1133 Broadway, New York, manufacturer of decalcomania, has been progressing during the last year, and is at present turning out a large number of decalcomania for some of the largest manufacturers in the piano industry, A feature of their product is the expert workmanship which is incorporated in its manufacture. None but the most skilled hands are employed in order that the work when completed will be of the best quality. That the company is maintaining a high standard of quality in manufacturing is manifested in the reorders which it has received from firms having once used its decalcomania”. Music Trade Review 27 April 1912, p.30.

It was later reported in the Music Trade Review that “The business has been constantly under the management of R. A. R. Brown, who was for years connected with one of the largest decalcomania houses in the country. . . “ Music Trade Review 27 Sept 1913 p.59. (The ‘one of the largest decalcomania houses…’ was most likely The Meyercord Company).

They advertised  frequently in the MTR with the small ad below, from 1911 to 1916.

Music Trade Review Advertisement p. 42, 16 Nov, 1912


There were probably other companies making decals in the first part of the 20th Century, however these are the ones that stand out from articles I found in the Music Trade Review and other publications of the era.

(A special thanks to Jiva Fletcher for his help with this post)

Many thanks and Namaste     Charles Robinson/Chaitanya das


8 thoughts on “DECALCOMANIA (DECALS) – Guitar Decoration Pt. 1

    1. Thanks Tom, probably has limited appeal this post but I have a graphics background and some of the decal designs always fascinated me. Borrowed a few of your photos from your site, hope you didn’t mind.:) You always have great blues guitars for sale, for anyone who is interested in looking for a fine vintage instrument. Regards, Charles

    1. Hahahaha Siva Dasi, cannot believe this was of interest to you! I collected a lot of this material many years ago and and just figured It may as well be out there on my blog than left on one of my portable hard drives to eventually fade away. Thanks for reading. Cd

  1. Well, I declare! Just about the time I think I know everything, a friend comes up with a ton of information of which I’m not aware. Thanks, Charlie. It is through your extraordinary efforts that I’ll be able to go to my grave just a bit less ignorant than I am today. Keep it up, my friend!

  2. Great work! I too have been interested in the history of decalcomania in the music industry. Here are some things I have discovered:

    Meyercord made decals into the mid 1980’s. However, as the market for waterslide decals waned, they started shifting focus on their tax stamp machines. They were the leading company producing cigarette pack tax stamps in the US. They actually had several decal production factories around the US. Some, such as the one in Los Angeles, were sold off and operated under new names (such as Associated Silk Screen Printing).

    The US likely had a few thousand waterslide decal printing companies by the 1950’s. Every city had several companies doing it. The big companies, like Meyercord, only handled very large runs. They usually offered as low as 5000 pieces in a run and cut price breaks as the order increased. The smaller print shops often started off with as few as 50.

    Another very large decal printing company was Angelus Pacific out of Los Angeles. An interesting this about Angelus Pacific is they did a lot of College sports decals. The work their artists created and never secured was taken advantage of. Many of the classic mascot art and college logos were originally created by Angelus Pacific to spec for a line of decals, and ended up being used by the colleges on clothing and other items. Many still in use today.

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