The First Hawaiian Conservatory of Music (FHCM), is well documented as a mail order marketing tool for the Oscar Schmidt Company. They were sold for lap-style (i.e. Hawaiian-style) playing. However played as a steel string flat-top they have a woody and punchy sound which is well suited for blues playing. The gospel blues player Blind Willie Johnson, amongst others, is reputed to have played one.
Jake Wildwood describes the sound: They’re braced a little differently from the average Schmidt and, as a result, have a sound that flits between “normal” ladder-braced voicing and something like a Gibson-ish x-braced voice. They’re woody, loud, and direct like your average Schmidt parlor but have more of a kick in the bass and lower-mids and with a slightly-scooped treble rather than the focus being all mids. This makes them vastly more suitable for genres outside of fingerpicked country-blues and the like.
Oscar Schmidt and another company, Slingerland, were two of the first to place ads in magazines and newspapers, proposing to supply a free guitar (or another instrument) when you purchased 12 months of mail order lessons. Popular Mechanics Magazine was the magazine that was very successful for them, and Oscar Schmidt placed ads in that publication from January 1922. They started with a quarter page ad for guitar lessons and quickly upgraded to half page and then full page ads. They advertised in Popular Mechanics until the end of 1935, the year The Oscar Schmidt company fell into bankruptcy. (See post on The Oscar Schmidt Company). Many correspondence schools followed Slingerland and FHCM advertising the teaching of Hawaiian guitar in Popular Mechanics and other magazines.
For a time FHCM also placed ads for banjo and violin lessons, but by 1930 these ads has ceased – see below.
THE ORIGINS OF THE FIRST HAWAIIAN CONSERVATORY of MUSIC
The period of advertising in Popular Mechanics from Jan 1922-Dec 1935 I believe is the active period where the ‘Conservatory’ was administrated by Oscar Schmidt from the address shown on the majority of the labels; 9th Floor, Woolworth Building, New York City. However this New York address was not the original address of the FHCM trading name.
An early FHCM guitar turned up on ebay with a label with a Philadelphia address, which looks to be 1086 Ridge Ave., Philadelphia. At that stage it didn’t have the small rectangular gold decal on the front of the headstock that all New York FHCM guitars carried. Even though over time many of these simply wore off.
A search for the FHCM trading name in Philadelphia produced this entry in The Catalogue of Copyright Entries, 1919:
So it seems the FHCM was founded in Philadelphia and sold lessons with guitars from there. Whether founded there by The Oscar Schmidt Company or another company who sold the name to Oscar Schmidt who then moved the operation to New York we may never know. However I think it can be said the label commenced in 1919 and most likely ceased in 1935.
One of the reasons the Hawaiian guitar lessons were so successful for FHCM is because of the Hawaiian Music phenomenon at the time.
In the 1920’s and 30’s Hawaiian Music clubs formed in the USA and all over the world in countries such as England, New Zealand, Indonesia, India, Fiji and Australia. For example Australia had clubs in Sydney and many other cities and towns:
WWII put an end to the craze. Many musicians in Australia were called up for war service and people had other priorities.
THE FHCM MAIL ORDER PACKAGE
From an early First Hawaiian Conservatory of Music catalogue (the only one known) the correspondence package for the guitar course consisted of; “1 fine tone Hawaiian Guitar, Tuning Pipe, Set of Steel Picks and 52 complete lessons”. Also included was an introductory letter, a booklet on the different parts of a guitar, and Test Questions you filled out and sent back as you worked through the course, although later these were “Self Correcting.” I guess they became too much work for the staff to correct and send back. All this for $25 ($8 down and $5 per month). This quickly increased to $35 and possibly more in the later years of the course.
For that price you received the basic model guitar. You could upgrade the guitar to a koa model for an extra $24 for the Hilo model #9910 or $16.76 for the Kalaluki model #9900. (the Kalaluki model did not have as much marquetry inlay work as the Hilo).
You could also write and ask any questions if needed. I’ve scanned a few of these letters at the end of the post, as well as some of their other material.*
THE FHCM GUITARS
In the early 1920’s, 5 guitar models were listed in the small FHCM catalogue, 2 mahogany and 3 of koa construction:
DESCRIPTION: STANDARD GUITAR – No. 9652: Back and sides made of the best genuine mahogany; sounding board of the finest close grain spruce; top edge and sound hole bound with wonderful, special inlaid wood and outer edge imitation ivory; bottom edge bound with fine grade imitation ivory; marquetry strip running through the back; genuine ebony bridge, bone saddle; imitation mahogany neck with ebonized fingerboard and pearl position dots; first-class nickel plated machine heads; strings are of the best well-known make.
DESCRIPTION: STANDARD GUITAR – No. 9660: Sides and bottom made of selected, genuine mahogany; sounding board of the best close grain spruce, producing the finest resonance and tone quality; front and back edge, sound hole, also strip through back, bound with our highest grade marquetry and imitation ivory inlaid; genuine solid mahogany neck with veneered head piece; ebonized fingerboard with fancy ornamental pearl position dots; neck and fingerboard bound with imitation ivory; bone saddle; solid ebony bridge with six ivory pegs; nickel-plated patent machine heads; strings are the best well known make.
DESCRIPTION: HAWAIIAN GUITAR – No. 9900: The complete body, sounding board, sides and back made of select, genuine Hawaiian Koawood; sounding board made of this fine quality lumber produces the highest tone quality. The top edge and sound hole are bound with black and white marquetry inlaid, the same inlaid in center of back of the guitar; genuine mahogany neck with ebonized fingerboard with position pearl dots; veneered head piece, highest grade nickel plated machine head; bone saddle, solid ebony bridge; the strings are the best known make.
DESCRIPTION: HAWAIIAN GUITAR – No. 9910: Same as above as to quality and tone, only with additional marquetry inlaid on the bottom edge.
DESCRIPTION: HAWAIIAN GUITAR – No. 9910X: Exactly the same as the No. 9910 only grand concert size.
(To order a full copy of this catalogue visit Neil Harpe’s site about Stella Guitars)
The small catalogue in which these guitars are listed does not contain an all birch guitar or any other guitar except these 5 styles. The birch model, and others, must have been added later.
The mahogany examples appear rare and I have never seen one. The birch examples vary in color from almost black to red to orange and must have been sold in their thousands. The Koa FHCM guitars especially are a quality instrument and were also sold under different Oscar Schmidt labels, such as Sovereign, Hilo, Miami, and simply Hawaiian Guitar (green label). Vintage Blues Guitars have also come across a poplar wood model.
The bridge design varied as well, early on they were manufactured with a mustache bridge or more likely a pyramid bridge. As the years went on the cheaper birch models had the simpler guitar bridge (anyone know what they are called?).
SOME FHCM GUITAR EXAMPLES:
Thanks to: Jake Wildwood, The Guitar Repairers, Vintage Blues Guitars, Schoenberg Guitars, and Reverb for the photos.
Except for that Koa Grand Concert size No 9910X listed in the above catalogue entry, the measurements of the FHCM guitars are pretty consistent:
Scale length: 24 7/8 – 25″
Nut width: 1 7/8″
Body length: 18″
Body width: 13 1/4 -13 1/2″
Body depth: 3 1/2″
In that early small FHCM catalogue Oscar Schmidt also featured correspondence courses for Ukulele, Banjo Ukulele, Banjo Mandolin, Tenor Banjo, Mandolin and Violin, each course accompanied by a ‘free’ instrument. From the early 1920’s there were 1/4 page advertisements in Popular Mechanics for the Violin and Banjo, however by 1930 these had ceased:
SOME FHCM GUITARS IN DETAIL – See Posts:
- First Hawaiian Conservation of Music – 1920’s Koa Guitars: The Hilo & The Kalaluki and,
- First Hawaiian Conservation of Music 1930’s Birch Guitar
SOME FHCM LETTERS AND OTHER PARAPHERNALIA*
The letter that accompanied the guitar and first lesson:
There must have been some problems with students finding the course difficult because at some time the introductory letter changed:
Letter replying to a customer question:
I hope you found this interesting, Many thanks, Charles, aka Chaitanya das