IMPERIAL GUITARS (approx c.1880 – c.1900) – The John Church Co.

John Church can thank the generosity of Oliver Ditson for his success in business.

John Church Portrait – Late 19th Century Photo courtesy

Oliver Ditson set up successful businesses and allowed his managers to take them over.  This was the case with John C. Haynes, Boston, who made ‘Tilton Improvement’, Bay State, Excelsior and Hub Guitars.  Also with George Lyon and Patrick Healy, Chicago, who under the Lyon & Healy name became the biggest manufacturer of stringed instruments in the early part of the 20th century.
Oliver Ditson also set up a music branch in Cincinnati managed by John Church.  Somewhere between 1859 or 1871 (accounts are conflicting) John Church was signed over as the owner and he incorporated The John Church Company in 1885.  He had a retail arm of all things musical, specializing in pianos and sheet music, and a small manufacturing arm producing the ‘Imperial’ label of instruments.

From left to right: Oliver Ditson, John C. Haynes, George Washburn Lyon and Patrick Joseph Healy

The John Church Co sold Everett pianos which was functionally a wholly owned subsidiary.  They were also the largest music publishing house in Ohio and one of the largest in the United States. As well as being based in Cincinnati and Leipsic in Ohio they had offices in New York and Chicago.

In 1885 (the year the company was incorporated) they moved into the newly built John Church Building T 14-16 West Fourth Street, Cincinnati. This building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

While the The John Church Co. was still operating well into the 20th Century, it seems the production of Imperial guitars was over a 20 year period from 1880-1900.  It’s possible that after that date they concentrated on selling Lyon and Healy instruments (such as Washburn guitars) as did many other retailers.

The ‘Imperial’ guitar I have examined has a very high level of craftsmanship and when it was restored sounds truly amazing.  (see the 2nd ‘Imperial’ guitar featured below).

Patent No. 454,905 for C.F.Geiger 1891

The IMPERIAL manufacturing department was managed by Charles F. Geiger, and in 1891 he patented the first guitar design that was specifically made to take steel strings.  I’ve been searching for one of these guitars since I saw an advertisement in an 1891 newspaper (see below).  I found the patent listing but I never came across one of the guitars.

Newspaper Ad 1891
Newspaper Ad 1891


Then out of the blue a very nice lady (Carolee) sent me some photos wondering if I could identify the maker of an old guitar she had.  And there it was!  Here are those photos:

Total length 37″, width at lower bout approx 12 1/2″. A very rare and historically significant guitar.  It’s hard to tell from the photos but the back and sides appear to be a light Brazilian rosewood. (It is for sale if anyone is interested).  The rounded heel cap seems a consistent design feature of Imperial guitars.

Another Imperial guitar is one that I have been able to examine closely as it was restored by my good friend Matt from Matt’s Guitar Service.  It has a fine grained Adirondack spruce top with very beautiful Brazilian rosewood back and sides. It plays and sounds exquisite!  The tortoise shell under the bridge does not seem original but was added many years ago.


Notice the round inlaid ‘button’ on the back of the headstock with the ‘Imperial’ name on it which I think is ivory. The ebony pyramid bridge is a handmade replacement

I have photos of one more ‘Imperial’ guitar that was listed on ebay:


It has the inlaid ivory logo button but it is on the front of the headstock and the logo has been worn off.  Overall length of 29″ with a few splits.  These Imperial guitars are quality instruments and this one sold for $850 seems like a bargain.
UPDATE 14 March 2019: I was contacted by the new owner of this guitar and informed that the serial number is 2577.

If you’d like to see more photos and restoration of another Imperial guitar go to this link here in Jake Wildwood’s blog, Antebellum Instruments.


UPDATE 31 December 2019: I was contacted by Justin, from Eisenman Guitars, Asheville NC, USA with some pics and video of a vintage Imperial guitar he restored and was happy to share.

Eisenman early vintage Imperial guitar

It is an early model with a serial number of 908 (if it is stamped the same way up as other Imperial guitars we have seen):

If you can pick one of these up at a reasonable price and don’t mind doing some work to restore it, it is well worth the effort!

And here is the video of Justin’s Imperial:

Thank You, all the best, Charles

33 thoughts on “IMPERIAL GUITARS (approx c.1880 – c.1900) – The John Church Co.

  1. wow! Amazing details, I feel like I can hear dad’s voice in my ear saying “they don’t make them like that any more!”

  2. Hello,
    I purchased an Imperial guitar 3 or 4 years ago with what I believe is original case. It has the Geiger style bridge. I purchased a new hard case to better preserve this playable artifact (I put a 1960’s Stella in the original case!).

    I had the neck reset and the luthier put silk and steel strings on it. He set it up to Martin standards from that era. I love this guitar! If you’d like pics of guitar or case, I’ll gladly send. Also, it’s not for sale. Maybe some day. Who knows.

    Thanks so much for this webpage- very informative and much appreciated!

    1. Hi, Jim — I am a member of the Warren County, Iowa Historical Society. I am currently engaged in compiling an audio/visual archive of the area’s vernacular music. Fortunately many of the folks in the society seem to be highly interested, including a lady who brought in her husband’s grandmother’s guitar for me to look at. It is one of the original Imperial guitars from Cincinnati. I could not find a serial number or model designation on it, but will look again. It was in the original case which fell to pieces as soon as we opened it up. We thought it was just a cheap item sold by Sears or something. The fingerboard quality and tone of the 1st and 2nd strings that seemed to still have a bit of life in them belied our assessment. So I entered the name of the company into Google and discovered a lot. I would like to know what to look for to get it a new case in view of what I have read here. I have already suggested a couple of the changes I noticed, even before learning that it would be worth it to do so. The owners would like a good case and I will find appropriate strings as I am an old-time picker with my own custom Martin. Pictures and source for the case are what we’re after at this moment. To make it highly playable the neck would have to be reset or the bridge/tailpiece replaced. We have a good luthier in Des Moines capable of such. By the way, this guitar crossed the prairie from Ohio to Iowa with a wave of pioneers that settled here in the late 19th Century. The strings are “tarnished” (ha-ha) and the tuners need a drop of lube. Otherwise,I intend to play it as soon as I get the silk & steel strings applied. S.

      1. Hi Simon. I hope this was meant for me as you have addressed it to Jim? From my experience a good case for most ‘palor’ guitars is a GATOR case GWE-ACOU 3/4 and you can check here
        with the measurements of your guitar to see if it fits. It should also be available to purchase from Amazon. There are other more expensive cases on the market but I have found this more than suitable and I have flown with this case and guitar as checked luggage without any problems. Regards strings, any extra light gauge silk and steel should be fine if the guitar has had a neck reset. I prefer Thomastik Infeld PLECTRUM Strings .010-.042 but Martins extra lightweight Silk and Steel would also work well. Best Regards, Charles

  3. Hi there Charles! I own an “Up-to-Date Music Co.” Parlor guitar from what I guess is ca. 1920 give or take. I believe John Church was involved with this brand. Anyways, was looking to get some more information about the guitar and willing to provide pictures. There is a serial number (or number) on the neckblock and the body is oak back and sides with a spruce top. A real beauty and would love to find out more about it! Are you able to help me?


    Antoine from Canada

    1. Hi Antoine. Not sure where you got the information that “Up-To-Date Music Co’ was made by John Church. First I’ve heard of that name. There is this page listing early brand names and their makers: (which is also on my links page). I have found it reasonably accurate and it lists U-T-D Music Co as being made in Chicago, whereas Imperial and John Church were based in Cincinatti.
      If you send some photos to my email address at the top of the links page I may be able to help more.
      Many thanks, Charles

  4. I have an imperial guitar with same bridge from 1891 patent & inlay button on front of the headstock.

    1. Hi David, I’d love to see some photos, please send to if you wouldn’t mind. These guitars are so rare and sometimes a lot can be learnt from the photos. Best Regards, Charles

  5. Hello Charles–I was fortunate to snag an old Imperial Geiger guitar at a tag sale recently and was happy to stumble across your blog. My guitar appears to be just like the Geiger guitar Carolee shared with you with two exceptions: mine measures 42 1/2″ long and has a wooden knob for protection on the end by the metal work. I’d be curious to hear your take on mine. I’ve got some pics that I’ll try to send to your email address. Thanks john

  6. Hey Charles, I bought an Imperial guitar at a yard sale and it came with a canvas case that loads from behind and has a buckle that fastens the end of the case closed. The guitar is in good condition and has the number 21 stamped in the top of the head. Is that number the serial number.

  7. I have one of these on my watch list on ebay. it has a few issues, a couple of cracks amongst others. they want $500 for it. after reading the comments here, I am seriously considering purchasing it.

    1. I looked on ebay and couldn’t find a vintage imperial guitar, pre 1900. There was a Kay Imperial guitar, 1930-40’s, but that is not the same animal, although I’m sure it is a great instrument.

      These vintage Imperial guitars will never be worth the money of a guitar like a vintage Martin, however once restored can sound every bit as good. Anyway let me know by private email what the listing is if you like. I assure you I am not in the market for another guitar! Regards, Charles.

  8. Hi Charles,
    I bought a guitar (Imperial) from Heritage Auctions a few years ago & brought it to my luthier for a bunch of work…
    I’ll forward some pictures to your email, I’d be very interested in any insights you have about it.
    Info I do have:
    It seems roughly equivalent to a Martin “size 1”.
    37″ overall length, body 12 5/8 @ the lower bout & 18 3/8 long. It had a bunch of body cracks, non-original bridge, cracked neck heel and was not playable (tho Heritage listed it’s condition as “good”). The logo was worn off of the white circle inlaid in the headstock, and, oddly, the tuners turn backwards from normal and the knobs seem to be ivory.
    They took the top off, removed the neck & fingerboard, glued all the cracks, replaced a couple of missing braces, put in a truss rod, replaced the bridge with a “pyramid” style bridge, refretted & refinished it (I know – I wouldn’t have if it was a Martin) since I wanted it to be something I could play without it being too “precious”. It seems that Imperial was ahead of the curve in making guitars that could accommodate steel strings and in using “tang” frets when Martin was still using “bar” frets
    Now it’s a great-sounding little guitar I really enjoy that may go for another 120-odd years…

  9. Charles,
    Thank you for this Imperial site. I have only seen three and one I own. When I took the guitar in for restoration, we discovered that mine has a 27″ scale, which makes it a baritone! Someone had done a poor restoration years before and so we were very careful with the subsequent restoration. Every luthier who has played the guitar couldn’t put the guitar down. Full 15″ lower bout, spruce over Brazilian, 12 frets to the body. Heavenly. I can do a harmonic on the 12th fret, put the guitar down, go grad a cup of coffee and the guitar is still resonating. Mine has the medallion on the back of the headstock, however the previous restoration apparently sanded off the numbers.

    1. Hi Albert, everyone says the same thing about these 1900’s Imperials with the medallions, just such a beautiful sound. I’ve only had my hands on one but have to agree! Charles

  10. I have an imperial john church was put in storage 1972. no case, it was wrapped and protected. its an 1891/92.

        1. Yes Joel, that is the patent number of the metal tailpiece, however that tailpiece was mostly like used for many years after the patent date. Regards, Charles

  11. Hello Charles, I am a student at Legacy Lutherie in Carson City, NV. For my first guitar, I built a replica of an 1850s Ashborn guitar for Civil War reenacting. One of the former students brought in a beat up old Imperial guitar in such bad shape, I have no interest in restoring it. However, I took a tracing and measurements. I am starting to build a replica. I like the size and am impressed with what must have been the original workmanship. Even in its current condition (It’s in pieces with cracks and holes.), you can tell it was a quality guitar when built. I will look for the serial number next time I go to the shop. The ivory button is still on the headstock, but I hope the serial number isn’t on one of the missing pieces.

    1. Hi Rex, The serial number should be on top of the headstock. The Imperial sounds like how I like to find them for restoration. With so much damage it is probably not worth a great deal if it’s restored but there’s a chance it will sound great. In other words you wouldn’t restore it for resale but for playing. A replica sounds like a great project. All the best, Charles

  12. Hello again Charles!
    I now have a second Imperial. Bought it out of auction and the guitar now is being looked after by my repair luthier.
    This one is far more fancy than the baritone, however is a 24.5 scale and has a lower bout of 15″. I will forward pictures to you.
    Take good care,

  13. Charles,
    I have been playing the Imperial guitar I renovated for weeks now. It has become my go-to guitar even though the fretboard/nut is narrower than I prefer. The sound is what keeps drawing me back. When I completed the renovation, I installed Aquila romantic guitar nylgut strings on it. (I was concerned about putting any kind of steel string on the guitar due to its age and ladder bracing.) I can’t describe the sound except that it is lovely and rich. Of course, those two adjectives mean different things to different people, but the tone is unlike any other guitar I have played. It won’t cut through with more than two or three other instruments, but it will definitely more than hold its own as a small room, parlor guitar. I play it only in a finger picking style and don’t strum chords. It fills my reading room with almost a liquid sound. I am glad you encouraged me to restore what I had, and my greatest hope is that one of my grandchildren will want to learn to play it. (Two of them are already taking ukulele lessons. I have hope.) Thanks for you website. Also, I never found a serial number on it anywhere. Strange. Rex Reed, Dayton, Nevada, USA

  14. Hi Charles,

    I just acquired Imperial #5591. It appears to be birch sides and back. It had a neck reset and it plays and sounds wonderful. I’m very impressed with the quality of these guitars. This is one of my favorite parlors. It has its original Geiger bridge. My bridge doesn’t have the Patent Applied For stamp so maybe by the time mine was made they had received the Patent and no longer stamped them.

  15. All this is fascinating! I just picked up an Imperial Serial # 2599, steel strings, ivory pegs, lyre-shaped metal tailpiece, spruce top, ivory fingerboard (18 frets), ivory (worn) logo on front of headstock. Tried unsuccessfully to look inside to see the whether it has x-bracing. Any idea as to its value? It’s in great shape and very playable.

    1. Hi Susi, I would love to see some photos if you have the time. You could email to
      Regards value, it’s a really hard one, they are not that well known but they are extremely well made, and it depends on the condition and if they need work to get into premium playing condition. If you want an accurate value you would need to contact someone like George Gruhn but he charges, not sure how muchbut could be as much as $100. But he is the best. Thanks for contacting, Charles

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