OSCAR SCHMIDT (1857 – 1929)
W. F. (Frederick) MENZENHAUER (1858 – 1937)
The Oscar Schmidt company was founded in the late 1890’s and incorporated in 1911. They are best known for the Zithers they produced in the early 1900’s, and for their early guitars, particularly the Stella label, and their 12-string guitars, which are still favored and sought after by blues players today (see Footnote 1.).
Most of the information here deals with the early formation and evolution of the company and has been obtained primarily from old copies of the Music Trade Review (MTR) and Presto publications, both available online. (see Footnote 2). General information also comes from Neil Harpe’s book and website (See footnote 3.).
Oscar Schmidt’s fortune was built on another man’s invention.
Oscar Schmidt was born in Germany in 1857 and came to the US at an early age. He engaged in the publishing business in 1882, and continued therein until 1896, when he was involved in selling musical instruments in a small shop in the two-storey repair establishment of the North Hudson Street Railway Company on Palisade Avenue New Jersey. (Jersey City of To-Day, 1910)
During this time, he was buying guitar zithers from inventor and manufacturer, W.F. (Frederick) Menzenhauer, who had a factory in Ferry Street, Jersey City.
Menzenhauer was born in Germany in 1858 and came to America in 1882. By 1887 he was living in Jersey City, NJ, and was known as a maker of musical instruments. He was an inventor and developed and patented the fretless Menzenhauer guitar-zither. It was so successful demand outstripped production.
Frederick Menzenhauer realized he was more of an engineer than a businessman and needed a business partner. At the same time Oscar Schmidt obviously saw the potential of Menzenhauer’s invention, and from being his customer, he partnered with Frederick Menzenhauer in 1896 and they formed the firm Menzenhauer & Schmidt, with Oscar Schmidt as the junior partner. They expanded the factory and enjoyed immediate success:
“The success of a commercial contract between a clever inventor and a shrewd, far-seeing business man has never been better illustrated in the musical industries than in the prosperous firm of Menzenhauer & Schmidt”. MTR 29 July 1899 p.21.
(For links to photos and information on fretless zithers see Footnote 4.)
The business became successful so quickly that by 1900 they were selling Menzenhauer guitar-zithers not only throughout the United States but all round the world. This was largely due to Oscar Schmidt’s aggressive selling, traveling and establishing branches in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, St. Petersburg and Moscow. They also sold to Britain, South Africa and Australia. MTR 28 Feb p.19.
Later in 1900 Oscar Schmidt assumed complete control of Menzenhauer & Schmidt when he bought out Frederick Menzenhauer. Reportedly “the deal was consummated on a very friendly basis” with Oscar Schmidt owning the entire business including the factory, patents and good will. MTR 12 May 1900 p.27.
While it’s never fully explained why Menzenhauer sold out, it seems he was not suited to the hustle and bustle of big business and enjoyed working on a smaller scale. He traveled to Europe for a time and on returning to America settled into a house at 22 (or 24, reports differ) Sherman Place, NJ, where he spent the rest of his life. He still experimented making different musical instruments, and registered different patents for his inventions, but none had the success of his fretless zither. (see Footnote 5.)
However, he seemed to be content and had a sense of humor as evidenced by an article in 1904;
“The Arion Singing Society of Jersey City, which is preparing for a fair to be given in April, will have a novel bank check on exhibition. It was made by Frederick Menzenhauer of 24 Sherman Place, who was formerly a member of Menzenhauer & Schmidt. He was in Glachenstein’s restaurant, when Moritz Ulrich, a member of the Arion asked him for a contribution to the fair. “I’d give you $10,” said Mr. Menzenhauer, “only I haven’t my checkbook with me. Hold on a moment,” he added as he saw one of the waiters undoing a bundle of laundry. To the waiter he said: “Give me one of those shirts. I’ll pay you for it.” Taking the shirt, he cut out the bosom, and on it wrote a check for $10.” MTR 26 March 1904 p.36.
Soon after Oscar Schmidt became the sole proprietor of Menzenhauer & Schmidt, there is mention of his son, Walter, helping him in his business:
“The big foreign trade, built up by energetic, well-judged work on the part of Oscar Schmidt, is now under the management of his son, Walter Schmidt, whose present home and headquarters are at Berlin. There are important branches open in every important European capital, each under the vigorous administration of selected men.” MTR 21 July 1900 p.27.
At this stage Oscar Schmidt would have been 43 years old. I could find no mention of son Walter’s birth date. It appears that Walter played a big part in the administration of the company as he is mentioned often over the years as running the company while his father is in Europe. When one Schmidt was in Europe the other would be in America.
For a number of years, the focus of the Menzenhauer & Schmidt company was the manufacturer and development of different styles and variations on the Menzenhauer zither. In 1901 The Music Trade Review describes the latest Menzenhauer & Schmidt catalog consisting of 9 different styles of zithers, 4 styles of mandolin-harps, a piano-harp, a notaphone, a mandolin and the latest Oscar Schmidt invention, the guitarophone, which was a wind-up guitar-zither with changeable steel discs.
From a number of articles, it is obvious that Oscar Schmidt was involved in all stages of his business: “A TIRELESS INVENTOR – Few men in the musical instrument industry are more ingenious, more persevering, or more enterprising than Oscar Schmidt”……. who “attends to every detail of the business connected with the selection and purchase of material, the choice of expert workers, the proper distributing of the Schmidt products through the most advantageous channel and the establishment of agencies throughout the world…
“As an important factor in the expansion of the musical industries of the United States, Mr. Schmidt deserves great credit and is legitimately entitled to the prosperity he now enjoys and evidently has every prospect of enjoying for a long time to come.” MTR 1 August 1903 p.38.
In 1903 the MTR reports that the production of mandolins in the Oscar Schmidt factory outstripped production of zithers:
“Zithers were mainly the output of his factory when Mr. Schmidt first took hold, and as many as a thousand a day were turned out. They still are manufactured in large quantities, but mandolins are now the chief product, and at least 5,000 are constantly in the process of manufacture. Several valuable patented improvements have been introduced, and all have proved their worth and merit. All grades of mandolins are made, and several mandolins of exquisite workmanship, beautiful samples of inlaid work, and with seventy-seven ribs, have also been made to show how highly the art has been developed under the enterprising and skillful management of Oscar Schmidt.
“His plant has been enlarged several times, and it represents a large investment. The factory force, educated in accordance with his progressive ideas, is one of the best in the country, and there has been periods when he has given employment to 500 and 600 people. The Oscar Schmidt agencies are found in all the principal cities here and abroad, and his business is expanding with marked rapidity. He is a man of wealth, being rated as the possessor of a half million dollars, and therefore has an elegant home, and enjoys the social amenities of life as a liberal man of the world who has traveled and kept his eyes and heart open.” MTR 26 Sept 1903 p.33.
At this time Oscar Schmidt started expanding his business by the making of other instruments, including banjos and guitars, which were gaining in popularity. Though he may have made small quantities of guitars earlier, in 1903 he began large scale manufacturing:
“Mr. Schmidt has won an excellent reputation as a manufacturer of zithers, mandolins, mandolin-harps and the tremolina-mandolin, a recent addition of his own invention. Now he is preparing to market a line of guitars, which will be ready in about a week” MTR 26 Sept 1903 p.33.
And a year later:“The Oscar Schmidt plant is one of the most complete and best equipped in the country and in point of quantity its output is said to be unequaled. The latest addition to his line is the banjo, of which he manufactures six styles, illustrated and adequately described in his new catalogue, a publication of recent issue, dealing with his entire line.” MTR 24 Sept 1904 p.40.
In 1912 it is reported that The Oscar Schmidt factory has at least 150 employees and an annual outing was organized for all:
“The employees of Oscar Schmidt, the musical instrument manufacturer of Jersey City, N. J., to the number of 150, went on an outing last Saturday at Monroe Eckstein’s Brewery, Four Corners, Staten Island. Dinner, music, ball game, outdoor sports, dancing, all helped in making this day a much greater success than the first outing held last year”. MTR 3 Aug 1912 p41.
The 1920’s was a decade of rapid growth for the music industry and The Oscar Schmidt Company was enjoying the boom-time more than most companies. Oscar Schmidt was a very successful and respected member of the manufacturing musical instrument community and was considered “the dean of the musical merchandise trade”. He used his influence politically and was active in lobbying the government not to increase import tariffs on musical instruments. MTR 21 Oct 1922 p.43
In 1922 the Schmidt factory was expanded once again to cope with the ever-increasing orders from their retailers. “This company is one of the largest concerns in the United States manufacturing stringed musical instruments, and the demand for its products has been so great in the past few months that a speedy enlargement of the factory capacity has been found necessary”. Ground has already been broken for the factory addition. Upon the completion of the additional space new machinery will be installed that will incorporate all the latest automatic improvements for increasing production. MTR 28 Jan 1922 p.47.
The Oscar Schmidt Company continued to thrive and manufactured a large array of instruments. At a 1926 Music Convention for the industry Oscar Schmidt personally attended and exhibited over 150 different stringed instruments made by his factory. MTR 26 June 1926 p.29.
Earlier in 1925 Oscar Schmidt states that his factory “is as busy now as it has been at any time in its long history”, and that it produces “forty-seven different styles of guitars, every number in constant demand by dealers in all parts of the country”, and “ twenty styles of mandolins, eighteen styles of ukuleles, seventeen styles of banjos, twelve styles of tipples, eight lutes, four banjo-ukuleles and four taro-patches”. MTR 7 Nov 1925 p.45.
One of the reasons for the success of Oscar Schmidt was this huge variety of well priced instruments he produced.
As well as their flagship Stella, Sovereign and La Scala labels, Oscar Schmidt made instruments for a number of distributors (jobbers). Also, different retailers had their own labels on Oscar Schmidt-made instruments, sometimes glued over the Oscar Schmidt labels.
UAC (United Artists Conservatory), Hilo and First Hawaiian Conservatory of Music were all Oscar Schmidt labels.
Other brands that sometimes appear on Oscar Schmidt made instruments are; Oahu, Bruno, Galiano, Miami, Reliance, Bluebird, Collegiate, Avalon, Marcia, Lyra, Victoria and Jewel. (Note that not all guitars with these labels were made by Oscar Schmidt). Neil Harpe – The Stella Guitar Book.
Ever looking for new ways to market his instruments Oscar Schmidt was one of the first makers to add decoration. Colorful decals were used on many instruments and these decorated instruments were termed Decalcomania in catalogs.
Oscar Schmidt made some of the most decorative decal guitars ever made. Large beautiful decals were designed, flamboyant and often with a classic European flavor. Later in the 1930’s when stencil and screen-printed guitars by makers such as Harmony became popular, Oscar Schmidt resisted this form of decoration, only employing it on a few of his instruments.
In 1929, while visiting his factory in Czechoslovakia, Oscar Schmidt took ill and died suddenly at the age of 72. Up until then, he was working full days in his office and was still “the active head of the business”. MTR Aug 1929 p.26.
Oscar Schmidt’s son Walter took the helm of the company but a month later the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression descended on the nation and the world.
The company name changed to Oscar Schmidt International upon merging with Hoboken’s International Musical Corporation in late 1931, and then in 1935 to Fretted Instrument Manufacturers before falling into bankruptcy. The Harmony Company in 1939 purchased rights for Oscar Schmidt trademarks, including Stella, Sovereign and La Scala. The Stella brand was dissolved by Harmony in 1974, and was later reintroduced by M.B.T. International, which is the corporate parent of the Harmony Company. (Wikipedia).
The Oscar Schmidt name is still being used on instruments today, marketed as Oscar Schmidt by Washburn, U.S. Music, a division of JAM Industries, Ltd. (www.oscarschmidt.com)
Some Examples of Oscar Schmidt Six-String Guitars.
Many thanks and Namaste, Charles Robinson.
POSTSCRIPT: 15 Dec 2018.
I received this comment to this post:
That would seem to disprove that United Guitar Co. took over the factory in the 1930’s – 40’s, but raises more questions. For example how was Oscar Schmidt International allowed to manufacture and trade into at least the 1960’s after it is reported that they were bankrupted in 1939? Also it seems that they produced only autoharps? But I loved the idea of the large five feet diameter sanding wheel! If anyone can shine any further light on this subject please contact me.
ADDED 17 Dec 2018 from Chris:
“Regarding your query of Oscar Schmidt surviving a 1930s bankruptcy, bankruptcy is not synonymous with going out of business. There are many different types of bankruptcies, termed “chapters,” in U.S. law. Often, businesses use Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows the business to reorganize and survive, basically by shedding its debt.
Regarding the United Guitar Corporation, I have its New Jersey incorporation certificate. From May/June, 1939, it was founded by four men: John Carner; Frank Colonese; Frank Salvino; and Frank Mosiello.
Thanks again. Chris.”
“Quite a few of the pre-war blues guys used Stellas, basically because they were cheap and well-built to stand the rigors of taking to the road after each gig. They were cheap as chips and could be bought at a distance thanks to the Sears catalog – well before ‘race records’ brought some money their way, the original blues men didn’t have money to throw around on expensive guitars.”
Here’s a list of the blues men who played Stella Guitars:
- Pink Anderson
- Barbecue Bob (12 string)
- Jim Baxter
- Ed Bell
- Blind Blake
- Willie Brown
- Joe Callicut
- Sam Chatmon
- Ollie Crenshawe
- Ford “Snooks” Eaglin
- Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards
- Sleep John Estes
- Jesse Fuller
- Buddy Boy Hawkins
- Peg Leg Howell
- Mississippi John Hurt
- James “Boll Weavil” Jackson
- Jim Jackson
- Lulu Jackson
- Homesick James
- Skip James
- Tommy Johnson
- Dennis “Little Hat” Jones
- Furry Lewis
- Carl Martin
- Blind Willie McTell
- Memphis Minnie
- Robert Nighthawk
- Charlie Patton
- Tom Shaw
- Johnny Shines
- Rambling Thomas
- Muddy Waters
This information courtesy Acoustic Ragtime & Blues Guitar Lessons online with Jim Bruce:
Neil Harpe’s website:
His book on the Oscar Schmidt Company, The Stella Guitar Book – The Guitars of the Oscar Schmidt Company is out of print but is available from Amazon Kindle.
If, like me, you know little about the zither, this youtube clip may jog your memory. While not a fretless zither it gives some idea of the sound they produce. It is the memorable theme music from the 1949 movie, THE THIRD MAN:
A lot of information can also be found here on fretless zithers:
For more information on Menzenhauer see this website: