The American Collection
Welcome to Johnson String Instrument's exciting collection of American instruments featuring some of the finest examples of violins made in this country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The collection includes instruments made throughout the U.S., with particular emphasis on New England, and highlights a special selection from Massachusetts, the birthplace of violin making in the United States.
The majority of these instruments were chosen from the instrument collection of Dameron Midgett, restorer and collector of violins made in New England. We are grateful to Mr. Midgett for sharing the instruments, photographs, letters, and memorabilia of these gifted makers. The collection provides a fascinating window into the art of violin making as it was learned and developed in North America.
A Little History...
Johnson String Instrument's American Collection of fine instruments from the early American School of violin making provides an opportunity to examine the origins of violin making as it specifically evolved in this country. Interesting distinctions can be drawn between three types of makers: self-taught folk instrument makers, professional craftspersons from other trades who turned their skills toward instrument making, and European-trained makers who immigrated to this country.
The history of violin making in the United States doesn't begin until the later 18th century primarily because of the low demand for newly crafted musical instruments.
For the new Americans of the 1600s and 1700s, priorities were to produce and import only the most essential items for living, although some colonists had brought their most portable instruments from their homelands, including flutes, lutes, and perhaps a few modest examples of viols and violins. For the wealthiest new Americans, it was well known that the violin had been developed to perfection in Italy while America was being settled, and they had the means to import them. For the Puritans of New England, however, the violin was associated with frivolous activity, indeed still known as the "devil's instrument," and deemed inappropriate for use in the church where only vocal music was allowed, perhaps with an accompanying organ. For some communities of immigrants who settled in the American colonies throughout the 18th century, such as the German Moravians of Pennsylvania, the musical instrument needs were met by luthiers within those insular societies (such as John Antes who made a violin in 1765) who had European instruments to copy.
Commissions to local artisans for new stringed instruments began around the end of the 18th century when music began to play a larger role in the home and social lives of the now relatively settled colonists and growing middle class. Also, New England churches began to seek accompaniment instruments less expensive than the organ...and less offensive than the violin. Here begins the story of American makers, untrained but not unskilled, building stringed instruments using local materials.
The bass viol or "church bass" is a uniquely American instrument created for accompanying the singing church congregation, one that is certainly based on the cello or viola da gamba of Europe, but exhibits improvised and widely varying sizes, proportions, shapes, and styles. As American violin expert David Bromberg has said, "to make a really good violin, you have to have seen something great." Craftspersons born in the United States had little or no contact with truly fine stringed instruments until European virtuosi began to tour America in the mid 19th century. Early patterns were predominately based on the "folk fiddles" or church basses, or inexpensive "factory" or "trade fiddles" imported from Germany and France in the late 1890s.Determined Yankee clockmakers, pattern makers, gunsmiths, furniture makers and other "mechanics" living primarily in Massachusetts in the early 19th century, persevered to create instruments relying on these models, or perhaps on nothing more than memories of paintings or print ads they may have seen.