The Elias Howe Company
was a nineteenth and early twentieth century musical firm located in Boston
and founded by Elias Howe, Jr. (1820-1895). The founder was not the eponymous and better-known inventor
of the sewing machine
but a contemporary and possibly a distant relative.
The development of the Company during Howe's lifetime
According to Patrick Sky, Howe acquired a fiddle
as a young boy and soon learned to play. Part of his musical education involved listening to other New England
fiddlers and copying down the tunes they played.
Howe eventually acquired a substantial collection of these tunes and managed to get them published in book form in 1840 as The Musician's Companion
. By 1850, Howe had published several other volumes of tune collections and musical instruction. In that year, he sold his rights to those works to the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston and agreed to desist from publishing music for a period of 10 years. He returned to publishing in 1860 after the term of the agreement with Ditson had elapsed and became one of the country's most prolific musical publishers.
Sky notes that during the American Civil War
, Howe expanded his activities to include manufacturing drums
for Massachusetts regiments
. He was offered the position of Director of Bands for the United States Army
, and the rank of Lt. Colonel, by President Lincoln
. He chose instead to continue manufacturing drums and fifes
and publishing books on their use in marching bands
Location of the Company
The Elias Howe Company for many years was located at 88 Court Street in Boston and many of the volumes of sheet music and instrumental instruction that the company produced bear that address. Archival photos of the Scollay Square area
of Boston dating from the 1880s often show the "Howe's Music" sign silhouetted against the sky above the buildings at the end of Court Street.
The Company after Howe's death
Although company letterhead states that the firm was founded in 1840 (when Elias Howe, Jr. first published his fiddle tune collection), it was not formally established until 1898, three years after the death of its founder. The principals at that time were Elias's sons Willam H. and Edward F. Howe, who served as president and treasurer, respectively, and their sister Harriet Howe who was the company bookkeeper
. The company expanded its operations considerably and became a full-service music store, offering several different types of musical instrument, parts for instruments, and, of course, an extensive catalog of musical publications. The company later relocated to 8 Bosworth Street in Boston, a few blocks from its earlier Court Street address. From the Bosworth Street location, the Elias Howe Company issued an extensively illustrated 97-page catalog.
Although most of the goods for offer were related to violin-family instruments, the catalog also includes lines of guitars and mandolins. Of particular note are the Howe-Orme guitars and mandolins. These were highly innovative instruments that as early as 1897 incorporated novel features that eventually found their way into the designs of American instruments that followed. The mandolins featured an elaborate "E H Co" monogram inlaid in ivory-colored plastic into the instruments' tortoise pick guards. That logo may be among the most enduring visual reminders of the company. Ironically, it did not appear until two years after Elias Howe's death.
The Elias Howe Company closed its doors in the 1930s. Many of the music collections and instruments the company supplied to the nation remain in active use and are valued to this day.
Ayars, C. M. (1937). Contribution to the art of music in America by the music industries of Boston 1640-1936. New York: H. W. Wilson.
Sky, P. (1995). "Elias Howe and William Bradbury Ryan." in Ryan's Mammoth Collection. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications. (pp. 10-15)