C.F. Martin & Company’s Nazareth, Pennsylvania, factory has long been a mecca for acoustic guitarists, and earlier this winter, Vintage Instruments, in downtown Philadelphia, became a Martin annex of sorts. On December 1st and 2nd, the shop held a free exhibit of Martin guitars made between 1834 and 1870, the largest exhibition of these instruments outside of the company’s in-house museum. The guitars were from the personal collections of the shop’s owner (and instrument appraiser on PBS’s Antique Roadshow), Fred Oster, and Peter Szego, co-editor of Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre–Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin.
Vintage Instruments is located in a stately Aesthetic Movement/Queen Anne–style house, built in 1882—a fitting setting for three dozen 19th century instruments presented in three rooms of the shop’s first floor. It was thrilling to see the guitars sitting on their stands atop long tables. A crowd of enthusiasts, collectors, and musicians—among them former Martin archivist Dick Boak—gathered around the instruments as Fred Oster looked on. “Our goal here was to show how interesting and historically important these early American guitars are,” Oster said.
It was easy to understand what Oster was talking about. A particularly significant instrument on display, a Spanish-style Martin made around 1843, looked traditional with its large, solid headstock, but the guitar’s soundboard was reinforced with the X-bracing system that presaged the development of the steel-string guitar.
Another example, a Style 2 1/2–18 built about ten years later, showed the squared-off headstock and tapered waist that would become standard features of Martin guitars—and steel-strings in general. Being so close to these ancient instruments—which C.F. Martin, Sr. no doubt had his hands on—was a near-religious experience.
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.