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Stop the Music!
Band Instrument Manufacturing During World War II

by Sarah Deters Richardson
Curator of Musical Instruments

It is difficult to image that for three years, musical instrument manufacturing was almost completely banned in the United States. From May 1942 to May 1945, music stores had no new band instruments to put on their shelves. The only commercially available band instruments were all second-hand. Why was instrument manufacturing banned? Simply put, the entire musical instrument industry had been mobilized by the government to manufacture goods for the war effort.

Musical instrument manufacturers faced very difficult times during the WWII time period. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many necessary components for the manufacture of musical instruments (copper, leather, lumber, etc.) began to be curtailed by the federal government. During the war, Restrictive Measure L-37, followed by L-37-a, severely restricted the materials that could be used in instrument production. As a result, all musical instruments made after June 1, 1942, could contain no more than 10% by weight of certain critical materials (iron, steel, lead, zinc, magnesium, aluminum, rubber, copper and copper base alloys, tin, phenol formaldehyde plastics, methyl methacrylate plastics, neoprene, cork, nickel and chromium). In addition, no manufacturer could produce any pianos or organs after July 31, 1942.

Why restrict musical instrument production? The massive mobilization effort of the United States depended on the cooperation of commercial manufacturers to convert to war production in order to support the military effort. Band instrument manufacturers, with their skilled labor force, metal working knowledge, and large factories, were not immune from the pressure to convert. In order to ensure that this industry would aid in the war effort, the federal government passed these restrictive measures, which brought virtually all instrument making (except to supply the armed forces bands) to a halt.

What, then, did band manufacturers do during the war period, when instrument production was so severely limited? War production was dependent, in large part, on the types of musical instruments the company had previously manufactured, as well as the size of the factory. Larger companies, such as C. G. Conn, Ltd. (Elkhart, Indiana), were able to obtain prime war contracts (contracts awarded directly by the federal government) while smaller companies, such as Vincent Bach (New York), obtained sub-contracts (contracts awarded by a company that had obtained a prime contract).

Many band instrument manufacturers were granted contracts to produce navigational equipment either through prime or sub-contacts. For example, C. G. Conn, Ltd. and Buescher (Elkhart) were granted exclusive contracts to manufacture altimeters for the armed forces. These precision devices required fine metal working skills—skills that were in great supply in the band industry.

Altimeter manufactured by Conn Conn signature on altimeter

M-087. Altimeter by C. G. Conn, Ltd., Elkhart, ca. 1942-1946. Gift of Earle L. Kent, Elkhart, 1991.

Other contracts awarded to the band industry included manufacturing PT boat propellers, shipping crates, radar components, as well as shell casings and fuses for military ordinance.

Holton letter

Frank Holton & Company (Elkhorn, Wisconsin) war-time advertisement describes some of the war work done at the factory. Frank Holton & Company Archive. Gift of Conn-Selmer, Elkhart, 2008.

Although restrictive measures made it almost impossible to manufacture band instruments (almost all band instruments contain more than 10% critical material by weight), some manufacturers were able to secure government contracts to produce instruments for the armed forces. Military band instruments from this era were required to be professional models and were engraved with U.S. or U.S.N. on the bell.

NMM 2107.  Trombone by Buescher Band Instrument Company, Elkhart, ca. 1940-1950

USN engraved on Buescher trombone

NMM 2107. Trombone by Buescher Band Instrument Company, Elkhart, ca. 1940-1950. Grand United States Navy model. The instrument has no serial number, but is engraved with USN on the bell, which denotes that it was manufactured for military use. Arne B. Larson Collection, 1979.

Many members of the band industry received the Army-Navy "E" Award, presented to manufacturers who demonstrated excellence in war production. Each factory was awarded a pennant to fly outside the factory as a public acknowledgment of this prestigious honor.

C-177.  Army-Navy 'E' Award pennant awarded to Holton

C-177. Army-Navy "E" Award pennant presented to Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, 1945. This pennant was flown at the Holton factory after the company received its first Army-Navy "E" award in February 1945. Gift of Conn-Selmer, Inc., Elkhart, 2008.

Government restrictions continued to affect band instrument production until the end of the war. On May 10, 1945, L-37-a was revoked, but it took many months for manufacturers to reconvert their factories from war production to instrument production. Compounding the difficulties of reconversion was the continued difficulty in obtaining the necessary materials—especially copper and other metals—necessary for the manufacture of instruments. As production finally returned to normal, new instruments flew off dealers’ shelves. In March 1946, the sales of musical instruments, radios, and phonographs were 405% higher than those recorded in March 1945. Perhaps the skyrocketing, post-war sales figures are indicative of how much the restrictions on musical instrument manufacture and sales during the war actually made the public realize, in its absence, the significance of music and musical instruments to their own lives.

Return to NMM Newsletter Index (August 2010)

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