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NMM 12000.  Lyre-mandolin by Orville Gibson, Kalamazoo, ca. 1898-1902. 
Tom and Cindy Lillibridge Fund, 2006.

Front and Back Views

Note:  Click on any image on this page to see a larger image.

NMM 12000.  Lyre-mandolin by Orville Gibson, Kalamazoo, ca. 1898-1902 Back of Gibson lyre-mandolin

It's a cool piece of sculpture! It's also an American icon, in part because a lyre-mandolin with a superimposed bust of Orville Gibson (b. 1856-d. 1918) was pictured on labels placed in Gibson guitars and mandolins well into the 20th century.

Gibson label

The label, designed and printed soon after Orville received his one and only patent in 1898, may well have been placed in the lyre-mandolin some time after the instrument was actually built.

The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company, still building guitars today in Nashville, was founded on October 10, 1902, when five businessmen in Kalamazoo, Michigan, paid Orville $2,500 for his name and his one and only patent (#598,245), issued February 1, 1898.

Believed to have begun experimenting with making instruments soon after leaving his home in upstate New York and settling in Kalamazoo as a shoe clerk in 1881, Orville filed for the patent in 1896, while working at a restaurant in order to survive—and spending all of his free time developing new instruments.


Carved Arched Top and Back

Upper and Lower End Views

Upper end of Gibson lyre-mandolin

Lower end of Gibson lyre-mandolin

Orville Gibson's basic principle was to carve arched tops and backs for his mandolins, as had traditionally been done with violins, while cutting the sides and neck (partially hollowed out) from one piece of walnut, rather than bending the sides from thin strips of wood, as violin makers do.

Treble and Bass Side Views

Treble side of Gibson lyre-mandolin

Bass side of Gibson lyre-mandolin


Stylized Swan Heads

Stylized swan heads on Gibson lyre-mandolin

Stylized swan head on bass side of Gibson lyre-mandolin Another view of stylized swan head on bass side of Gibson lyre-mandolin Another view of stylized swan head on treble side of Gibson lyre-mandolin Stylized swan head on treble side of Gibson lyre-mandolin

Gibson's hand-carved lyre-mandolin enhances the classic lyre form of antiquity with two stylized swans, complete with feet, all carved, amazingly, as part of the top and back (nothing is grafted into place). Similar feet are also found on an equally rare mandolin-guitar, also built by Orville and said to be dated 1894, that is still owned by the Gibson company.

Sylized Swan Feet


Stylized swan feet on lower end of Gibson lyre-mandolin

Stylized swan foot on bass side of Gibson lyre-mandolin Another view of stylized swan foot on bass side of Gibson lyre-mandolin Stylized swan foot on treble side of Gibson lyre-mandolin Another view of stylized swan head on treble side of Gibson lyre-mandolin

Lyre-guitars (such as the NMM's example by Franšois Roudhloff, Paris, ca. 1810) were popular in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, products of the neo-classical design movement. Since nothing is known about Gibson's development of the lyre-mandolin, and because his lyre design was not patented, it is impossible to say for certain whether he generated the idea on his own or was influenced by other makers. Albert Ganss, Austin, Texas, for example, was awarded a patent in 1892 for a lyre-guitar of the neo-classical type, and William Hay, Scranton, Pennsylvania, received a patent in 1893 for a "lyro-guitar" with solid arms. Walter H. Small, New York, filed a design patent in 1899 for a lyre-mandolin with a flat back, and Raffaele Calace of Naples, Italy, produced a lyre-mandolin with a round back at the turn of the century. A design similar to Calace's was patented in 1904 by Nicholas Turturro, an Italian immigrant living in New York, following a January 27, 1903 patent application.


Peghead and Fretboard

Front of peghead on Gibson lyre-mandolin Fret board on Gibson lyre-mandolin Back of peghead on Gibson lyre-mandolin

The lyre-mandolin's ornately carved peghead is faced with a highly figured mahogany veneer and an inset star and crescent moon. The star and crescent are also found on early Orville Gibson guitars, including NMM 10855, built in 1902, currently on exhibit in the Lillibridge Gallery.

The star and crescent set into the peghead are typical symbols for "darkness" in its many manifestations, as reflected, for instance, in Mozart's late work, Die Zauberfl÷te (1791), which heralded the overt romanticism of the 19th century.


As Orville worked in a restaurant to survive, while spending every free moment inventing unique instruments—at a time when U.S. ingenuity, imagination, and personal freedom was about to lead to U.S. domination of the industrialized world—the "shared memory" common to millions of immigrants perhaps led him to combine the romantic symbolism of the old world with the inventiveness of the new.

The obvious absence of a pick-guard might mean that the lyre-mandolin was a prototype. Or perhaps the instrument was intended to be used on stage in a theatrical production. Photographs survive in which Orville is wearing romantic costumes, as musicians often did in the mandolin clubs and orchestras that were becoming popular in the 1890's.

Walter Carter and George Gruhn note in an article about this instrument, published in the October 2006 issue of Vintage Guitar: "Even without the Orville connection, this instrument is one of the most striking and memorable fretted instruments ever created, and its combination of aesthetic design and historical importance is unmatched."


Technical Description

Inscriptions:

Printed in black ink on paper label with rounded corners, Orville Gibson photo on lyre mandolin trademark at center of label, with text TRADE MARK: [the following on left side of lyre trademark] The Gibson / Mandolins and Guitars [two fleurons] / Are acknowl- / edged by lead- / ing Artists as / World Beaters. / [four fleurons] / EVERY INSTRUMENT / WARRANTED. [sic] / [the following on right side of lyre trademark] Correct Scale. / Easy to Play. / Beautiful Model. / Powerful Tone. / [four fleurons] / Originated and / Patented Febru- / ary 1, 1898, by / O. H. GIBSON / .Kalamazoo, Mich.

Stamped on tension tuner hardware:  PAT.MAY8.88

Stamped on tailpiece: PAT'D OCT 26.86

Tailpiece

Tailpiece


Body:  Lyre-shaped body with footed decorative elements at base of body and ends of lyre arms. Soundboard: two-piece, quarter-cut spruce: wide grain; carved arching, flattening at edges and center. Back: one-piece, slab-cut walnut; carved arching, flattening at edges and center. Ribs: walnut, carved; integral with neck. Head: walnut, upper and lower halves of separate pieces, flared and festooned outline; veneered with curled mahogany. Neck: walnut, upper and lower ayers; lower layer integral with rib; hollowed with round hole in base.



Soundhole

Soundhole

Inlay:  Binding: none. Head: inlaid with pink abalone crescent and star. Rosette: oval soundhole with rosette set in 1/8" from edge; two-part, concentric rosette, the bands 1/8" apart, comprised of strips of angled, alternating light and dark hardwood, surrounded on each side by ingle strips of light and dark hardwood.


Neck Heel and Bridge

Neck heel Neck heel

Bridge

Trim:  Heel cap: none. Fingerboard: padauk; 18 nickel-silver frets; single white abalone dots behind 3th, 7th, 10th, and 15th frets; double mother-of-pearl dots behind 5th and 12th frets. Nut: ivory; later. Bridge: padauk; circles cut from under each course of strings; bridge ends with two decorative scrolls on each side. Tuners: eight nickel-silver tension pegs with ivoroid heads. Pick guard: none. Finish: clear with craquelure.

Interior:  Linings: none. Neck block: none. End block: none. Top bracing: none. Back races: none.


Measurements:

Total mandolin length:  673 mm (26-1/2″)
Back length:  305 mm (12″) from neck heel, 244 mm (9-5/8″) from lowest point of rib
Upper bout width (at widest point of lyre at top):  339 mm (13-11/32″)
Waist width (at widest point of lyre):  475 mm (18-11/16″)
Lower bout width:  254 mm (10″) at widest point of base; 138 mm (5-7/16″) at narrowest point of body
Narrowest point of lyre arms:  30 mm (1-3/16″)
Rib height:  33-34 mm (1-5/16″)
Head length:  198 mm (7-13/16″)
Head width, top:  115 mm (4-1/2″)
Head width, bottom:  56 mm (2-3/16″)
Neck length (nut to ribs):  184 mm (7-1/4″)
Neck width, nut:  31 mm (1-7/32″)
Neck width, heel: 40 mm (1-9/16″)
Soundhole height:  45 mm (1-25/32″)
Soundhole width:  77 mm (3-1/32″)
Vibrating string length (nut to bridge edge):  369 mm (14-1/2″)


Literature: George Gruhn, "Orville Gibson Lyre Mandolin," Vintage Guitar 20, No. 12 (October 2006), p. 40.

André P. Larson, "An American Icon . . . NMM Acquires Rare Gibson Lyre-Mandolin," National Music Museum Newsletter 33, No. 3 (August 2006), pp. 1-2.

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