Take a Photo Tour of the 1904 Harmony Instrument Factory

For much of the 20th century, the Harmony Co. was undisputedly the largest producer of musical instruments in the United States and the primary supplier of musical instruments to Sears, Roebuck & Co., the Chicago-based retail and catalog giant. The company was founded in 1892 by Wilhelm Schultz, a German immigrant.

This Harmony factory, photographed in 1904, was near the Chicago Stock Yards, says Larry Goldstein, president of Wertheimer Corp. and former Harmony vice president, noting the empty fields and the lack of a Chicago skyline. “They’d deliver all of the material and all the wood through there,” he says, indicating the fenced yard on the viewer’s left.

Harmony sold 250,000 guitars, banjos, and mandolins in 1923, and 500,000 in 1930. Due to near continuous expansion, the company had several plants and offices throughout Chicago.

“When I joined Harmony [in 1966], we actually had two buildings on the Southside of Chicago,” Goldstein says. “In the main building, we did all of the cutting, shaping, necks, assembly of the bodies and finished them. Then we put them in racks and we'd have trucks run them over to the other side of Pulaski and down about two blocks, and that's where they'd do the final assembly.”

While the process was logistically challenging, the company’s only other option was to move, which would create other challenges. “When they needed the expansion, all of the buildings around the factory were all taken. There was no space,” Goldstein says. “We were hemmed in by these big companies.”

In the early part of the 20th Century, Harmony made more mandolins than guitars, Goldstein says. In this image, men are assembling Venetian-style, bowl-back mandolins, Goldstein says.

Most of the wood cutting, shaping and forming was done by a network of Germans and Eastern Europeans, Goldstein says. “Mr. Schultz, who started the company, brought many people over from Germany to work for him,” while most of the people in the finish room were Latino, he recalls. “It was amazing how it worked that way. It could have been because of the foreman in each department looked out for people with the same background.”

In this image, workers are using belt-driven drill presses to install tuning heads.

“I have to assume they're drilling for the machine heads because that would be about the only drilling you would do on a guitar,” Goldstein says. “The fascinating thing to me is that everything is belt driven and how inaccurate that probably was because the speed could change so easily.”

In this photo, guitar tops are being sanded clean and to prespecified thicknesses, Goldstein explains.

“In those days they could adjust the sanding surface -- raise it or lower it -- and they probably just measured it with a ruler. They didn't have the computers back then,” he says. Even into the ‘60s, the Harmony never used computer numerical control, which was created in the 1940s, in the manufacturing process Goldstein says.

“That's why we eventually went out of business,” Goldstein says. “We couldn't compete with the stuff coming in from Japan in those days because they were automated. We were still doing everything by hand, even on the starter guitars. Guitars that were selling for $19 were being made entirely by hand.”

The only automated processes, even in later years, Goldstein says, was painting. “We had automated spray booths; guitars traveled around this series of spray booths and the body would turn. The first spray booth would do the front. Then it would turn and get the sides. Then it would turn in the next booth and get the back and so on. That was really the only automation we had back in the mid ‘60s.”

Here factory workers are gluing necks into guitar bodies. On the table to the right, you can see acoustic guitar necks with dovetail joints, and rows of guitar bodies on the left.

“You'd think they were making a $1,000 instrument; everything was by hand,” Goldstein says. “Even to this day it gets me. Unlike a lot of guitar companies, in Asia or wherever, we made all of our own parts. The only thing we didn't make: pickups. We used DeArmond pickups back in those days for the electrics.”

Managers, a foreman and workers pose with guitar tops and sides. In later years, when Harmony launched the solid body Harmony Bobcat, a Stratocaster-inspired guitar, the company outsourced the rough cutting of guitar bodies to a door manufacturer. “Then we'd do all of the final shaping and sanding,” Goldstein says.

In this image workers are installing and filing frets by hand. “They are filing the frets by hand on those benches,” Goldstein says. “A lot of people who built guitars would have the fret wire pre-cut so you can just tap it in,” Goldstein says. “Our guys, when they put the fret wire in, were working off of rolls of fret wire. They'd tap it in and they'd cut it. Tap in the next one and then cut it. Looking back at it now, we were crazy to put that much hand work into a cheap instrument,” he laughs. “What was even more amazing was the volume of instruments that were made like this, by hand, daily.”

Here workers are sanding guitar bodies. Notice the length of the belts driving the wheels on the right side. “Those belts were driving those wheels,” Goldstein says. “They’d lean in with the body onto the sanding drums. It was the same with the old buffing wheels.”

Here, workers are gluing the necks onto the bodies. “Those racks that you see back there, we used those into the ‘60s. The bodies and necks were on the racks and then they'd assemble them. I still have the wood clamps that we used to hold the body into the neck pocket while the glue was drying for the acoustics,” Goldstein says, adding that the clamps were designed by Schultz himself, and built by a local tooling company. “The amazing thing is: here they are in the late 1890s, and in 1960, we were still using a lot of them.”

Here workers are seen attaching binding to guitar bodies. “In those days they used ropes and elastic bands,” Goldstein says. “They would put glue on the binding and in the grooves that were cut in the guitar body. Then they would wrap it with the string to hold it in place until it dried.”

The binding was made of acetate, which was highly flammable, and contributed to the death of Harmony’s founder Wilhelm Schultz.

“We had a fire at the Harmony factory,” Goldstein says. “The garbage company used to come in to pick up the garbage on the inside of the building. When they emptied the container into the truck, there was a spark,” which ignited the sawdust, wood and acetate in the garbage.

“All this was burning in the truck, and the driver was going to try to drop it inside the building. The foreman used his head and jumped in this truck and drove it out to the parking lot. That was Jay Krause's last day at the factory. He had inhaled too much of the smoke. He went home that night and died of a heart attack. We think it was from the fumes he inhaled while he was standing there watching what was going on.”

On the left is Wilhelm Schultz, founder of Harmony with an unnamed factory worker and manager. “These guys were dressed formally to go to work, more so than I do today, that's for sure!” Goldstein laughs. “He was quite the gentleman. Everyone who worked there was, in his mind, a member of his family. And he treated everybody that way. In those days the whole industry was family-owned and operated.”

The guitar business peaked in 1966, at which point demand began to slack and imports began to flood the market, Goldstein says. “Jack Westheimer started importing from Japan and started offering guitars that they could retail for less than it cost of making them. That's what drove Harmony out of business, to be honest with you.”

Harmony ceased operations in 1975 and its inventory and tooling was auctioned off to pay creditors. Since then, Harmony, and associated brands, such as 
La Scala, Stella and Sovereign,Valencia, Vogue and Airline, have been revived, most recently in 2009, when the Harmony trademark and intellectual property was acquired by Westheimer Corp.

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