|Frequently Asked Questions|
by R.M. Mottola
We get a lot of questions from folks trying to find information about ancestors that are thought to have been luthiers. As far as we’re concerned, having a maker of stringed musical instruments in your family tree is a great thing, and it certainly is sensible to contact us in your quest for information. The Guild of American Luthiers is the oldest and largest luthier organization in the world, so it makes sense that we may have info on your ancestor.
Even though we are the oldest luthier organization we have only been operating for thirty years, so it is unlikely that we have direct information about your ancestor. I should also point out here that we do not divulge personal information about any member past or present. Though we can’t provide you with direct information, we do have some tips for how you can go about researching your ancestor. We hope they are useful in your search.
Probably the most important things to remember when searching for a luthier ancestor are the basic economics of instrument production and the basic profile of immigration into this country over its history. For the last 150 years or so, the vast majority of musical instruments built in this country have been made in factories, and for at least that long the vast majority of immigrants have found employment as unskilled or semi-skilled workers. These two facts conspire to make it very likely that your luthier ancestor worked in one of those factories. This being the case, the most fruitful research will probably involve identifying the instrument factories that were in operation at the time and place of your ancestor’s adult life. Once those are identified, factory histories, local historical societies, and public records may help you find information useful to your search.
There are a few cases where luthiers may not have been associated with large factories. Classical guitars and violin family instruments have been made by hand (and in small shops) in addition to being made in factories for a long time. If your ancestor made these types of instruments you may want to include in your search local business records, looking for instrument making shops and also music stores. If the latter are still in business it may be possible to find out if your ancestor sold instruments through those stores. Local music stores that have been in business a while are also the best bet if your ancestor was an instrument repair person.
If your ancestor was a violin maker, one extremely useful resource is a book by Thomas Wenberg, entitled, “Violinmakers of the United States.” This lists an amazingly large number of violin makers. Although out of print, a number of libraries have it, and a number of violin shops have it as well.
Best of luck with your search.
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