Slingerland History

Please note this disclaimer:  All information contained in this history is what I have been able to glean from the WWW, various books, and other sources.  I make no guarantee as to accuracy!  As more sources of information are found, this will change.   If you find an error or have additional information to add, please let me know.  All sources are credited at the bottom of the page.
-- Updated 23 Jul 05 --
     Henry Heanon Slingerland (1875-1946), so the story goes, gambled his way into a business when his card game winnings one day in 1912 included a company that printed ukulele instruction books.  Truth or not?

Rob Cook makes the connection that H. H. (his name is noted both as Henry Heanon and Heanon Henry) came to be involved with the business via his music teaching efforts in the West Side Conservatory of Music.  The next mention of the future Slingerland company is Henry's association with the widow of the owner of The Chicago Correspondence School of Music (with the purchase of twelve correspondence ukulele lessons, the student would receive a free ukulele), from whom he eventually bought the business in 1914.  It is said that he then changed the name to The Slingerland Correspondence School of Music and moved to 431 S. Wabash.  This date would appear to be accurate, as the correspondence course music that I have acquired has copyright dates of 1914 for the Slingerland Correspondence School of Music, and 1911 & 1912 copyright dates for H. H. Slingerland.  See "Correspondence Course #1" to view the materials.

At the outset, the company imported ukuleles from Germany, but soon found that they could not import enough to meet the demand.  A German craftsman was hired to build ukuleles (in his garage), and eventually the demands necessitated in-house manufacturing, and the Slingerland brothers (H. H., Walter Robert, & Arthur James) rented a building on Diversey near California Ave.  In 1923, they purchased their first factory building at 1815 Orchard Street, first manufacturing ukuleles, then banjos, and finally guitars.  Eventually, they acquired the neighboring properties as they expanded, and their address became 1815-17-19 Orchard, and by the mid-20's had "over 1700 dealers and claimed to be the world's largest and most modern-equipped banjo factory"¹

     Other sources say that Heanon H. Slingerland applied for trademark of the May Bell name January 18, 1924, claiming to have first used the mark June 29, 1923.  At the time he was doing business under the name "Slingerland Maunfacturing Co.", at 1815 Orchard St.   Stated goods to be used with the mark were tenor banjos, banjo mandolins, banjos, banjo ukuleles, wood ukuleles, mandolins, and guitars.  I have not yet verified this information, however.  At some point between that 1924 date and 1928, the company name was changed to "The Slingerland Banjo Company."

     By 1927, Slingerland was an established banjo maker, and in that year they began the manufacture of drums in response to the Ludwig & Ludwig Company's entry into the banjo market.  Ludwig & Ludwig, also from Chicago, were one of the major drum manufacturers in the country (the third being the Indiana-based Leedy Company)  To quote from The Slingerland Book (Pg. 16) :  "The tremendous surge in popularity of the banjo in the 20's led both Ludwig & Ludwig and Leedy to begin the manufacture of banjos.  Robert Zildjian suggests that Ludwig's banjo manufacturing was in response to a request for quotes from the military.  Such military procurements were processed through a center in Philadelphia.  When H. H. Slingerland learned that Ludwig had responded to a bid request for banjos he telephoned Wm. F. Ludwig and offered to refrain from bidding on drums if Ludwig would not bid on banjos.  This aggravated Ludwig, who pretty much told Slingerland to mind his own business, he would make any kind of instrument he pleased.  Slingerland immediately and aggressively began his drum manufacturing plans.  Slingerland and Ludwig by this time both owned their own tanneries and were already competing daily for the best calfskins coming out of the stockyards, Ludwig for drums, and Slingerland for banjos.  While both Leedy and Ludwig already had much of what it took to get into banjo production in terms of metal and wood shops, machine shop equipment, calf head facilities, etc., it was still very expensive to actually begin banjo production.  Unfortunately for both drum firms, the banjo craze was beginning to wane."¹

To continue ( from pg. 26 ):  Ludwig & Ludwig and Leedy certainly suffered for their decisions to begin banjo production.  Firstly, banjo sales failed to give them a return on their investment.  Then, at a time when they needed extra profits from their drum divisions more than ever, they were faced with a new competitor in H. H. Slingerland... Ludwig & Ludwig and Leedy might possibly have been able to weather the competitive threat Slingerland posed, and may even have been able to overcome the banjo division losses.  There was, however, another death blow to the industry; the loss of the theater drummer business.  The drummers who provided sound effects for silent movies comprised a significant customer base for both firms.  The advent of "talkies" quickly eliminated this whole market segment; page after page of the drum catalogs became obsolete in just a couple of years."¹

 The end result of this was that in 1929, after losses of over $160,000.00 between 1925 and 1929, Leedy sold out to to Conn.  Ludwig & Ludwig's attempt at banjo production nearly put the company into bankruptcy, and they quit banjo production in 1929, and were likewise bought out by Conn in that same year and once again concentrated their efforts on drum production.  Slingerland went on to became a major manufacturer of drums, and in 1928, H. H. Slingerland changed the name of the company from the "Slingerland Banjo Company" to the "Slingerland Banjo and Drum Company", and by the end of the 20's, Slingerland was the largest family-owned drum manufacturer in existence.

     In either 1926 or 1927, they moved to their 1325 Belden Ave. location (corner of Belden & Wayne Aves.).  Neither the Orchard Street or Belden Street locations fits the information found on the Gibson website² that they had a factory and storefront across the street from the Chicago Stockyards where they had their own tannery and got the hides from the Stockyards and were able to manufacture their own banjo and drum heads.  Both locations are about 8-10 miles away from the former Stockyards location... The address shown on the Chicago Correspondence School of Music course of instruction of 1632 N. Halstead is likewise some 8 miles from the Stockyards location.  If they did indeed have a factory and storefront across from the Stockyards, that address has not shown up in any of the literature that I've seen thus far.  Sometime in the 30's, the company changed its name to "The Slingerland Musical Instrument Mfg. Co."

     While most of the literature that exists says that the earliest known commercially produced Spanish solid-body electric was the 1939 Slingerland, model No. 141, with model No. 140 being the Lap Steel, the original catalog that I have with a verified date of 1936 shows a picture of the lap steel and references the Spanish style, so by 1936 - if not earlier - Slingerland was producing electric guitars, both Spanish & Lap Steel models.  Around 1940, Les Paul experimented with such a design, and in 1947, Paul Bigsby teamed up with country singer Merle Travis to design a solid-body guitar that more closely resembled the ones we know today.  But it was radio repairman Leo Fender who would be the first to successfully mass-produce and market a Spanish-style solid-body electric guitar.  Slingerland never really promoted their electric guitar or their electric lap steel, and did not have the distribution network that other manufacturers had and they ceased production of them at the start of World War II.

     It is a matter of debate, but there is evidence to suggest that Harmony and/or Regal built many of the guitars that ended up with the Slingerland and May Bell labels.  For example, the Slingerland Cathedranola from the Scott Chinery collection (pictured on page 47 of "The History of the American Guitar" by Tony Bacon) is listed as being a Regal-made instrument. See "My Instrument Collection" to view that guitar and also 2 other May Bell models of Cathedranolas, and "Other People's Instruments" to view a Tenor May Bell Cathedranola.  I have also seen in print that the Cathedranolas were made from 1934-1936.   I have made contact with a person who has a Cathedranola that his grandfather played in the mid- to late-20's, and inside is a repairman's signature from 1933.  There is also speculation that all of the guitars made with "ladder" bracing were made by Harmony, as that was their style of bracing.  This is not to say that Slingerland could not have simply copied the bracing style of one of their major competitors.

Photographs exist that show workmen in the Slingerland factory doing various jobs:  sanding the edges of bodies, mortising the dovetail joint for the neck in the body, etc. and a picture of a rack filled with guitars ready to be assembled, as well as pictures of racks filled with finished guitars.  One of these pictures also shows a single guitar mold, but this does not prove or disprove that they did indeed make their own instruments.

1.   The Slingerland Book, 1st Ed. , Rob Cook, ©1996, Rebeats Publications   -- 2nd Edition (2004) is now available!
2.   The Gibson Company

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