Sunday, September 7, 2014

Who was A. W. White?

It never ceases to amaze how intertwined were the vast number of drum makers in Boston during the 19th and early 20th centuries. While the focus here tends to be more on the prominent builders of the early 1900s, these drum producing entities were on many levels merely following in the footsteps of their predecessors of the late 1800s and the Civil War period before that. To better understand where the early 20th century Boston Drum Builders had evolved from, it warrants a look back at their forefathers. One such maker was Asa Warren White.

A great deal of information on White is included in Christine Merrick Ayars' Contributions to the Art of Music in America by the Music Industries of Boston, 1640-1936 which describes the White Brothers, Ira Johnson and Asa Warren, as "the first Boston master makers of violins". Both Whites are reported to have been fine woodworkers who taught themselves the craft of violin making by studying instruments from the European masters. Drum making evidently made up a comparatively small part of the brothers' operation who were known primarily for their string instruments.

Ayars reports that Asa and Ira J. were in business together as music dealers, publishers and instrument makers under the name I. J. & A. W. White from 1849 to 1852 at 52 Court Street, and as White Brothers from 1853 until 1863 at 86 Tremont Street. After 1863, Ira went out on his own relocating just north of the city first in Malden, Massachusetts and then later in Melrose. Ira Johnson White died in December of 1895 at the age of 82.
A. W. White, 147 Tremont Stret Ad
The Musical Record, October 7, 1882

Ira Erving White, the oldest son of Ira Johnson White, was also a musical instrument maker and repairman whose work included violins, basses, guitars, harps and drums. It does not appear that Ira E. White at any point was partnered directly with Asa Warren as the two are listed concurrently in city directories at different addresses.

Ayars provides an extensive description of Asa W. White which is excerpted below. Ayars' footnotes indicate that the included quotations were provided by William H. Howe and that the anecdote at the conclusion of this passage was related by violin maker Treffle Gervais.

"Asa Warren White was born in Barre, Massachusetts in 1826. He worked in his young days for Henry Prentiss [dealer and publisher], with a violin maker named Giradol, a quick workman, who worked on all forms of stringed instruments. In 1849 Ira J. and A. W. White formed a partnership and worked together repairing and making different instruments. Asa Warren made his instruments after the Stradiuarius and Guarnerius models. After Ira J. withdrew from the firm, Calvin Baker worked for him [Asa Warren] and made many good violins. After him, Orrin Weeman worked for A. W. White about three years and for a while also a man named Alden."

When Asa W. White was in business alone he continued at 86 Tremont St. until 1870. Later addresses were 50 Bromfield St. from 1876-79 and 147 Tremont St. from 1881-83. He (A. W. White) turned out several hundred violins "and about ten 'Cellos, several violas, three viol da gambas, and two viol d'Amors. A. W. White received a gold medal from the Massachusetts Mechanics' Fair." He advertised the quality of his instruments thus in 1883:

"Violins Highest Awards Wherever Exhibited
Over three hundred now in use
None have proved inferior
Endorsed by the best artists in the country
Every instrument guaranteed
Only the finest and best old wood used in construction
Amati, Stradivarius, Guarnerius & Maggini Models
$75 each"

Asa Warren White apparently followed the lead of Elias Howe in collecting old instruments for sale, as the same advertisement stated, "I keep in stock a line of fine old Violins - Italian, French & German - A list sent upon application." He imported French violins of the celebrated Italian models which he graduated and adjusted and sold for $17 alone, with bow and case for $21. He also graduated and adjusted German violins selling them for $9 alone, with bow and case for $13. He kept in stock for sale violins, violas and 'cellos of different grades, boxes, cases, trimmings of all kinds, and Italian and German strings by the best known makers.

His shop in Boston was a training school for some of the later violin makers. He died in 1893. The following story is related of him:

A short rotund man brought into his shop one day an instrument which he claimed was a Stradivarius. Mr. White, a tall, genteel-looking man, examined it carefully and said he was not interested as it was not a genuine one. The man thereupon swore roundly and vociferously at him reasserting the authenticity. Mr. White simply stamped his foot and exclaimed, "You're an ass!"

To fill in one missing gap in the timeline outlined by the above excerpt, around 1871 A. W. White partnered with Louis P. Goullaud to form White & Goullaud, an arrangement that would last until about 1875. White & Goullaud was predominantly a music publishing business which was located at 86 Tremont Street.

The drum seen below figures to have been manufactured by A. W. White after his brother Ira left for Malden around 1863, but before Asa partnered with Goullaud around 1871. Even if White continued to build instruments under his own label while in business with Goullaud, the drum would date no later than about 1876 by which time White had relocated to 50 Bromfield Street.

Lee's A. W. White Drum
A. W. White drum, ca. 1863 - 1870
Lee's A. W. White Drum Label
A. W. White drum label, ca. 1863 - 1870

Do you have a drum made by A. W. White? I'd love to hear about it! Feel free to drop me an email at