View Full Version : I just bought a strange, custom-made soprano ukulele from the 20's. Take a look?

07-24-2010, 09:51 AM
It's a soprano uke, 21 3/4 inches tip-to-base, with a sloped back (must be a design choice, because it doesn't appear to be retrofitted) and a carved wood bridge that is held in place with wooden peg inserts. Too cool! It also bears a note glued to the inner end of the neck, "Made especially for Miss Leona Chellis, Xmas 1927." I haven't yet identified the wood(s) used in construction, and because I had to clean it and reglue the bridge, I haven't yet been able to give it a thorough test-play.
I've also been looking for information on the maker since I found it, and have found the records for 4 Leona Chellis's who were young enough to be Misses in 1927. Comments and additional info are warmly appreciated!
Also, pics:

07-24-2010, 10:02 AM
Very cool find. I love stuff with history. Wouldn't it be wonderful to find Leona's family?

07-24-2010, 10:06 AM
Might be hard to find the maker. It may have been made for a young woman by her father or friend or other private individual. Really cool find, and I would research the name and family it came from even to the point of calling and talking to descendants of the person. I doubt she would be alive unless she was really young at the time, even though, she would be quite elderly. If she was born the year the note was written, she would be 83 years old today. But, you might be able to find a son, daughter, grandkids of her. I would look, but that's just me. I been trying to find an owner of a gold and ruby class ring I found back in the early 1970s. I still have that ring, and it's a woman's ring. I researched it and found it is probably a college ring. It has from the class of "34". Not many women back then graduated high school, let alone college. But, there are very worn markings on it that resemble the bear with a star over it on the California State flag. I would think a college would use that, not a high school. But, anyway, I have never found the owner of that ring, and it really bugs me even today that I was never able to find her, or children. I wanted really bad to hand that ring back to her. Anyway.. I would try and find the family of the original owner of your Uke.. Really cool find...

07-24-2010, 10:35 AM
Thank you for sharing the story and the photos. That's a lovely piece of history and wonderful to think it's getting restored and will be played again.

Where did you find it? I never come across anything like that :)

07-24-2010, 11:18 AM
Wow, it's beautiful! You might want to ping Jake Wildwood of Antebellum Instruments (http://jakewildwood.com/antebellum/) to see if he can help you identify the manufacturer - he deals in instruments mostly from the first half of the last century and seems to know his stuff.

mm stan
07-24-2010, 03:50 PM
It looks maybe Hawaiian made in the teens with that headstock ...jus frets directly on the neck and no fretboard.....Nunes????
Check out John Kings website, he knew alot about these old ukes....maybe mahogany,,,,,Nice find, where did you get it??not sure if it's the original tuners??
Like Tudorp said, do some further research, as Chellis is an uncommon name...and send pic's and letters out...
Good Luck and thanks for sharing... MM Stan...
BTW-thank goodness for the dowels at the bridge as it is easier to set the broidge in the original position...guess the maker was thinking way ahead...

07-24-2010, 06:53 PM
Thanks so much for all of the insightful comments and stories.
@mm stan, the headstock reminds me of a style commonly seen on banjoes. It may have even been fashioned from a banjolele neck. As for the wood, it's been hard to identify from the grain pattern. And the tuners?.. Fuhgeddaboudit, no telling whether they're original. But you can see in the pics that there are slight toolmarks underneath the pegs, either from instillation or exhumation of the original pegs.
@salukulady and Tudorp, I've been trying to dig up a possible Miss Chellis, but census records I've found indicate that she likely married and took on her husband's name. Still, I may take mm stan's advice and contact some Chellis's (Chelli?) for more clues.
@AnnaUK, I bought it on eBay, if you can believe it. It was a bit of a gamble, but the price was right and the uke was way to curious to pass up.
@janeray1940, thanks so much for the contact, but I'd hate to put someone out, considering that the uke lacks any manufacturer's markings or other clues. As Tudorp says, it was probably made by a private craftsman. I was just wondering if anyone else had seen the sloped back design on any other old ukes.
Last edit: I found an embossed stamp on the inside of the back (too shallow for pics).
"No. 44
No idea what it could mean.

mm stan
07-24-2010, 07:56 PM
The makers signature and number 44 made????Let's see who has the initials LD...anyone knows...

07-24-2010, 09:17 PM
With the number 44, that makes me think it was the 44th uke built, perhaps.....maybe not a single built uke. This is fun, maybe you should contact the "History Detectives" on PBS. They might be interested.

07-25-2010, 08:28 AM
I just finished resetting the bridge, and repairs on the nut are complete as well. Might post a youtube video once the clamps come off and the uke's restrung. Pics of the repair are linked below, and a pic of the "No. 44 LD" inscription will follow shortly.
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0330/repair1.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0330/repair1)
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0639/repair2.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0639/repair2)
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0234/repair3.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0234/repair3)
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0540/repair4.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0540/repair4)

07-25-2010, 08:28 AM
Maker's mark below
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0337/No_44_LD.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0337/No_44_LD)

07-25-2010, 09:35 AM
Well, my theroy of a private individual I think is out. I really don't think a casual build for a child or young woman would have any marks like that. I could not imagine they would number it, let alone "44" or stamp it with a maker mark. I think if anything it would be written inside like the note itself. Myself collecting antiques in general, back then individual private builders didn't take the time to even sign things most the time. The mindset of "collectible" or value of that info wasn't even thought of back then. They were simply built out of need, or to make a gift for a loved one. If the later the case, they may be signed with a note like what is in your Uke, but rarely a maker type of mark. So, I would think seeing that, it is actually a maker that has made at least 44 Ukes I would assume for a living.

mm stan
07-26-2010, 12:04 AM
I wonder if he did it with a metal number punch???

mm stan
07-26-2010, 05:26 AM
Check out in the ukulele marketplace...under the posting, looking for a long neck soprano with a tenor scale neck
and go to the second thread...by holdin coffee.....there's a ukulele world link there and click on that...you will see a new ukulele with
a similar headstock but different top...intresting...HMMMM MM Stan...

07-26-2010, 06:27 AM
Looking forward to pictures of the bridge re-installed and uke strung up!

I had a thought about Miss Leona Chellis. Any chance the last letter in her last name is not an "s" but is another letter? As I look at all the other s's on the paper, that one looks different. I tried to figure out what it could be, perhaps an "r" or even an "a". "A" would make more sense if it wasn't an "s". Anyway, just a thought.

I am glad that uke is with you now. I bet Miss Leona would be glad it is being loved!

07-26-2010, 06:54 PM
Glad to say that all repairs were successful; I should have a video up on youtube soon. The uke is bright and surprisingly loud. I took it around to a few local guitar shops in NYC, but no one was able to positively identify the wood (unless an alien koa-mahogany hybrid was genetically engineered in 1927 for the express purpose of making this uke).
@mm stan, thanks for the link. I'm not sure if I see the resemblance, and this uke definitely has a soprano length neck. The shop owners I spoke to today also pointed out that the headstock is a common banjo variant, but an extremely odd choice for a uke in that period. The maker may have dabbled in building other instruments as well. That could explain the headstock, rounded back, and doweled bridge.
@RyanMFT, I'm pretty sure that the name is Chellis. The records I dug up place multiple Chellis families in the middle-America region in which I bought the uke. However, the man who sold me the uke thought that the family name was Challis, which is a much rarer surname in the US.

07-27-2010, 01:38 AM
I just looked at the name again, and that is a lower case cursive "s". Besides that, the swoops are nothing like an "a" would be. I never seen a cursive "a" have a tail that swooped down and back to the left like that. It is just swooped like an s would be. The other letter in question does look like an "e". When the line leaves it, you can tell it leaves from the underside and not down from the top like an "a" would have. I do think you have the name right.. Just sayin..

And now that you said it, that does look like a banjo headstock. Banjo Ukes were VERY popular during that era, and maybe it was made with a Banjole neck. My banjole from that era also does not have a fretboard, the frets are directly in the neck (neck & fretboard a single piece of wood)

07-27-2010, 03:27 AM
Great find. It's always nice to come across things like this. I'd rather have something like that than I would a vintage Martin.


07-27-2010, 06:29 PM
I'd also love to hear how the ukulele sounds, if you get a chance to post a video. Is there any chance that you'd be willing to sell this ukelele in the future? I'm trying to put together a collection of vintage/ strange ukuleles (I have a custom bass ukulele, a Bushman Jenny tenor, a vintage fretless cigar box concert, a 1950s Islander, a vintage Harmony soprano, and a Dixie banjolele). I'd trade the Harmony, Jenny, Islander, or Dixie gladly for your soprano, should you want to put a post up in the Marketplace. Also, if you can think of a resonable price, PM me please. I'd really love to own a cool custom uke, espescially one with history!

Also, the note inside seems kind of romantic... Any chance the Leona you found later married this person and became Leona D---?

07-27-2010, 06:47 PM
Sorry if what I just posted sounds brash or offensive to OP or anyone else on the forum. I just got really excited by the pics and the story, is all. I'm not sure if it's proper conduct on UU to ask people if they'd consider trading or selling, but since this uke is one of a kind, I figured that there's no harm in trying.

07-27-2010, 07:02 PM
@lindydanny, I'm so glad you think so. I totally agree: a stellar history adds dimensions of character that a good sound alone can never achieve.
@Harper, thanks for the interest. I'm going to post a video just as soon as I reorient my fingers to playing on the uke's smallish fretboard. Since I've never owned a soprano before, I never knew how much of a challenge this could be! As far as selling this uke is concerned, I'm not sure that I'm willing to let it go just yet. Considering that it's been scarcely 2 days post-repair, and also because I haven't gotten comfortable playing it, I can't really say whether or not this uke was meant for me. Also, I've sent a few emails out to Chellis family members enquiring about the original owner, and I haven't heard back from most of them yet. I'd feel bad selling it before I have a chance to see that through. Since I see that you're still browsing this thread, why don't you go ahead and PM me your contact info and I'll remember you should I ever decide to sell.
You do have a beautiful sounding collection, though. I'd love to see a pic of that bass ukulele!

07-28-2010, 05:15 AM
I can't see if it has a spanish neck heel from the pictures. Most Hawaiian ukes from this period had them. The integral fretboard was popular with mainland and Hawaiian ukes, so that might date the uke to the 20's or earlier but you have a dated inscription already. The strangest thing, to me is the bridge with those pegs. Wood could be mahogany or some kind of Acacia or even Monkeypod. Contact Tom Walsh at Ukulele Hall of Fame http://www.ukulele.org/ or Frets at Fleamarket. They're the experts on vintage ukuleles.

07-28-2010, 04:33 PM
Thank you for the reply. Even if you don't plan on selling it, please do continue to post pictures. I really do love the look of this uke! Anyhoo... I was thinking that maybe you should take the uke for a formal appraisal. A professional dealer would probably be the fastest way to answer your questions, like what is the wood, or how is the neck constructed. And besides... If it really is almost 90 years old and in excellent condition, you might want to get it insured just in case. A good instrument dealer could probably hook you up with the right kind of expert in your area, or you could try some of the dealers that other forum users have suggested. Just a thought.

07-29-2010, 08:28 AM
Here's the pics of the uke restrung. Pictures of the uke post-restoration are to follow.
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0866/DSC06530.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0866/DSC06530)
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0718/DSC06531.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0718/DSC06531)
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0236/DSC06537.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0236/DSC06537)

07-29-2010, 08:38 AM
Here's the last pic set I'm posting, of the repaired bridge and nut as well as the restringing. With new Aquila soprano strings on, I really have to say that this uke sounds fantastic.

http://h.imagehost.org/t/0914/DSC06532.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0914/DSC06532)
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0925/DSC06533.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0925/DSC06533)
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0625/DSC06535.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0625/DSC06535)
http://h.imagehost.org/t/0437/DSC06536.jpg (http://h.imagehost.org/view/0437/DSC06536)

@ambrose, I contacted Tom Walsh about a week ago, but I noticed that Ukulele Hall of Fame hasn't posted an answer on the site in over a year.. Still, I'm holding my breath on an email response. Regarding the Spanish heel, I really can't tell due to the way the note is glued over the entire bridge-body joint. It does have a beautiful, classical sound, so I would wager a guess that you're correct about the bridge construction. Lastly, I have one NYC dealer who swears that the wood is Hawaiian koa, and another who points out that the wood inside the body is grained and colored like mahogany. I'll have to investigate this further.

08-07-2010, 02:01 PM
Aloha OP

It's been quite some time since you posted in tis thread, so I'm going to hold my breath and ask if the estate dealer you bought your ukelele from specializes in musical antiques or stringed instruments. I'm asking b/c I'm still looking for nonstandard or homemade type ukeleles that are both unique and affordable, and I haven't had much luck so far. Mahalo!

08-08-2010, 05:25 PM
@Harper, I still check this thread whenever I'm on UU, so post away. I'm not sure where you read that I purchased this uke from an estate dealer, because I bought it as a fixer-uper sight unseen online. I actually found it on eBay, being sold by an antique shop in Independence, Missouri. The eBay name is 'antiquesfleamart', should you like to contact them concerning other ukes they may have, but judging by their feedback records I can't say that they're specialists or even truly knowledgeable about instruments, as the uke arrived pretty dusty and with heavily degraded strings on. But all in all I'm really glad that they let it go as a project, because otherwise I probably couldn't have afforded it!

Hey, while I have your attention, I wanted to let you know that you (@Harper) might finally get your wish. After spending a few weeks of quality time with this uke, I'm really starting to feel the difference between a delicate and beautiful vintage soprano and my grungy second-hand Fluke. My friend, who is a much more accomplished uker, has had much more success with this uke than I, and accredits this to my "lazy fingering" rather than any problem with the uke; and I must say, he plays this uke beautifully. So I'm waiting until the end of the month for emails back from the last few experts I contacted and any return mail from the Chellis's (Chelli?) before I post a new thread on Marketplace. I might change the name of this thread to reflect this.

08-10-2010, 07:33 AM
Haha thanks RKNNDY! I just hope you'll remember me when you decide to put it up. Are you considering trades for it?

P.S. Hope I'm not resurrecting a dead thread... Might switch to PM after this.

09-04-2010, 05:54 PM
Put this uke up FS/FT in on UU Marketplace yesterday. Price is really negotiable, trade offers are welcome.

Chris Tarman
09-04-2010, 06:37 PM
In answer to the earlier question about the "No 44" and "LD" stampings inside the uke: Yes, they were DEFINITELY done with a metal punch. I collect tobacco pipes, and that is what is used to stamp the nomenclature on them. I've seen it done at a pipe factory in London, and even helped an English pipe-maker friend of mine (sadly recently deceased) stamp some of his pipes at a pipe show in Chicago.

09-05-2010, 04:16 AM
Oddly, the uke has "bag damage" on the finish. There may have been some contact with some sort of fabric for a while and it was stored in humid conditions. The tuners are most likely not original from the "hardware" on the end of the tuning knobs. They look more modern than 1927 and check out that initial in the back of the uke that appears in one of the photos... "LD"??? Most likely the luthier. This is not a "factory" uke. It is a one-off, a custom-made uke for the recipient. This sort of thing is an heirloom and you have become the lucky owner of a one-of-a-kind ukulele, given the name inside and date. That is really a great find.

As for the bag damage, it can be buffed out without any loss of value on the instrument.