• Early Conns: Horns Before 1916 …

    by  • March 26, 2012 • Conn, Wonder Improved

    I had an e-mail conversation with Mark Overton (of saxophone.org and saxquest.com) regarding the earliest Conns.  He pointed out some things that are interesting and confusing and some inaccuracies I made on my original Conn pages on saxpics.com.  I decided it’d be something that I should give more attention to, so I’m writing here.



    Let’s start with the horns, themselves.

    The earliest Conn saxophone that most people have seen is the beautiful s/n 16 horn that’s at saxpics.com.  Let me point out a few defining characteristics:

    I also want you to keep in mind the neck angle, the engraving, and what’s stamped on the bell: “Made by C. G. Conn Elkhart Indiana and Worcester, Mass.”

    I do tend to agree with Mr. Overton that the next oldest Conn horn on saxpics.com, this bare-brass horn that the owner guesstimated was from 1890, is close enough to the s/n 16 horn in appearance to not make enough of a difference.  The obvious thing I could point out was that the 1890 horn has the Mercedes-Benz-like keyguard on the low C.  Of course, the 1890 horn doesn’t have pearl keytouches and doesn’t have engraving even close to as elaborate as on the s/n 16 horn, but this is purely cosmetic.  Conn probably offered the pearls, plating and engraving at extra cost.  Recently, I found another Conn from about this same era.  Other than the plating change, the 1890 horn looks identical to this silver (possibly nickel) s/n 288 horn, so I’d definitely say Mr. Overton is right about these three horns being the same model.

    The big question comes from looking at this s/n 182 horn.  The neck is significantly different from the other horns and it also seems to have a reinforcement patch on the underside.  Is it a completely different model?  Well, compare it to this s/n 266 horn.  The neck on s/n 266 looks like the one on the 1890 horn and s/n 16 horn.

    Mr. Overton theorized that the Worcester and Elkhart plants did things a little differently.  Indeed, the s/n 182 horn is stamped JUST “Elkhart, Ind.” and the s/n 266 horn is stamped “Elkhart Indiana and Worcester, Mass.”  Combining this with the fact that the 1890 horn has two necks, so Conn might have offered a few neck choices, Mr. Overton argues that all these horns are the same model.  Hey, you can also compare the engraving on the 16, 182, and 266 horns and they’re pretty much identical.  I can agree with this.

    (One other point about these really, really early Conns: James Noyes argues quite well, in his Doctorate thesis (pp. 122-127) , that the first American saxophone was built for Conn in 1890; not an earlier date.)

    But wait.  There’s more.

    At some point, Conn switched from the single-side-bell-key configuration to the split-bell-key configuration that they used until the 1930s.  The highest s/n I’ve seen on the single-side bell key altos is 288.  The lowest s/n I’ve seen on the split-bell-key altos is 382.  Note that this is just on ALTOS.  On tenors, the highest s/n I’ve seen on the single-side bell key horns is 432.  The lowest s/n I’ve seen on the split-bell-key tenors is 37xx.  (Sorry I don’t have a larger sample size; they’re fairly uncommon.)

    It is definitely possible that the switch-over date is 1893/4.  Why?  FA Buescher left Conn on September 23, 1893 and founded the “Buescher Mfg. Company.”  At the very least, that’s a good argument for a changeover date.

    But wait.  There’s still more.

    At some point, Conn switched their G# cluster design from the original style to the “Buescher-style” design.  The earliest horn I can confirm that has the Buescher-style cluster is … 474x.  That’s approximately 1901.  Do note, though, that this horn still has the split octave key design.  The earliest “unified” octave key mechanism I see on an alto is this 940x horn (1905).  According to Margaret Downie-Banks, 1906 was the year that Conn started producing saxophones with the Union label, so I think a 1905/1906 date would be about correct for this changeover.

    But there’s still more ….

    Quoting myself quoting other people, “There was a fire on May 22, 1910 that destroyed the Conn plant. The plant was rebuilt in short order, though, and Conn produced a limited edition of horns for the rest of the year to celebrate their rebirth: the New Invention model.”

    This is where I leave you — at least, for a little while.  I’ve got to do some more research: I was initially under the impression that “New Invention” only applied to horns that were, well, a bit special, like the gold-plated baritone with additional pearl inlay and a microtuner neck that I posted on saxpics.com.  Mr. Overton has a bunch of documentation that I haven’t seen before and I’ve found a couple other sources, too.  I’ve got to play with some interesting model names that contain “Wonder” and/or “New Invention.”

    — Intermission —

    Well, that was somewhat successful.

    There was a comment I saw repeated in several places that Conn exhibited New Invention horns at the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair (see this, for example).  Those comments proved to be incorrect.  I found a 1915 Music Trade Review magazine online.  Quoting: “Considerable attention is being attracted by the samples of the New Wonder ….”  I think the 1915 “New Invention” comment came from an article that Steve Goodson wrote regarding Conn history.  On my original saxpics.com pages, I noted several places where Mr. Goodson’s remarks diverged from other accounts and how there were some date inaccuracies.

    Because Conn’s a bigger name in brasswinds than saxophones, I did a couple searches on a few different brasswind websites and on eBay: all the mentions of “New Invention” I found were 1910-1911 (for example, this New Invention cornet).

    Mr. Overton indicates that this New Invention catalog is from 1914, but Musica Viva says that the same catalog is from … 1915.  I’ll cross-reference with Mr. Overton in awhile to find out how he dated his copy.

    It is possible that Conn did have some New Invention saxophones available WITH the Wonder line after 1911.  I say this because I saw a few inconsistencies in the design of some saxophones post-1910.  However, I know that this s/n 18696 (1911) bari is a New Invention because it’s got that bit of decorative trim on the top crook, which is identical to what’s in the New Invention catalog (p. 4).

    So, the current breakdown is:

    • No Mercedes-Benz keyguard: 1888 to 1890 (say, s/n 1-50)
    • Mercedes-Benz keyguard, single-side bell keys: 1890-1893 (say, s/n 50 to 300)
    • Split-bell-key, original-style G# cluster: 1893-1898 (say, s/n 300 to 3000)  I have a hunch this change arrived with the 1898 World’s Expo.
    • Split-bell-key, “Buescher-style” G# cluster: 1898-1904 (say, s/n 3000 to 9000)
    • Split-bell-key, unified octave key mechanism: 1905-1910 (say, s/n 9000 to 17800)
    • New Invention, late 1910-?

    I still need to find out if there are saxophone versions of Wonder, Wonder Improved, Wonder Perfected and/or Perfected Wonder.  Ahh, the joys of research.

    — Intermission —

    (I’ll try to get pictures and links when I have my data drive in hand.)

    I’ve done a fairly lengthy survey of eBay and other websites and the latest horn someone calls a “New Invention” is from 1913.  Of course, considering the majority are from 1910 to 1912, it’s possible that “1913” is a “different” reading of the Conn serial number chart.

    I also did research on the “Perfected Wonder” name.  There was actually a clarinet model called that and that’s interesting: in the past I had only seen that name applied to brasswinds.  In any event, “Perfected Wonder” referred to something special: the clarinets, for instance, had an “improved” fingering system, some of the trombones sported a rather interesting piston valve, etc.

    I could not find any reference to “Perfected Wonder” and “sax” outside the mention I made on saxpics.com — which was to correct myself in calling the Virtuoso Deluxe-finished horns “Perfected Wonder” — and the mention on saxophone.org.  I can’t find any reference outside of saxophone.org to “Wonder Perfected.”

    Another Wonder name I found in research was “Victor,” which seems to have been applied to some New Wonder brasswinds.  A person commenting on all the variations of “Wonder,” essentially said, “I wouldn’t worry about it too much.  They’re all Wonders.”

    So, my opinion is that,

    • The original series of Conn instruments, up until 1910, were called “Wonder” models.  If you want to append the “Improved,” I think you can support that with Conn advertisements and catalogs.  If you want to append or prefix “Perfected,” I think you’re wrong, especially because these are early 1900s instruments: the clarinets I saw were from 1904.
    • There definitely is a series of horns called “New Invention.”  My opinion, based on the comments I’ve seen on a few dozen websites, is that they were produced from very late 1910 to definitely 1912, possibly early 1913.  I will look at actual saxophones from around this time to see what the actual physical or cosmetic differences are.  (The big thing to look at is that G# cluster.)
    • I’m still waiting for Mr. Overton to comment on how he dated the New Invention catalog on saxophone.org.  I didn’t see a copyright date in the catalog.
    • The “Wonder” models were again produced after late 1912/early 1913 to about 1915, when Col. Conn sold the company and the New Wonder models were introduced.  The New Wonder horns, of course, have toneholes created using the Haynes patent (i.e. US 1119954, December 8, 1914) and are stamped as such.  No patent stamp = Wonder.  That’s simple, at least.

    — Intermission —

    So, looking through the pictures I have of Conn Wonders, I came across this little gem.  You can’t really see much interesting until this pic.  What you’ve got is a Conn sporting a patented Evette & Schaeffer set of plateau keys.  I’d love to say, “Well, this horn’s obviously an Evette & Schaeffer stencil.”  It’s not.  Not only are the keyguards very different, it’s got a Conn serial number.  I have heard before that there were some instruments that were imported under a European manufacturer’s name to get around some duty fee, as looks to be the case for this horn, which is a Conn Wonder that has both an importer’s name (Carl Fischer) and a European manufacturer’s name (Evette & Schaeffer, again) engraved on it.  However, the presence of BOTH of these horns suggests that Conn had some sort of collaboration with Evette & Schaeffer.  I haven’t seen any hard documentation on that to back my theory up, but it is interesting.

    Anyhow, back to the Wonders and New Inventions.  I started thinking about one other piece of keywork missing from earlier horns: the G# trill key.  I think this addition came out for the New Invention, because I see it on horns with a serial number of 20,000 and later.  However, I don’t consistently see it.  I do know that some repair techs disable the spring for the G# trill or remove it entirely, just like some disable the fork Eb vent key or solder on a piece of brass over the tone hole.  That might be the only real difference between the two models.  There may have been the option for additional pearl inlay and/or more elaborate engraving, but that’s cosmetic.

    CG Conn sold the company in 1915.  If you want to call the New Invention horns anything produced from 1911 to 1915, that’s OK.  I don’t have enough photographic evidence to dispute that, as far as saxophones go, at least.

    So, on to the rewrite of this page!