Antique and Vintage Mandolins

Although many fans of electric-guitar god Jimmy Page only know the mandolin as the high-pitched, plucky sounding background instrument in Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore,” the mandolin was largely responsible for the spread of the guitar in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was itself a major musical phenomenon. The craze began in the 1880s, when a group of Spanish musicians took Boston and New York by storm playing bandurrias, an instrument that resembles the mandolin in several respects.

The mandolin was an easy instrument to popularize, given the role of music in society at the time. In an era before iTunes, CDs, 8-track tapes, vinyl records, or even radios, being able to play an instrument was a highly desirable social skill—those who could play at home would be able to entertain friends and family without having to go to an expensive show or concert.

People who grew up without a music education in working- or middle-class families knew that instruments like the piano and the violin required an early start, so they largely resigned themselves to musical illiteracy. The mandolin, however, promised a way out. Mandolin manufacturers like Gibson sent representatives called teacher agents out into towns to stir up interest. The teacher agents would find a few people who already played the violin and would teach them to play the mandolin, since the two instruments have the same tuning.

Teacher agents would then organize a performance to be given by those they had taught. These concerts were generally fairly impressive, which allowed the representatives to pitch the mandolin to audience members as something they, too, could learn—these performers had only been playing for a few weeks, and look at all they could do!

Soon, mandolin orchestras performing popular classical songs were widespread. These orchestras often included up to 50 or 60 pieces, including mandolins, guitars, mandolas (the mandolin equivalent of the viola), mandocellos (the mandolin equivalent of the cello), and mando-basses. In fact, one of these orchestras was still active in New York City into the 1950s.

For collectors today, mandolins made by Gibson are by far the most desirable. While still owned by Orville H. Gibson himself, Gibson began manufacturing mandolins in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1894 with great success, and in 1898 he received a patent for a mandolin design.

Gibson sold his company in 1902, but the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company (as it was then known), continued to manufacture mandolins. Instruments made from the 1890s to the lat...

The absolute zenith of mandolin design came in the 1920s, thanks to an acoustic engineer at Gibson named Lloyd Loar. His F-5 model is considered the best mandolin ever produced, and those with Loar’s signature on the label inside command the highest prices of any mandolins on the market, thanks both to their superb construction and their selection by the pantheon of famous American mandolin players, including the legendary Bill Monroe.

Aside from the F-5, Gibson’s F-7, F-10, and F-12 from the 1930s are rare, too, though less valuable. Gibson also manufactured mandolas, mandocellos, mando-basses, and even mando-lutes. Mandolas and mandocellas are quite rare, and collectors tend to value them more than their equivalent mandolin models, with the exception of Loar-signed mandolins.

Martin and Epiphone also produced mandolins, mandolas, and mandocellos, many of which were high-quality instruments and are quite sought after today. Martin’s Style 20 and Style 30 are rare and well made, but still not as collectible as the Gibsons. No company in the United States in the early 20th century could challenge Gibson’s dominance in the mandolin market.

Throughout the 1920s, though, even as Gibson was producing some of the best mandolins ever made, mandolins were falling out of favor. Once the accessible instrument of choice, the mandolin began to be replaced in the national spotlight by an exotic new instrument that was even easier to play—the ukulele.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Mandolin Cafe

Mandolin Cafe

Launched in 1995, Mandolin Cafe brings together anyone with an interest in mandolins—from players and teachers to… [read review or visit site]

First published as a folk music magazine in 1971 by Michael I. Holmes before going online in 1997, Mugwumps is a no… [read review or visit site]

National Music Museum

National Music Museum

The National Music Museum, which is located at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, features 15,000 instru… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Early The Gibson F Mandolin Broken Headstock BeautifulAntique The Gibson Mandolin Guitar 1900's Serial #7416 F- Style For Repair PartsSuperb Italian Micro Mosaic Mandolin Brooch C1900s Murano GlassVintage 8 String Greek Mandolin Bouzouki Excellent + CaseVintage Harmony H35 Batwing Electric Mandolin Dearmond Pickup 1969 NrVintage Weymann Philadelphia 8 String Banjo Mandolin Resinator Solid Kentucky Style Luithier Do It Yourself Acoustic F-model MandolinC F Martin Mandolin A Style 1925? Mahogany W/caseTacoma M3 Mandolin W/ Hard Shell CaseEarly Gibson F Mandolin Case Old Old U FixVintage Franciscan Model #100 Made In Japan Mandolin String Instrument In Case Vtg 1920s 6 String Croatian Prim / Tamburica / Tambura St, Johns Tamburitzan Vtg 1920s 6 String Croatian Brac / Tamburica / Tambura St, Johns Tamburitzan1995 Flatiron Cadet MandolinVintage Harmony MandolinFender Mandolin Fm 100Louis De Bernieres, 'captain Corelli's Mandolin', Signed First Edition 1st/1stWashburn M1s Acoustic Mandolin Sunburst - For RepairVintage Jewellery Delightful Mother Of Pearl And Enamelled Mandolin BroochEpiphone Em50 Acoustic Antique Venetian Mandolin Pearl AccentOld Antique Mandolin Tonewood 6 Pairs Of Spruce Tops Unjoint Repair Violin 1920sVery Nice 1960s Harmony H 8017 Mandolin With Case! Spruce Top!Very Nice 1950s To 1960s Vintage Mandolin! Believe This To Be A Harmony!Lefty Left Handed Kentucky F-5 MandolinTarantela Mandolin Made In Mexico Excellent Condition Vintage 1925 Cf Martin Mandolin W/caseVintage Kalamazoo By Gibson MandolinRogue Sunburst Mandolin Rm-100a With Backpack Case (vr)Estate Ariana A Mandolin A - Model / Model Am - 10 & Case Made In ChinaAntique Weymann & Son Mandolin Banjo Serial#22874 Model24Bowl Back Mandolin With Case.Weymann Mandolute Mandolin W/ Original CaseSavannah Sa-100-bk A-model Mandolin, BlackMichael Kelly Legacy MandolinVintage Regal Mandolin W/case - No ReturnsHandmade In Mexico Vintage Bowl Back Mandolin!Vintage Dollhouse Miniature Artisan Mandolin (?) Handcrafted Signed 1981New Isin A-style Elegant Maple Wood Mandolin With Extra Strings SetOriginal Bauer MandolinVintage 1950s,orpheum Mandolin,a Style, Kluson Tuners, Great Action,all OriginalOld "kay" MandolinAntoniotsai-floral Inlay Spruce-solidwood Koa Maple Mandolin Handmade-bag Md4681Lot 3 Hummel Valentine Gift #387,sounds Of The Mandolin #438,on Holiday #350Old Antique Mandolin Parts Set Top Inlaid 14 Ribs Cap Rosewood +-100 Years Old 111rd Tyme Out 7 Cd Collection-at The Mac,grandpa's Mandolin,letter Home-nmVintage Micro Mosaic Mandolin Brooch Pin Medalist-resonator-mandolin-1930-039-s-a-model-regal-beltone-vintage-originalVintage Gibson Mandolin Strings 10 SetsAntique Button Detailed Romantic Scene Man Plays Mandolin To Woman Above1 & 1/4"Vintage 1955 Gibson Em-150 Mandolin (a Style With P-90 Pickup)Ibanez M700s-avs F Style Arch Top Solid Body Mandolin Antique Violin SunburstJ. S. Bach For Mandolin By Robert Bancalari (1998, Paperback)Simon Mayor & Hilary James - Music From A Small Island (folk Cd - Mandolin )Butterfly Inlay Solid Acacia-spruce-armrest A Style Mandolin Handmade-bag Md4695Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele S2Swarovski Lute / Mandolin Musical Instrument - No Box Or Paperwork. Nice Piece!Mandolin Chords Chart & Note Locator - Small Chart !Vintage Hummel Goebel Angel & Mandolin Lyre Small Candle Holder -w. GermanyVintage 2009 Mandolin Lady #20 U.s. Stamp Sheet Set Unused .44 X 20 = $8.80Vintage Solid Silver Mandolin Miniature - Stamped - Made In Italy