Evansville’s Own

The Nightingale Guitar Company occupies a brief, but interesting chapter in the annals of music history, as the only guitar ever manufactured in Evansville. The company held a one-of-a-kind patent that never has been replicated. Unfortunately, because of a fire, the company was short-lived — just 11 years in existence from 1892 to 1903.

The owners, brothers Isaiah and Charles Nightingale, were inventors and luthiers who each held a specific patent on an instrument. Charles designed an ornate mandolin pick guard, but it was Isaiah’s dual body/dual sound hole construction of the Nightingale that set the guitar apart from all other stringed instruments. In his patent, Isaiah referred to this as “a supplemental sound board, with a tube thereon,” which, as he stated, gives the instrument a much stronger and sweeter tone.

I first learned of the Nightingale guitar at the former Dallas Music on Main Street in Downtown Evansville. It stood out from the rest of the old relics that Dallas Hughes Jr. (deceased) kept in his private collection, because of the cone inside the sound hole. Dallas did not play the guitar, but he knew how to fix them.

When I asked Dallas about the guitar, he looked up from his glasses and pointed out the window. “Their factory was right across the street,” he said gesturing to the small park that now sits next to the former Old National Bank building. He said that a fire gutted the building in the early 1900s.

The Nightingale guitar’s local lineage and unique design fascinated me. I have played both a Nightingale guitar and a mandolin. The former has a rich low tone reminiscent of a Gibson Jumbo J-200 series; whereas the mandolin has a bright tone that rings much longer than any mandolin I have ever heard. To learn more, I visited the Willard Library, met with collectors, found its patent page online, and even spoke with an author who is chronicling American-made guitars.

In 1892, Isaiah Nightingale filed his patent for his sounding board. According to the Evansville City Directory, in 1900 his brother, Charles, was a guitar builder and salesman for the Harding & Miller Music Company — their building on 404 Main St. is where the Nightingale Company began circa 1900. By the following year, they employed 10 skilled instrument makers. In 1902, however, the business was relocated to 208 Upper Third St. — seeming to coincide with the fire Hughes mentioned. By 1904, there no longer was a listing for them in the directory.

There only are a handful of Nightingale instruments known in existence — one in the Pacific Northwest, another in the Northeast, one at Goldman’s Pawn Shop in Evansville, and a couple of local collectors each have a guitar and a mandolin.

So brief was their existence with so little printed about them, that it would seem the Nightingale Guitar Company was just another failed business around the turn of the 20th Century. But their story is much more: it is one of two brothers from Evansville who created something totally unique that all but ended with a tragic fire that gutted their dreams. I often wonder how, if they would have had the financial backing, their design might have shaped the entire industry.

For more information about the Nightingale Guitar Company, or if you know about one in a collection, contact Art Woodward at art@artandcopy.com. Woodward is a freelance writer and singer/songwriter.

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