Friday, November 9, 2012

Conn really was the first - sort of

To this day, Conn claims to have created the first Sousaphone, but we have determined in numerous posts below that this is simply not the case. That honor belongs to J. W. Pepper, as Sousa himself declared.

However, as historian Margaret Downie Banks clarifies, Conn really was the first - that is, the first to build a "commercially available bell-up 'raincatcher' sousaphone." Pepper's horn, built around 1894-96, apparently never went into production, but Conn took orders early on for his four-valve "Monster Sousaphone," first built in 1898. By April 1900 there were ten of those horns being played in bands.

Two years later, Conn had come up with a slightly smaller, three-valve Sousaphone, which is seen for the first time in this advertisement in the December 1902 edition of C. G. Conn's Truth (vol. 5, no. 4, p. 27):

Image courtesy of Mark Overton at
This design was apparently a winner, for it remained unchanged at least through 1910 - with Conn even using the exact same photograph in his advertisement that year (and, presumably, all years in between):

Image courtesy of Mark Overton at
A few of the horns from this era can still be seen today. For example, the National Music Museum, in Vermillian, SD, owns one with the serial number 84672, which places it around 1904 (this Sousaphone is currently on loan to the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, CA):

Photo taken by author
And the wonderful people at the Sousa Archives at the University of Illinois graciously sent me this photo of their oldest Conn "raincatcher," serial number 99845, which dates it around 1907 (could it perhaps have been used very early on in the Marching Illini Band?):

Photo courtesy of the Sousa Archives
By 1916, if not a bit earlier, even Sousa added one of these smaller, three-valve Sousaphones to his bass section, as can be seen on the far right of this photo (C. G. Conn's Musical Truth, April 1916, vol.9, no. 19, p. 30):

Image courtesy of Mark Overton at
And, interestingly, this basic Sousaphone design by Conn - with the exception of the bell direction - remains to this day, over one hundred years later, as the Conn 20K, which can be purchased for about $7,000 (roughly the same value as the original cost of $175 back in 1902, although one might rightly argue that the horn is less well-made now than it was all those years ago when Conn instruments were admired throughout the world).

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