Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sousaphones not made by Conn

In this blog so far, apart from the very first Sousaphone, which was made by J. W. Pepper, I have focused exclusively on horns that came from the C. G. Conn factory. This shouldn't be surprising, as Conn really was the one to champion and perfect this new instrument. But other companies jumped on the Sousaphone band wagon soon enough.

For example, Frank Holton, who had played trombone in Sousa's Band in 1892-93, formed his own instrument company in Chicago in 1898, and introduced his "Holtonphone" in 1909. I have yet to come across a picture of that horn, but I'm guessing it was a raincatcher, given that the forward-facing bell had only just been invented by Conn the previous year.

Holton moved his company to Elkhorn, WI in 1917, and in 1925 put up this sign at the entrance of the city:

According to The Music Trade Review of February 7, 1925, from which the above image comes, "The signboard is a handsome piece of work and in its prominent location on the main highway it will be seen by thousands of tourists traveling through Wisconsin. It is painted in striking colors and shows a pretty girl playing a large Holtonphone."

Here's the 1932 version of "The No. 130 Revelation Holtonphone," from the Holton catalog that year:

The year 1909 also provides the earliest evidence I have come across for the "Buescherphone" - a raincatcher made by the Buescher Band Instrument Co. of Elkhart, IN:

Image courtesy of
Elkhart, of course, was the location of the Conn factory, and Gus Buescher had worked for Conn prior to starting his own company right there in the same town in 1894.

Henry Charles Martin had also worked for Conn at one time, and started (or actually re-started) the Martin instrument company in 1905 in Elkhart as well. I'm not sure what year Martin began building Sousaphones, but a 1916 catalog confirms that they included raincatchers referred to as Sousaphone Helicon Basses.

Here's a page from a Martin catalog a few years later (not sure of the date), showing that the word "Helicon" had been dropped from the name, and with the fine print saying, "Also with Bell to the Front":

The H. N. White Co. (1892-1965), based in Cleveland, OH, started producing "King" Helicons (eventually called Sousaphones) as early as 1910, if not earlier. Here is a surviving horn from that year:

Photo courtesy of The Tuba Exchange
King Sousaphones have been a popular choice over the years, as evidenced in this 1956 ad featuring the Purdue marching band Sousaphone section:

Ad found by the author at the USC library
J. W. York, based in Grand Rapids, MI, also made Sousaphones from at least 1910, as did a company called Keefer, based in Williamsport, PA. The Keefer horn, at least in 1922, was called a "Wagnerphone." As the catalog page below says, "its volume and breadth and depth of tone make it a credit to the name it bears - 'Wagnerphone.' Wagner himself could not wish for a more fluent speaking instrument or one of more majesty and solid volume." Interesting - I had never heard of Keefer before!
Image courtesy of
There have been many other companies over the years to produce Sousaphones (one source mentions almost 100 of them), but the ones above, with the possible exception of Keefer, seem to have provided the biggest competetion for Conn back in those days.


  1. Dave, I own a 1924 4 valve Mammoth Holtonphone in BBb (42 lbs, in silver with a 26" bell). This is the old Holton style with the tenon bolts on the bell (can send pictures if you'd like). I also have somewhat poor digital copies of ca. 1925 ads for "The Holton Sousaphone" which is a raincatcher and "The Holtonphone" which is bell-front. While it would be short timing for Holton to issue a bell-front sousaphone by 1909, I have always suspected that the Holtonphone was strictly a bell-front design.

    Jim McIntyre

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  3. Regarding Keefer and sousaphones, there's a strange connection here. Henry Distin, originally an instrument maker in London, sold out to Boosey (later Boosey & Hawkes)in 1868 and came to the U.S. in the 1870's. After some time in New York, he was engaged by J.W. Pepper to establish a musical instrument factory in Philadelphia, which he did around 1880. Around 1890, Distin sold that factory to Pepper, and founded another factory in Williamsport, PA. Pepper's factory is generally credited as having produced the first Sousaphone. Distin retired from the instrument business around 1892, dying in 1903, and in 1909 his manager and former partner, Brua C. Keefer gained control of the company and changed the name. So Both Keefer and Pepper sousaphones share a common ancestor.

  4. In your opinion are the Holton sousas comparable in quality and tone to the Conns or are the "also rand"?