Friday, January 1, 2016

J.W.P. Sousaphones for sale - finally!

While J. W. Pepper designed and built the first Sousaphone in 1895, it appears that he didn't start selling Sousaphones until a decade later. Here's what appeared in Pepper's Musical Times and Band Journal toward the end of 1905 (vol. 19, no. 222):

There are a number of very curious - if not outright questionable - things revealed on this page.

First of all, there is the photo of Herman Conrad, who is listed as playing the "BBb Bass Sousaphone" in "Sousa's Concert Band." However, the image dates back to at least 1895, and Conrad had left the Sousa Band at some point in 1903. Further, he had only played the original Pepper Sousaphone in that band in 1896 and perhaps 1897 (we only have confirmation for 1896). From 1898 through 1903, Conrad played various versions of C. G. Conn's first Sousaphone, so the testimonial here is very misleading.

However, perhaps the quote is from before 1898, when only the original Pepper Sousaphone existed, but that would make it irrelevant to the Sousaphones featured on this page! My guess is that Conrad never even tried one of the horns seen here.

Second, and related to that, the testimonial appears to be an adapted version of what Conrad had said about Pepper's Premier BBb Bass at some point (referring to a standard tuba, or perhaps a helicon) which appears on page 9 of the 1905 catalogue:

The only difference between these two testimonials is the horn mentioned - both after Conrad's name, and at the end of the quote. In other words, it appears that Pepper simply borrowed the previous testimonial and added the word "Sousaphone" in order to sell the Sousaphones that he was now (finally!) selling. Conrad may have had no idea what was going on!

Third, it does appear that Pepper was stretching the truth about the horns featured. Just below the image of the Eb Sousaphone he said, "We Guarantee These Sousaphones to be Absolutely Perfect In Tune, Tone, Workmanship and Quality of Materials." Wow! A guarantee of absolute perfection? Nothing like a little exaggeration to sell horns, huh?!

It may be that Pepper pushed things a bit because he was frustrated with how people had forgotten that he, and not Conn, had built the first Sousaphone all those years ago. Note what he said in the explanatory paragraph right above the bell of the BBb horn:

The telling sentence is toward the end: "Remember that we are the sole originators of this style of basses, and all others [referring to Conn, I presume?] are imitations of these magnificent large-proportioned monsters."

"Imitations," indeed - Pepper created the first one. However, the Pepper Sousaphones of 1905 were significantly different from the original Sousaphone of 1895. For example, while the latter was built entirely in the Pepper factory (part of his "Premier - Own Make" line), these new horns were imports of a sort.

In his Everything Musical catalogue for 1912, Pepper commented about his "American Favorite" line, to which these Sousaphones belonged: "We call it 'American Favorite' because it is the favorite line in all parts of America." But then he explained that "Our own shops design the model and fix the grade of material that goes into every part of these Instruments." The horns themselves, however, were apparently built elsewhere, while "the tuning and general inspection" as well as "the high-grade plating" were done "right on our own premises." All of this was apparently a way to keep the cost down, in comparison with the "Premier - Own Make" line.

And what would one of these "magnificent large-proportioned monsters" set you back in 1905? Here's what it says about the larger of the two horns (which had a 28 inch diameter bell - did you catch that?!):

Pepper's 1906 catalogue featured these same horns, in almost the exact same layout, on its bright yellow back page:

Courtesy of the Oberlin College Library
These Sousaphones also appeared on page 14 of the 1907 catalogue, but that was the last time they were featured in an annual catalogue. Apparently they didn't sell all that well.

In fact, the only other time I came across one of these horns in a Pepper publication was on an insert to the 1912 catalogue that listed used instruments:

Courtesy of the Hagley Library
The cost on the left ($94) was the original cost of the Eb Sousaphone in brass finish (close - it was $96); the cost on the right ($55) was the sale price in 1912.

Finally, one of the Eb horns (in silver plate) can still be seen today in the Don Johnson Exhibit at the Marion County Heritage Center in Lebanon, KY:

Courtesy of Don Johnson


  1. holy cow! i'm about 30 miles from the heritage center, never knew it was there. i'll be there next week!

  2. I'm sure I've told you about this, but I have a Sousaphone that matches the Pepper in those catalog pages, with the only exception being the diameter of the bell (and the engraving).

    I had originally thought I had a York or early Conn, but I found a similar set of pages from a catalog on eBay that matched my Sousaphone. I'll eventually dig it out of storage...

  3. Ian - I'd love to see photos of it!