Circa 1950 Kay K-70 Mandolin
For centuries, mandolins had bowl-shaped backs and a pear shaped bodies. Then Orville Gibson started making his elaborate, Florentine mandolins in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1890s, and from then on, a mandolin could be just about any shape a builder wanted it to be. (Check out this previous Knutsen harp mandolin with one of the wildest shapes ever.) In the 1920s the Stromberg-Voisenet company of Chicago, started making a style of mandolin with a body shape they called the Venetian, in obvious homage to Gibson’s Florentine mandolins. Its body even looked like a very minimalist take on Gibson’s F-shape. Stromberg-Voisenet’s instruments were quite a bit cheaper than Gibsons, and although they weren’t quite as well made and didn’t sound quite as good, they did have a look, feel and tone all their own.
In 1931 Stromberg-Voisenet was purchased by Henry Kay Kuhmeyer, who promptly renamed the company Kay Musical Instruments. Kay continued Stromberg-Voisenet’s tradition of modestly priced, but very functional instruments. This K-70 was built sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s and sold new for $44. It has an arched top and back, segmented F-holes, nice checkerboard purfling and the Venetian body shape from the Stromberg-Voisenet days. I’ve played a few of these over the years and, I’ve always been impressed with the tone and playability, given they were mass-produced factory built mandolins. This example has had a recent neck reset and it has been fitted with new tuners which makes its $550 price tag quite reasonable. It is currently residing at Stewart Port’s establishment, but I know it would be much happier being played at your house.