Sunday, March 31, 2013

Verne Q. Powell, Jeweler

We've become quite familiar with Verne Q. Powell's legacy as a flute maker, but did you know that before he made flutes, he was a jeweler? You may be familiar with the story of Powell's "Spoon Flute," which was the very first flute he made -- and the first metal flute in the United States. Working as a jeweler in 1910, Powell "melted down 7 silver teaspoons and 3 silver watch cases to provide the silver for his first flute and melted down some gold coins to be inlays in the keys" (source:’s-“spoon-flute”-sees-light-day).

We've exhibited the Spoon Flute at the NFA convention but were completely surprised when we received a note from a resident of Fort Scott, Kansas who had a pair of earrings made by Powell when he was a jeweler in town.  Laura Nation contacted us earlier this month, sharing the story of the earrings, which she had received from her mother.  Her mother had been given the earrings by her mother, Laura's grandmother, who is the original owner of these earrings.  After some discussion, we discovered that there is a possibility that the earrings may have been in the family even longer, as her grandmother was born in 1906 -- and Powell left Fort Scott in 1916.  Laura was kind enough to share a bit of the history of her discovery with us.

Laura is the third generation of her family to grow up in Fort Scott, Kansas. Tracing the earrings back to her grandmother, she said that her grandparents were childhood friends, high school sweethearts, and then a married couple.  After they married, they lived a bit outside of Fort Scott and would take the train in to town to shop.  Fort Scott was bustling, and the railroad industry was booming.  She mentioned that her grandmother rarely wore jewelry, but she would wear some pieces for church and photographs.  We can understand as she told us that her grandmother cherished the earrings and did not want to lose them because they were so valuable.  From the condition of the earrings, Laura would guess that they are "10K or 14K to have stayed so bright."      

The earrings were indeed a very special present to Laura, and she wanted to learn more.  She told us,

I had never heard of Powell Jewelers, nor had my dad who is now 84 years old. I researched the Verne Q. Powell name on the internet and have found that Mr. Powell lived here and moved to Massachusetts after making the first metal flute in America right here in Fort Scott. I was very excited to learn this, and my husband and I feel that this is a lost part of Fort Scott history that others would love to know about.  I have continued to research Mr. Powell's story and I am amazed at the information I have found. From his humble beginnings here, to the fact that one of his flutes actually traveled into outer space! 

Through her research of Fort Scott's newspaper archives, she was able to find more information on the actual location of Powell's jewelry shop. The shop was located at 7 South Main Street in Fort Scott. Unfortunately, she found that the building was destroyed in a fire in 2005, along with several other historical buildings downtown.  It is truly remarkable that so much of the history has been preserved, and we are very grateful to Ms. Nation for sharing this with us.  When she read about the Powell family boarding a "Pullman" our previous blog post, "The Spoon Flute," she immediately noted the connection to Fort Scott.  She says "sometimes we forget our own history and the remarkable people who have lived in our own hometowns." Anxious to share the story with the current residents of Fort Scott,  she says, "we would like to see Mr. Powell's name, memory, craftsmanship and musical genius honored here someday in some way." We certainly agree and would also like to thank Laura for bringing this living piece of history to us at Verne Q. Powell Flutes.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Verne Q. Powell 1928 Brochure

Since 1928, flutists around the world have enjoyed playing Powell flutes.  Throughout the years, we've seen different models, and today there are so many choices for options and materials.  The three Powell models currently produced are the Signature, Handmade Conservatory, and Handmade Custom.  If you've ever wondered about the earliest Powell flute models, we've uncovered the very first Verne Q. Powell Flutes brochure from 1928.  During that time, two models were offered: the Hand Made and Commercially Made.  The major difference between the two was that the Hand Made had soldered tone holes, and the Commercially Made had drawn tone holes.

Prices today vary due to the changing costs of precious metals -- and they certainly are different from the 1920s!  So, just how much would a Powell go for in 1928?  It may be a bit difficult to tell from the scanned photo of the price listing in the 1928 catalog, but the prices were as follows:

Silver Flutes
No. 1 – Hand-made, French model (open keys),
either closed or open G#, A440…$250                       

No. 1A – Hand-made, American model (covered keys),
either closed or open G#, A440…$250         

No. 2 – Commercially made, French model,
either closed or open G#, A440…$200        

No. 2A – Commercially made, American model,
either closed or open G#, A440…$185         

Flutes made to low B (optional)…extra $25

C# trill………………………….......extra $18

Flutes made with 18 karat gold embouchure (optional)…extra $25

Gold Flutes
Hand-made, French model (open keys), either closed or open G#,
14 karat gold throughout……………...............$900

Hand-made, American model (covered keys), either closed or open G#, 14 karat gold throughout……………$900

Although the prices seem considerably lower than today, we realize that those amounts were of a much different value than they are in 2013, so it all pretty much balances out!  Of course, without question, they were (and still are) as the brochure says, "a work of mechanically perfect as it is possible to produce."

Cover of the 1928 brochure
Listing of models on the right column
Photos and prices

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The 2100

The 2100 model flute has a very distinctive, modern look inspired by the turn of the millennium.  It was introduced in 1993, and production continued through 2003.  It was also the predecessor of the very popular silver Handmade Conservatory Model.  The 2100 was made of sterling silver, and the 3100 was an aurumite model.  Because these models were produced for a limited period of time, we usually see the 2100 and 3100 in for regular maintenance in our repair office.

The most distinctive feature of the 2100 is the shape of the key cups. The concept was very modern and futuristic, so they are quite distinctive. We've shared photos below to compare the 2100 with its successor, the silver Handmade Conservatory.  As far as the mechanism, they only other major mechanical difference between the two is that on the 2100, the feet of the key tails hit tabs on the ribs -- whereas the key tails on the Handmade Conservatory touch the body.  In general, the key arms, especially at the points where they wrap around the mechanism tubing, are "flatter" on the 2100 when compared with a more traditional, "double beveled" shape on the Handmade Conservatory.  Our repair technician, Rachel, said, "The 2100s may look a bit funny, but they play so well."  So, if you happen to see a very distinctive looking Powell with very different key cups and more angular stylistic elements, chances are it is the 2100!  

Key tail hits tab on rib.
Side view of key tail in contact with tab on rib.
On a Conservatory, the key tail touches the body.
Comparison of 2100 on the left and Conservatory on the right.
2100 has key shapes that are more square, flatter key arms, more angular style in general. 
Thumb key comparison.
Foot joint comparison. 
Close-up on key cups.
Even the rings on the barrel are different.

Friday, March 1, 2013

"What's the Powell Flute?"

Verne Powell
Continuing on from the excerpt we posted last week of Les Waddington's 1984 interview with Edward Powell (Verne Powell's son), we learn a bit more as Edward recounts the reaction to Powell flutes in the earliest days of the company:

Les Waddington: Well, we continue our discussion, and Ed, you were about to carry on from the point where your father had pulled away (from the Haynes company) and had set up a plant.  I need to know some dates...

Edward Powell:  Well,  I think I mentioned earlier, it was 1926, when I took off for Lido, Venice, with the Harvard dance band.  He was making the change then, and having a rather hard time of it.  Then, upon my return and during the next couple of years, I was busy.  I had to keep playing to earn money, and finishing some school, and taking a course at MIT.  I wanted to catch up on some electrical engineering mathematics.  But, this period, over the crash, you know between '27, 28, '29, and up to 1935, during that period, he had a struggle.  He was having a hard time, and what flutes he made were mostly, well, in this period, he got to the Boston Symphony with his flute and satisfied Laurent from France, that he had something that was as similar to, or equivalent to, or equal to, or satisfactory as the (Louis) Lot flute.  So, this was my dad's whole aim -- to carry on the Louis Lot tradition, and not only tonally, but also aesthetically.  He turned out a lovely looking instrument and knew how to handle the precious metals, polish, and the keywork, and patterns, and this sort of thing.  And so by 1935, he was well grooved in his designs, patterns, and little production, and had moved out to Huntington Avenue -- opposite the New England Conservatory.  At that time, the people working for him were, well, when he left the Haynes company, a couple of the leading men from Haynes moved in with him, especially John Schwelm who was an excellent flutemaker and mechanic, and Hans Haugaard, who was a plodding padder, and I mean plodding.  He could not pad one flute in a whole day, where my dad could do two a day.  But the importance of it was such, and Hans was such a devoted person that the team worked, and they were beginning to produce flutes.  In the meantime, we engaged a young guy out of mechanical school, Northeastern, or something, Austin Nickerson, who was a good shop man.  He could handle the lathes and tools, and punch press, and things.

Verne's Bench

That's about the time that I took off for New York, following the burgeoning of the radio network business, and I was fortunate in the sense that I was in the right place at the right time, and I moved into New York, April, 1935.  And within six months, I had 5 substitutes working for me, there was so much work.  But my principal achievements or recognition lay in my being part of the Kostelanetz, the CBS Symphony Orchestra, and of the, well, numerous radio programs at that time, when freelance and radio was the big thing, just coming into its own.  I won't bother with naming those things, but the point is that I moved ahead so fast that it was almost dizzying to meet that much success in such a short time, but the point is that the Powell flute was relatively unknown in New York.  And in the meantime, old man Haynes had set up an office, a little extension of his showroom, right next to Radio City, and he was attracting all the flute players, and at that time of course, doublers were numerous.  Now, I immediately ran into people who would say, "What's the Powell flute?  Never heard of it."  But in a very short time, they were coming to me because I had, let's say, come out of the ranks of the George Laurent school of flute playing, the Paris Conservatory method let's say.  And it was catching on.  People liked it.  I was getting all the playing offers I could handle.  And other flute players were coming to me about advice for flutes, which I passed right on to my dad.  And his big spurt in production and success began from the moment I went to New York.  And I don't like to say that in a bragging sense, but time wise, it just happened that way.  So, I gave great boost to my father's business and success, and reputation, while in New York, and daily, spending hours next to, sitting with, playing with Julie Baker and John Wummer, and Arthur Lora.  I played with all these people.  And it gets around fast, you know, that, well, it's time to switch to a Powell flute.  So, this was a booming thing from 1935. 

Huntington St. Building.  Vern Powell's original shop was on the second floor in the corner office.