How many Waldzithers did C. H. Boehm build?

No documents have survived that could give us information about the output figures of the Boehm Company. Nevertheless, it is possible to make some guesses about the number of Waldzithers which were built during the 45 years of the company's existence. A first hint can be found in the foreword of C. H. Boehm's songbook "Grillenscheucher". In this preface, he states: "The fact that 5.000 Waldzithers have already been built and sold in Hamburg is clear evidence that the instrument will establish itself throughout Germany." This sentence can be read in prefaces of songbooks from 1912 and 1917-19 (which were re-printed without change for many years).

The year of origin of this sentence can be concluded from another sentence in the same foreword: "12 years ago, when the first small group of Waldzither players made a trip across the Elbe and walked singing and strumming to the wood of Harburg ...". The 1912 Catalogue contains a photo from 1899 which shows a huge group of Waldzither players on a trip to the island of Finkenwerder, which indicates that the trip of the small group of Waldzither pioneers mentioned in the preface of the songbook must have taken place at least one year, if not two years earlier, i.e. in 1897 or 1898. The statement that the Boehm Company has already sold 5.000 instruments must therefore have been written around 1909/1910.

This comes equal to saying that the Boehm Company would have built and sold 5.000 Waldzithers during the first twelve years of its existence. Martina Rosenberger estimates, on the basis of these data, that the Boehm factory built ca. 500 instruments per year. If the production figures of the Boehm Company had been constant, this would amount to a number of 22.500 Waldzithers until 1942 (for comparison: it is known that the Martin Company built ca. 75.000 guitars between 1898 and 1942).

There are other indicators which suggest a similar order of magnitude. In his 1912 catalogue Boehm writes that more than 5000 pupils have been taught to play the waldzither. And in address book entries of the years 1915-1917 he reports the number of his pupils as 6.000, in the entries of 1918-1920 as 8.000. Surely, this does also not mean the number of his current pupils but, more probably, the number of Waldzither pupils he had since the founding of the company in 1897.

In order to understand these figures, it is important to know C. H. Boehm's sales strategy. He offered his potential customers a free trial lesson that was designed to show how easy it is to learn the Waldzither. Who, after having attended this trial lesson, decided to buy his own instrument, could rent a simple practice instrument in order to immediately start his Waldzither lessons, that is, before he or she had saved enough money to buy his or her own instrument. Of course, the expectation was (as Boehm writes in his 1912 Catalogue) that his pupils learnt to hear and see the differences between the cheaper and the more elaborated Waldzither models and decided to keep on saving until they were able to buy a better instru- ment. Customers who bought an instrument but were not able to attend to a Waldzither course received a free Waldzither tutorial together with the purchase of their instrument.

It seems reasonable to suppose that Boehm, when stating the number of his pupils, counted both of these groups: those who started with a Waldzither course first (the 1912 Catalogue reports that 250 practice instruments were in use) and those who received a Waldzither tutorial together with the purchase of an instrument. Of course, in both cases this would (finally) mean the purchase of a Boehm Waldzither.

Another hint at the number of Waldzithers built by the Boehm Company are the photos of the fabrication rooms and production machines which Boehm displayed in his 1926 Catalogue. One of these photos even shows the magazine of the Company and reports that it held more than 400 instruments in stock.

It would nevertheless be no big surprise if Boehm should have exaggerated the number of his pupils somewhat in his advertisements; this seems at least to be the case in 1921, when he suddenly reports the number of his pupils as 20.000 (although in 1920 it was still reported as 8.000).

But it has likewise to be considered that the changing times also had their influence on the flourishing of the company: From its humble beginnings at the turn of the century over the First World War, the "Golden Twenties" (when the Boehm Company also spatially expanded) to the Great Depression of 1929 and, finally, the Second World War - it is quite sure that these events manifested themselves in changing production figures of the Boehm Company.

From the region of Markneukirchen (the main district for the production of stringed instruments back then) it is known that the Great Depression of 1929-1933 led to a cessation of almost the whole production of musical instruments. It is reported that even fathers had to dismiss their own sons from their company because they were not able to pay them any longer. One piece of evidence which shows that C. H. Boehm had also to react to the challenges of these years is the fact that he added a basic budget model to his range of instruments (as can be seen on a price list from 1934).

Taken together, these deliberations lead to the assumption that the Boehm Company produced, during the 45 years of its existence, at least about 20.000 Waldzithers (but surely not as early as 1921). Nevertheless, more than a rough estimate of this order of magnitude seems to be impossible at present.

But even this leads to the question of how many of these instruments have survived and where they are now to be found. Only a very minor part of this enormous number is documented, which lies in the range of 1-2%. This is not enough to be representative but enough to make some guesses about how often which Boehm model was built. A statistical analysis of the ca. 300 instruments which are photographically documented reveals that Model Nr. 1/Nr. 1A was, with ca. 40% of the Waldzithers presently known, by far the most common instrument, followed by the Models Nr. 1B and Nr. 2 with ca. 20% respectively. The other models all lie under 10% respectively.

But even this is a huge number, for this would mean (for example) that the seven Waldzithers Nr. 4 presently known stand for more than 450 instruments once built. Even if this number should be too high (because the owners of these top-of-the-line instruments were particularly careful with them): Where are these instruments now? Destroyed? Cherished and cared for as family treasures? Packed away and forgotten in some attic or cellar?

And if it should happen to be the case (what is quite probable) that the Walddolines had no greater problems to stand the test of time than their bigger siblings, this would mean that at least about 1.000 items of them must have been produced.

The same holds true for the early Boehm Instruments from the time between 1897 and 1904 (with the long "Portuguese" screws in two rows), for then at least about 800 instances of them would have been built. And it might even be more, for it is highly probable that much less of these old instruments has survived than of the younger instruments from the 1920s and 1930s. The photos of big groups of Waldzither players dating from the early period of the Boehm Company suggest that these figures may not be entirely wrong.

The same uncertainty concerns the general question of how many Boehm Waldzithers were built in what period of time. Here, the statistics is also only of minor value, for it is neither exactly known how long the different labels were used (this is especially true for the late labels which were most commonly used), nor is it known how good the individual instruments have stood the test of time: Of course it is more difficult to survive two World Wars than one, and the first Boehm instruments are more than 40 years older than the last. But what can clearly be seen is the fact that the instruments built after 1920 constitute by far the biggest group of surviving Waldzithers (ca. 75%). This should be of importance for collectors, sellers and buyers of Boehm Waldzithers, for the rarity of an instrument will have at least some influence on the price that is to be expected for it.