Christian Frederick Martin (1796-1873)

C.F. Martin and Company closely resembles a classic German Mittelstand enterprise set down in Pennsylvania’s lush and rolling Lehigh Valley. Founded in 1833 by German immigrant Christian Frederick Martin, today the acoustic guitar manufacturer is run by the the sixth generation of his family.

Updated: November 23, 2015


Today, the firm of C.F. Martin and Company closely resembles a classic German Mittelstand enterprise set down in Pennsylvania’s lush and rolling Lehigh Valley.[1] It is a comparison acknowledged by current CEO Christian (Chris) Frederick Martin IV, the sixth generation of his family to own and control the acoustic guitar manufacturer.[2] Employing around six hundred people at the Sycamore Street facility in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the firm is dedicated to producing instruments of the highest quality, rooted in tradition and craft skills and yet alive to innovation and increasingly oriented to competitive global markets.

The firm is intensely aware and proud of its history, which can be traced back to the immigration of founder Christian Frederick Martin (born January 31, 1796, in Neukirchen (Markneukirchen since 1858), Saxony; died February 16, 1873, in Nazareth, PA) to New York in 1833, placing him at the vanguard of the great wave of German migration to the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. Since Martin started his business in Nazareth, the firm has stayed entirely in family hands and has remained heavily focused on building high quality instruments – an achievement widely acknowledged among aficionados. Along the way it can claim to have had a significant impact on the music culture of the nation. Biographers Robert Shaw and Peter Szego go so far as to declare that Martin “invented the American guitar.”[3] Such a statement contains more than a hint of hyperbole, given that numerous other American luthiers produced innovations that helped to shape the development of guitars in the United States. Nevertheless, C.F. Martin and Company was – and is – a key player in the American guitar industry that made a name for itself by prioritizing quality over quantity. Legend has it that Christian Frederick Martin was pushed into emigrating from the German lands by the restrictive practices of German craft guilds, seemingly painting a typical story of entrepreneurial risk taking and New World opportunity versus “Ancien Regime” conservatism. Neither picture does justice to the Martin story.

Family Background and the Experience of Craft Enterprise in Germany

Christian Frederick Martin was born in Markneukirchen, Saxony, to Johann Georg Martin and Eva Regina Paulus. Markneukirchen is a town in the Vogtlandkreis district, close to the Czech border. It lies in a rather isolated position between two mountain regions, the Erzgebirge and the Fichtelgebirge. The community stood at the center of the small musical instrument-making region, known since the eighteenth century for its high quality brass and string instruments. Within this small and originally rather poor locality, a significant number of small instrument-making enterprises had sprung up. Christian Frederick’s father was a member of the cabinetmakers guild, but he also displayed an interest in the guitar and its manufacture. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, luthiers developed the basic form of the guitar that we recognize today. As an emergent product, with features, manufacture, and markets all as yet only partially defined, guitar building offered a classic field of entrepreneurial opportunity. By the 1820s, the guitar became accepted as a type of stringed instrument distinct from earlier precursors, such as the lute and the violin. Nonetheless, its gradual emergence over preceding decades meant that it was still linked, in both an economic and a cultural sense, to these earlier instruments and their production. In parts of Europe, including the German lands, this meant that guitar production was tied into the system of craft guilds. As a member of the cabinetmakers’ guild, Martin’s father was himself a part of that older world, where the goods that one could make, and the methods of their production, were tightly regulated. James Westbrook claims that the “guild system was particularly powerful in Vienna, where guild regulations controlled the right to work, the price one could charge, and whom one could train.”[4] According to biographer Philip Gura, it was to Vienna that Christian Frederick was sent by his father in 1810 in order that he might acquire knowledge of guitar making practices, particularly the work of Johann Georg Stauffer, then emerging as a pre-eminent craftsman among guitar makers and someone who stood at the forefront of a new spirit of competition in the craft industries.[5] Stauffer made many innovations in the design of the guitar and it was his conception of the instrument that Martin took with him to the United States.[6] Martin’s time in Vienna represented a kind of highly prolonged apprenticeship. According to Martin lore, he spent fourteen years in Stauffer’s workshop and rose to the position of foreman.[7] Martin spent a final year in the workshop of Karl Kühle. It was probably there that he met Kühle’s daughter, Ottilie Lucia, whom he married in 1825. Their first child, Christian Frederick (Frederick or “Fritz”) Jr., was born on October 2 of the same year, and seven years later Ottilie Lucia gave birth to a daughter, Rosalie Ottilie, in Markneukirchen, on May 4, 1832.

As already noted, the Vogtland region of Saxony, which contained Markneukirchen had been a center of musical instrument making since at least the first half of the seventeenth-century. Endowed with excellent natural resources, but far from markets, the region developed, according to Sheets, a “unique commercial culture” focused on “adaptability and market consciousness.”[8] Like many other mountain regions faced with high transport costs and low wages, the Vogtland region had developed an industrial specialization featuring relatively high labor inputs combined with relatively low and accessible material inputs. The many innovative, high-skill manufacturing districts found in Switzerland are typical of this same process at work. Nonetheless guilds, particularly the violin-makers’ guild (Geigenmacher), established in 1677, were almost as powerful as they were in Vienna. Specifically, the guild asserted that the guitar, though it was not mentioned in any of the guild articles, fell under their control. The region’s cabinetmakers, among them Johann Georg Martin, disagreed and persisted both in making guitars and in training apprentices to do the same. Several times in the first three decades of the nineteenth-century, the guild attempted to assert its control over the making of guitars. Cases launched in 1806, 1826, and 1831 all specifically named J.G. Martin as an offender. The last of these complaints, all of which failed, was launched only two years before Christian Frederick’s move to the United States. It is hard to resist the conclusion that there was a strong “push” factor driving his decision to emigrate. However, this may not be the whole story. Other guitar makers from the same region had already made a similar decision, including Martin’s friend and colleague Heinrich (Henry) Schatz. No doubt then that there was also a strong “pull” factor drawing Martin to America.

Thus, on the eve of emigrating in 1833, Martin had undergone an extended and rigorous training in Vienna, Europe’s leading center for musical instrument making, had married and begun a family, and had watched as his father faced repeated battles with his home region’s craft guilds. Aged thirty-seven, he could no longer be said to be a truly young man; rather he was already significantly shaped and formed by his environment and his experiences. Though vexatious, the guild’s attempts at imposing restrictions on an emerging breed of guitar makers had not been successful. Migration was far from necessary, at least on that score. However, immigration is often based on factors more complex than basic economic necessary. On or around May 6, 1832, Martin’s father, Johann Georg, died.[9] Martin had deep roots in Markneukirchen, but perhaps they had been so weakened by the passing of the elder generation that they were no longer enough to keep him there. Setting out from the North Sea port of Bremen, the Martin family traveled on the same ship as John Hartman, Christian Frederick’s sister’s husband, and Francis Kühle, most likely a member of Ottilie’s family. Like many other immigrants to the United States, the Martins were both following those that had gone before, such as Schatz, and bringing their own connections and networks with them. Some of these connections, Schatz especially, were to remain important to Martin for decades.

Business Development

When Christian Frederick Martin arrived in New York in late 1833 he had accrued more than twenty years of experience as a craftsman dedicated to the production of musical instruments, the guitar in particular. He had likely spent an extended period of time in the workshop of one Europe’s leading makers, Stauffer of Vienna, and had risen to a position of trust and responsibility. He brought with him knowledge of the latest technical and stylistic developments in the design and construction of an instrument that was enjoying a period of dramatically enhanced popularity with composers, musicians, and audiences. What is less clear, however, is the depth of his experience as an independent businessman. Moreover, the New World undoubtedly offered a radically different commercial environment than that found in the German lands, where, though guild power was in decline, business culture remained relatively conservative, especially in more traditional craft-based trades.

Nonetheless, Martin appears to have begun work rapidly, first setting himself up in premises at 196 Hudson Street on the Lower West Side, a strongly German neighborhood, where he was certainly trading by early 1834.[10] Initially, this was primarily a retail business selling many kinds and makes of musical instruments and accessories; an inventory compiled when the New York business was sold to Ludecus & Wolter ahead of Martin’s move to Pennsylvania in 1839 reveals a very wide range of products valued at the considerable sum of $2,500 (approximately $66,000 in 2014 dollars). Indeed, Gura’s research shows that in these early years by far the greater part of Martin’s business was devoted to the import of instruments made in Europe, a trade that quickly flourished and grew since few craftsmen produced such instruments in the United States. Again, connections were important, with some of these supplies being obtained from what were most likely members of the Schatz and Hartman families in Saxony.[11] By 1836, however, Martin’s import business was heavily reliant on a relationship with F.T. Merz, one of Markneukirchen’s most important wholesalers. These shipments included not only the full range of stringed instruments, as might be expected, but also brass and woodwind instruments and, occasionally, large, more expensive items, such as pianos and even harps.[12] Nonetheless, even as the trade with Merz grew, Martin continued to engage in a dense web of other business and retail relationships, and some of these, such as that with John Coupa (a guitar instructor, and thus a very useful source of referred work and sales), were to be sustained for years to come.[13] He also offered instrument repairs and renovations, a practice Martin continued after his move to Pennsylvania and, indeed, one that the firm still performs today. Thus, even if Martin’s existence may not have been truly hand-to-mouth at the time, he did have to locate and seize opportunities wherever he could.

At the same time, as the relationship with Merz was solidifying (and possibly as early as 1834), Martin had, once again, begun to make and sell his own instruments as he had done in Saxony. Gura and others have not been able to date this shift from importing and retailing back to making instruments precisely, but the most telling piece of evidence is Martin’s purchase of a variety of woods and other raw materials in the spring of 1835. Moreover, in 1836, Martin also purchased an array of tools.[14] Thereafter the orders for wood became quite regular. The guitars fashioned in these first years must have been very largely “one-off,” made-to-order pieces rather than models from standard lines, and they certainly varied considerably in terms of features, style, decoration, and, of course, price. Perhaps, the firmly established import, wholesale, and retail business gave Martin the solid platform he needed in order to again devote his time and resources to the costly and labor intensive crafting of his fine guitars, which must have been where his heart really lay after a long apprenticeship. As an indication of the financial foundation provided by Martin’s various commercial and retail activities, Martin began employing others to help him with tasks such as serving in the shop and keeping the books starting in 1834.

The six years that Martin and his family spent in New York City were highly productive. No doubt working very hard, and embedded in a web of largely ethnic German networks, he had established himself financially and was beginning to build his reputation as a maker of very fine guitars. These years had also demonstrated that the young immigrant entrepreneur needed to be adaptable, flexible, alert, and attentive to the changing tastes of consumers and the broader market for musical instruments in the developing nation.

There is no definitive statement from Martin on why he took the decision to move to Cherry Hill, on the edge of Nazareth Township. He had before him the example of Henry Schatz’s apparently successful move. Family history also relates that a visit to the area by Ottilie Martin in 1838 led her to fall in love with the locale. Furthermore, the Panic of 1837 (as well as a significant fire near Martin’s Hudson Street location) disrupted and unsettled the commercial tenor and life of New York City. These may be explanations enough. But the move to rural Pennsylvania in 1839, whatever prompted it, signaled a change of direction. Most obviously it removed Martin from daily contact with any meaningful retail trade, though he continued to visit New York regularly after the move. It also distanced him, somewhat, from the import and wholesale trades centered on the ports of New York and Philadelphia. From now on Martin would concentrate on making guitars.

Unfortunately, very few records have survived for the first decade that Martin spent in Pennsylvania. No doubt already well-established relationships continued to remain important, none more so than that with John Coupa, who now became Martin’s agent in New York. Surviving letters testify to the extent to which this was a personal as much as a business relationship, with the two men exchanging family news and occasionally visiting each other.[15] And Coupa continued to channel orders to Martin and to display his instruments in Coupa’s city showrooms.[16] It is likely that the instructor and instrument dealer was Martin’s most important commercial contact throughout the 1840s, though other (and increasingly far-flung) relationships were also being developed during this period, as evidenced in surviving correspondence and advertising materials.[17] At the same time, as already indicated, Martin continued to take in repair work, often sent to him by Coupa, suggesting demand did not yet allow him to devote all of his energies to pure making. By 1852, however, Coupa was dead, bringing the relationship to a natural end.

At around this time, Martin’s son, Christian Frederick (Frederick) was beginning to play a greater role in the family business. In particular, a fire insurance policy dated June 26, 1850, covering the goods and possessions contained in a property at 385 Broadway “occupied as a dwelling and music store,” provides a clear indication that the firm had maintained or re-established a direct presence in the city by that year, one that seems to have been run by Frederick.[18] Nonetheless, this arrangement appears to have been temporary and on January 1, 1851, Martin concluded an agreement that made Charles de Janon his “sole and only agent in the City and County of New York.”[19] Tellingly, Janon operated this agency from the same Broadway address (Janon was also to manage this and other property Martin owned in the city). However, as business slowed in late 1851, the contract was not renewed when it expired in early 1852. Clearly, in this period, establishing and maintaining reliable and secure commercial relationships remained the primary challenge for Martin. No matter how fine the product he produced, he still needed a way to bring it to the attention of the market. Thus, as Martin’s biographer Gura shows, sole agency agreements proliferated across the eastern half of the nation and even into the South.[20] Martin was not yet serving a national market, but, by taking advantage of burgeoning demand, especially in the Midwest, and increasingly sophisticated transport and commercial infrastructure, he was serving a rapidly expanding one. No matter what strains his systems of distribution sometimes suffered, long-term success and security looked more and more certain. The census of 1850 gives some sense of this. Martin described himself as “Guitar Manufacturer” and noted that he made 250 guitars a year, to the value of $4,000 (roughly $125,000 in 2014 dollars). He reported that he had invested $5,000 in the business.[21] Also as a part of his response to changing conditions, rising demand especially, Martin began to make a smaller range of more standardized lines. It was perhaps in this era, driven by Martin’s innovations, though still bearing the influence of Viennese and Spanish-style guitars, that what has been described as a distinctively American guitar – flat-topped and, most characteristically, X-braced internally – emerged.[22]

The next really significant development in the firm’s history came in 1857 when Frederick purchased land in the center of Nazareth itself (where the once iron grip of the Moravian Church was beginning to slacken), on the corner of North Main Street and West North Street. Here, from 1859, he set about building a home and a factory. The house would remain with the Martin family and is still owned by the firm. Likewise the historic workshop, though it has long since ceased to be used for manufacturing, still stands and is in the firm’s possession. In fact, a facsimile of a later nineteenth-century works still flanks one side of modern factory on Sycamore Street in Nazareth today. Frederick’s family home soon formed the nucleus of a small enclave (Martin himself did not move down from Cherry Hill until 1862). In particular, Frederick’s cousin, C.F. Hartmann, built his own home on a neighboring plot. Other employees lived close by. By the time he moved in 1862, Martin was in his early 60s and his health was beginning to decline. In fact, he suffered a stroke, though he was still quite capable at the workbench. Quite naturally, Frederick came to play a more and more prominent role in all aspects of the business, and it was under his increasing guidance that the firm weathered both another panic in 1857 and the American Civil War during the following decade. Indeed, the company exited the war in as strong a position as when they entered it. Since the war cut off the southern market, perhaps the firm put greater effort into serving northeastern and midwestern customers. Or, perhaps, despite profound economic dislocation attendant on the conflict, people simply needed the distractions and pleasures of music more than before.

Another significant event was the birth on October 14, 1866, of Frank Henry Martin to Christian Frederick (Frederick) Martin Jr. and his wife Lucinda. Thus, did the third generation arrive. The gradual succession to the second generation that had been taking place for some years was made more formal in 1867 when Martin took both Frederick and his cousin C.F. Hartmann into partnership. Hartmann, who had immigrated to the United States from the German lands in 1839, had been in Martin’s employ for some years and was clearly highly trusted. Remarkably these three relations were not only partners in the business but remained the very core of the firm’s skill base. Throughout much of the 1860s they typically produced somewhere in the region of 250 guitars per annum – more and more of them being sold through Zoebisch and Sons of New York City.[23] The partnership undoubtedly reflected, at least in part, the good work Martin had done in preparing Frederick, as both a craftsman and a business proprietor, to take control of the firm. But it also reflected his own advancing years – in 1867 he was aged seventy-one. By the early 1870s, age was being compounded by quite rapidly worsening health and Martin’s long and illustrious career as guitar maker and immigrant entrepreneur was approaching its close. On December 24, 1872, Martin received a terrible personal blow with the death of his wife, Ottilie, who he had married in Vienna almost fifty years earlier.

Martin moved into his son’s home, but, already weak, his decline was rapid and he too died, apparently peacefully, on February 16, 1873. He was seventy-seven. It had been a remarkable life. It is important to emphasize that, in many ways, its continuities were as profound as its considerable changes. He had followed his father into a skilled craft, one for which Johann George had helped develop a distinct identity, and never wavered from his dedication to it. From Stauffer in Vienna he had learned a spirit of innovation and inventiveness, and, just as Stauffer had helped shape the modern guitar in Europe, so Martin, drawing on the teaching of Stauffer as well as the influence of Spanish guitar design, helped create a uniquely American instrument. No matter how much his products grew in renown and popularity, Martin had not sacrificed quality for scale; the enterprise remained small throughout his lifetime and he never really left the workbench. Thus, while C.F. Martin died at the beginning of the period of industrialization, he (and his company) resisted the urge to put out as many guitars as possible. They emphasized quality over quantity.  This is perhaps best exemplified by the wooden sign cut by Frank Henry Martin that graces the factory. On it is featured a Latin motto, “Non Multa Sed Multum” which roughly translates as “Not Many But Much.” While Martin’s chief competitors sought to manufacture large quantities of cheap instruments, the firm never really strayed from its founder’s desire to build high-quality instruments. These values survived emigration and transplantation to an environment that was radically different in every way: commercially, culturally, and socially. Ethnic networks helped smooth the transition, as they did for so many immigrants, and Martin remained profoundly oriented toward family. The same networks also helped to facilitate distribution and marketing of Martin guitars, as the relationship with Zoebisch demonstrates. It is in this blend of continuity and change that we can see C.F. Martin’s experience of immigrant entrepreneurship as much more complex than an escape from Old World conservatism and restriction to New World freedom and opportunity.

This same distinctive blend of continuity and change has characterized much of the subsequent history of C.F. Martin and Company. Frederick had been playing an increasingly important role in the firm since at least the mid-1850s, and the partnership agreement of 1867 had cemented the gradual transition. The point of succession between generations is always a challenge for family firms, but Martin, though still involved almost up until his death, had prepared well. The early 1870s presented challenging conditions but Martin – the company and the family – negotiated them with assurance. “Uncle Fritz,” as Frederick was known to some of the younger generations, was well regarded and loved. Sadly his own time at the head of the firm, which saw a significant expansion of production facilities in 1887, was relatively short-lived; he died on November 15, 1888, just fifteen years after his father. By the time Frederick died, the partnership with C.F. Hartmann had already been dissolved (most likely the result of conflict over Fritz’s inheritance of his father’s one-third share in the company) and the firm was once more entirely under family ownership and control, which now passed to Frederick’s wife, Lucinda, and their son, Frank Henry Martin.

The firm was now with the third generation and about to enter what many regard as its “Golden Age.” Frank (born October 14, 1866; died April 9, 1948) was only twenty-two when his father’s relatively early death thrust him into a position of leadership; yet from early on he showed an impressive decisiveness and energy. Johnston and Boak call him a “key figure in the history of the Martin Guitar. Most of the important innovations, both in how the company operated and in the guitars themselves, happened under his leadership.”[24] Interestingly, Johnston and Boak note that he was not only a fully trained guitar maker at the time of his succession in 1888, but also the only craftsman working in the shop to have been born in the United States. The others were all German immigrants, many of them likely from Saxony, or even the Vogtland.[25] His first significant act was to end the restrictive marketing relationship with Zoebisch, taking back control of distribution. Reaching the market, not making good guitars, had for decades been Martin’s perennial challenge. Frank was alert to market trends and exploited passions for, first, the mandolin and then the ukulele. While the firm failed to capitalize on the mandolin trend, it was more successful building and marketing ukuleles, a practice it continues today. Frank Martin also forged relationships with large retailers, such as Ditson, for whom Martin began to make “own brand” models. Much more significant, in terms of creating a lasting legacy, was the innovation of the Orchestra and Dreadnought models of acoustic guitar – catering to new musical forms and tastes – as well as the shift to steel strings, with which Martin is now indelibly associated. These innovations significantly increased the volume at which guitars could be played, allowing them to compete with instruments such as saxophones and trumpets in new ensembles. From the 1920s, Martin began using “celebrity endorsements,” a key component of marketing strategies for American guitar makers to this day, and was eventually to become synonymous in the public mind with new musical stars, such as Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, and Hank Williams – confirming Martin’s status as an all-America guitar maker. Frank’s own sons, Christian Frederick III and Herbert Keller, born in 1894 and 1895, respectively, were the first Martins to go to college (both graduating from Princeton). Both men subsequently returned to work in the family business, but the decision to send them to college could be said to represent a nascent professionalization.

Perhaps as a result of this more advanced education, Christian Frederick III was, according to Johnston and Boak, the first Martin never to work “full time building guitars ‘from scratch,’” even though he spent time in the workshop from a very young age.[26] Following the First World War, Christian Frederick III worked primarily in the office, while his brother, Herbert Keller, set out on the road as a travelling salesman. For the first time in the firm’s history, two brothers of the same generation were working side-by-side, though in specialist roles – a pattern of development seen in many family firms as they grow, evolve, and transition from one generation to the next. Sadly, this arrangement ended prematurely due to Herbert Keller’s death from peritonitis in 1927.[27] Today Christian Frederick III is remembered as a somewhat frugal and conservative figure, characteristics that perhaps developed as he helped shepherd the firm through the Great Depression. He succeeded to the presidency in 1948 and retained control as chairman until at least 1976. Christian Frederick III’s reign was perceived as cautious and steady, but his son, Frank Herbert’s, time as company head was more controversial – Johnston and Boak call him a “renegade.”[28] Assuming the presidency in 1971 (a peak year for both sales and profits at Martin) he had in fact been influential since 1960, when he began work as sales manager. He assembled the firm’s first professional sales team, to great effect, introduced new models, made vital investments in a new factory, and harnessed the folk boom of the 1960s – just as his grandfather had done with the “Singing Cowboys” of the interwar years. But he also made a series of increasingly diversified and unsuccessful acquisitions that left the firm with almost crippling debts and adrift from its fundamental focus and mission. In an unprecedented move, the board of directors asked for his resignation in 1982, to which he acquiesced. Christian Frederick III resumed an interim leadership role until his grandson (Frank Herbert’s son), Christian (Chris) Frederick IV, the sixth generation, was ready to assume the Martin mantle in 1986. Chris Martin remains Martin CEO today and during the period since 1986, C.F. Martin and Company has rediscovered its core values, innovativeness, and profitability.

Family Life, Networks, and Social Status

As Martin prepared to leave Saxony in September 1833, a friend, F.A. Crasselt, gave him a drawing of the Martin family home in Markneukirchen as a gift. On it was written the message:

Oh, friendly symbol of my fatherland! This dear house, where I was wrapped in my parents’ love. The house, where I spent the luckiest of life’s golden days with my beloved wife and children, which God gave me as a gift, where the quiet luck’s sun was shining upon us. It is you! In a faithful picture you are standing in my eyes. To look at you often, should always make me happy.[29]

This parting gift seemed designed to evoke the emigrant’s nostalgia and homesickness before he had even left home. But it is true, as we have already seen, that connections to the German lands, and Markneukirchen in particular, remained important to Martin, even if they sometimes evoked painful memories. Equally, it is true that he succeeded in building not only a long-lasting business in his new home but also maintaining a stable and happy family life and a redoubtable social status – a social status founded not only on his economic success, and the renown of his products, but also on his standing as a member of the community in Nazareth. This standing, and how it developed and grew, rooted in sincere but undemonstrative piety, was well captured in his eulogy, which is worth quoting at length, even if its complete reliability cannot be assumed:

Eulogy of C. F. Martin Sr.

Our widowed brother Christian Frederick Martin, deceased February 16, 1873, in Nazareth, was born January 31, 1796, and… [in] April 25, 1825, he entered into marriage with Lucia Ottilie Kühle in Vienna, a marriage blessed with seven children…. In September of 1833 he journeyed with his family to New York and settled there, practicing his profession as guitarmaker for five years. From New York he then moved to Cherry Hill…. Two years ago he suffered a relapse [of an earlier stroke], and this time the effects were more permanent, with weakened memory and fully damaged mental powers. On December 24, 1872, his loyal life companion predeceased him following several months of painful illness. From that time on he spent his final days in the home of his son, where he received all the care which filial love can extend to a beloved father. In spite of his diminished mental powers our brother retained his sound physical health and was able to continue with certain tasks, by now second nature for him, coming voluntarily to his workshop as often as he could, even if only for short periods of work…. Our brother, his life complete, was in the true sense of accomplishment one of the peaceful souls within the land. In his time of greatest powers he cast his light before others without putting on special airs to call attention to himself. Though he rarely spoke of religious matters, his very conduct showed that his life was a life of faith in the Son of God, who showed His love and received love in return through quiet testimony to His children on earth of the prophecy, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Matthew 25: 40. The House of God was his joy. There was none who was more constant or more punctual in his attendance at church. Now he rests with renewed strength of spirit among the heavenly brotherhood and shall remain with the Lord forever.

“Prosper in your homeland well.

We who toil with earthly measures.”

It is interesting that this eulogy not only commends Martin’s familial, religious, and craft devotion, but also recapitulates the story of his immigration to the United States, which remained a life-defining moment for him.

A handwritten manuscript entitled “Biography of My Grandfather, Christian Martin Frederick,” dated December 1913 and with the author given as Clara Ruetenick-Whittaker, paints a much more intimate, even domestic portrait of Martin’s character.[30] She begins with a physical description, highlighting “straight lips with upturned kindly end… [and a] firm chin.” She continued, “On all his pictures grandfather looks strictly honest, upright firm, yet kind and pleasant,” features which shade into a sketch of a man always “kind and considerate with his family.” In a quirky, idiosyncratic document Clara returns several times to Martin’s character, each time revealing a new facet, such as a “fine generous spirit” combined with modesty, for it “was characteristic of grandfather never to speak of the nice things he was doing for others… he tried to get out of being thanked for his gifts.” Interestingly, she notes that Martin was “no musician” and could not play any musical instrument but that he had a “wonderfully good ear for music… [and] so fine a sense of tone-value.” She describes how he would often have musicians and teachers board in the family home for free over the summers and how the guests would “in the evenings give little family concerts to grandfather’s infinite delight.” It is a touching scene. Clara concludes her sketch of his character by noting how she can “well imagine him among his guests a genial, hospitable, modest personage putting himself into the background yet beloved and respected by all.”[31] These hints round out and make more human the public face of a master craftsman and successful immigrant entrepreneur.

At the same time, Clara also picked out qualities of more direct application to Martin’s business acumen; that he was never “satisfied with anything mediocre – he was anxious to produce the very best that can be produced,” and that he had an “almost superhuman patience.” She also describes his “habit to go to the woods himself and there select and mark the trees whose wood (presumably red spruce) he wanted to use for his guitars. This wood he kept for years so as to have it well-seasoned.” This latter habit speaks very powerfully of Martin’s deep immersion in craft lore and practice and a real love of materials.[32]

A December 16, 1944, letter from Ralph A. Roemer to Grace Walker provides another concise family history. The letter was begun “after I had myself all worked up to do a good job of browsing through the family records down at Nazareth with uncle Frank… he broke into the safe and hauled out a lot of interesting papers.” The letter goes on to recount the chains of relationships, the story of Martin’s earliest years, and his immigration to the United States. As interesting as the details provided by these two family histories is the fact that they were made and survive. They form a kind of origin story and signify the importance to the Martin family of both their history and their ethnic or national roots. Indeed, the 1944 letter recounts how the recipient will note that Martin’s oldest son “was born in Vienna, so don’t kid yourself that you are all German – you are part Austria-Hungarian.”[33] One hundred and eleven years after emigrating from Europe, the Martin family and its various branches clearly still identified themselves as, in some sense, German.

Thus, for the earlier period we should not be surprised to find that commercial and familial ties, often intertwined, were maintained long after Martin arrived in the United States. For example, in a January 25, 1864, letter written by Martin’s brother, Christian August Martin, he orders a number of different grades and types of strings for cellos, adding “Please give me the bill so that I know how much I must charge for them.” Yet, in the same letter, which is addressed to “Dear Brother and all the relatives in Nazareth,” August complains that “Since we have waited a long time in vain for a letter from you, I find myself forced to write and ask about your health and well being.” Towards the end of the letter he wonders whether Martin might visit Germania (a German-speaking community settled by fellow Germans near the town of Howard in central Pennsylvania) again, “which we would enjoy very much and I believe that if you don’t come at least once, we won’t see each other again.” A full ten years earlier the same brother, in a letter dated August 21, 1854, had written to tell Martin: “Dearest friend, I have decided not to come to America because I have been dissuaded from it in that I am already up in years and my wife also doesn’t want to.” In those two letters, we hear both the desire to sustain ties of kinship and nationality, but also the seemingly authentic voice of the pain imposed by the separations caused by emigration.[34] It seems that at some point in the intervening years between 1854 and 1864 the pull had become too strong for Christian August Martin to resist.

Ethnic ties were also important once Martin reached his new homeland. He arrived in 1833 bearing letters of introduction and recommendation from Masonic lodges, and there was a clear expectation or recognition that he would be able to draw on a wider set of German connections beyond those of prior emigrants with whom he was personally acquainted, such as Heinrich Schatz. But Martin’s status as emigrant from Saxony was probably most important when it came to selecting a location to which he could move both his family and business once New York City began to lose its attraction. Nazareth and the surrounding locality were profoundly influenced by its German and Moravian inheritances. Indeed, nearby Bethlehem could then be considered the center of the United States branch of the Moravian Church, and in 1839 the land on which Nazareth was situated was still owned by the church. Land sales were restricted and carefully vetted, and this may have been why Martin chose to settle at Cherry Hill, just outside the township. Newcomers, even those well-connected (Schatz had already been living in the vicinity for several years), had to prove themselves before they could be fully accepted within the community. As his eulogy richly illustrates, this was something that Martin more than accomplished over his lifetime. Nazareth offered more than just a largely German community and a well-established Moravian Church. The wider Lehigh Valley region was well connected by waterways and stagecoach lines to important cities such as Philadelphia. The forests of upstate New York, which were relatively accessible from northeastern Pennsylvania, were also richly stocked with one of Martin’s most critical raw materials; namely the fine Adirondack spruce prized for soundboards. At the same time, the culture of the Moravian community was deeply imbued with a love for music, religious and secular. Nazareth promised much to Martin, his family, and his business.

Just as the firm founded by Martin was successfully passed on to his son, Christian Frederick Jr., and subsequently through an unbroken line of succession to the sixth generation today, so was Martin’s sense of service to the local community. Christian Frederick Jr., served as chief burgess of Nazareth, as well as a member of the town council, and a trustee of the Moravian Church. Frederick’s own son, Frank, too was an officer of the Moravian Church and secretary to the Nazareth school board. Another trait that he shared with his grandfather was that he was no musician. Today, with a workforce of around six hundred, C.F. Martin and Company remains vital to the economy of Nazareth and the wider Lehigh Valley, to which the firm has remained strongly committed. Marin displays a preference for selecting employees from the local community and many employees have followed generations of their own family into the workforce.


Christian Frederick Martin took an object rooted in European traditions of music and craft and wrought from it an instrument more attuned to the needs and desires of American musicians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one that is often seen as a quintessential symbol of American music culture. In the 1920s and 1930s, the firm he founded, C.F. Martin and Company, became indelibly associated with most of America’s varied musical forms, and with many (if not most) of the country’s most famous musical stars. Subsequent generations across many other musical styles, such as the folk revival of the 1960s, have alighted on a Martin acoustic guitar as their favored instrument for both superior craftsmanship and tone. Certainly Christian Frederick Martin created a remarkable legacy in terms of the firm that still bears his name and is still led by a Christian (Chris) Frederick Martin today, but his legacy runs both much deeper and wider than that, right into the heart of American music culture. The firm itself has grown and thrived through a continued reliance on the values that drove Martin; craft, innovation, and dedication.


[1] The author wishes to acknowledge, with thanks, the kind assistance of Christian (Chris) Frederick Martin IV, Dick Boak, and other employees of C.F. Martin and Company in the research for and preparation of this article. Equally I am deeply indebted to Christine Atiyeh for her support and encouragement.

[2] Personal interview.

[3]  Robert Shaw and Peter Szego (eds), Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin and His Contemporaries (Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Books, 2013).

[4] James Westbook, “Johann Georg Stauffer and the Viennese Guitar,” in Shaw and Szego (eds), Inventing the American Guitar, 2.

[5] Philip F. Gura, C.F. Martin and His Guitars, 1796 – 1873 (Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Book, 2012), 36.

[6] Westbrook, “Johann Georg Stauffer,” in Shaw and Szego (eds), Inventing the American Guitar, 7.

[7] No indenture records or other documentary evidence still exists linking Martin to Stauffer’s workshop, but his encyclopedic knowledge of Stauffer’s work makes it highly likely that he studied with the master, as the Martin family believes.

[8] Arian Sheets, “C.F. Martin’s Homeland and the Vogtland Trade,” in Shaw and Szego (eds), Inventing the American Guitar, 18.

[9] Death notice for J.G. Martin. Martin Archives, Nazareth, PA.

[10] Gura, C.F. Martin and His Guitars, 39.

[11] Ibid., 42.

[12] Ibid., 44.

[13] Coupa Correspondence, Martin Company Archives.

[14] Ibid., 55.

[15] Coupa Correspondence.

[16] His name graced the paper labels of some Martin guitars of the period, though Coupa did not participate in the design process.

[17] Martin Company Archives.

[18] Gura, C.F. Martin and His Guitars, 78.

[19] Ibid., 79.

[20] Ibid., 81–85.

[21] Ibid., 101.

[22] This is undoubtedly a simplification. For example, artists in the 1920s who primarily used carved-top Gibson guitars probably would not have accepted the definition of an American guitar as flat-topped, and not all guitars did or do feature X-bracing. It was not until the widespread adoption of steel strings (1920s) and the development of models such as the dreadnought (1910s) that really elevated X-bracing into the category of a major technological innovation in acoustic guitar design.

[23] Ibid., 136. C.A. Zoebisch Jr. immigrated to the U.S. from Markneukirchen approximately a decade after C.F. Martin made the journey. He settled near Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and sought employment with Martin. After working for the firm for five years, Zoebisch moved to New York City and established an instrument import and retail business with his father and brothers. Stewart Carter, “Trombone Ensembles of the Moravian Brethren in America: New Avenues for Research,” Brass Scholarship in Review: Proceedings of the Historic Brass Society Conference Cité de la Musique, Paris 1999, Bucina: the Historical Brass Society series no. 6 (Paris: Pendragon Press, 2006): 91.

[24] Richard Johnston and Dick Boak, Martin Guitars: A History (Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Books, 1998), 92.

[25] Ibid., 93.

[26] Ibid., 157.

[27] Ibid., 94.

[28] Ibid., 139.

[29] Clara Ruetenick-Whittaker, ‘Biography of My Grandfather: Christian Frederick Martin,’ Martin Archives.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Letter from Ralph A. Roemer to Grace Walker, December 16, 1944. Martin Archives.

[34] Both letters from the Martin Company Archives.


Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Christian Frederick Martin." (2017) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved February 28, 2017, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship:

Chicago Style

Popp, Andrew. "Christian Frederick Martin." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 2, edited by William J. Hausman. German Historical Institute. Last modified November 23, 2015.

MLA Style

"Christian Frederick Martin," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2017, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 28 Feb 2017 <>

Portrait of Christian Frederick Martin Sr. in the studio of Philip Zorn, Philadelphia, n.d.

  • Portrait of Christian Frederick Martin Jr., n.d.
  • Portrait of Christian Frederick Martin Sr., n.d.
  • Portrait of Christian Frederick Martin Sr. and Ottilie Lucia (née Kühle) Martin, n.d.
  • Portrait of Ottilie Lucia (née Kühle) Martin, n.d.

See more images »