Sour Note on the Ukelin

Times Staff Writer

Question: I have an old musical instrument called a ukelin, which has been in my deceased husband’s family for decades. How can I determine its age and its worth?

The almost completely faded label inside the instrument reads, “Price $35, ukelin, distributed by International Musical Corp., 14th and Bloomfield St., Hoboken, N.J."--A.A.

Answer: The ukelin, a kind of guitar held on your lap, was a product of the early part of this century when offbeat, self-teaching instruments were popular and sold door to door.

Emory Knode, who owns the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe in Catonsville, Md., says as a collectible the problem is that there were plenty of them produced from 1915 to 1920, and they never really appreciated in price.


“I’ve not paid more than $30 for them, which was their original price anyway,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I don’t think they have a whole lot of value.”

He then asked his caller to hang on a minute while he rummaged through his store. Finally, he found a ukelin. Plucking some of the strings, he described an oblong-shaped instrument, about 30 inches long and made of maple.

Placed on the lap, the instrument utilized four chords, each having four strings. Additionally, there are 16 more strings on the bow.

Knode said the history of the ukelin was tied into door-to-door salesmen--"kind of medicine show guys"--who would demonstrate the instrument as easy to play, even if the individual had no musical ability.


The instrument usually came with a small booklet, he said, that showed people how to play its strings by the numbers.

The salesman, he said, would then “play an old standard and people thought it was great because they too could play it instantly. But after a few weeks they would see it was useless because it was so (musically) limited.”

As for its price tag of $30 or so, that “was a heck of a lot of money in 1920.”

Another “oddball” musical item of that era, he said, was a triangular-shaped string instrument called the marxophone, a museum piece without great collectible appeal.


There isn’t much demand for such instruments, Knode said, and because they don’t have a quality sound, their only real value would be in the eyes of collectors searching for bizarre musical items of that time.

Knode’s shop specializes in instruments with Appalachian roots, such as dulcimers and banjos. His address is 643 Frederick Road, Catonsville, Md. 21228.

Q: Could you give me an idea of what a letter by Charles Dickens could be worth?--A.N.

A: Los Angeles autograph and manuscript dealer Doris Harris recalled that at a Sotheby’s auction in London last July, 27 Dickens letters were available.


Prices at that auction, she said, ranged from from approximately $540 for two Dickens letters and a check to more than $2,300 for a two-page Dickens letter, dated Aug. 13, 1840, to Samuel Rogers, another well-known writer of that period.

“Dickens letters are not scarce,” Harris said. But, depending on their content and the demand, they can be costly.


The Southern California chapter of the Paperweight Collectors Assn. has scheduled its fall meeting for Oct. 9 at 1 p.m. at the Red Lion Inn, 3050 Bristol St., South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa.


The chapter’s president, Joseph W. Hutt, writes that the featured speaker will be Chris Buzzini, “one of Southern California’s nationally known glass paperweight artisans.” For further information, call (213) 649-3978.

Soble cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about collectibles. Do not telephone. Write to Your Collectibles, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.