Violins by Frank M. Ashley

I first acquired a violin by Mr. Ashley in the mid 1980s. I purchased my first one at an upstate New York auction. I had liked the look of the instrument, being of an eccentric nature. Unlike the other eccentric violins I have owned, this one appealed to me for its tonal qualities and has become my main instrument. Granted I think this would not appeal to the tastes of a classical musician — my musical background is in folk styles and some ethnic musics.

I recently (via the wonders of the Internet) was able to contact the grandson of Frank M. Ashley. He has kindly given me the following information:

Frank (Franklin) M. Ashley was my grandfather and almost certainly made the violins you mentioned. My father, Merwin Franklin Ashley had one or two of these violins when I was a young boy. Both my father and grandfather were patent attorneys. Incidently, my grandfather was responsible for patenting many of the amusements at turn of the century Coney Island (e.g. Dreamland, Steeplechase and Parks).

I'm afraid that I have very few pictures of my grandfather and none in his shop. He was a rather distinguished looking fellow with fine features and a Van Dyke beard - he somewhat resembled the actor, Monty Wooley, I'm pretty sure that except for making prototypes, he farmed out the actual manufacture of the instruments. I do know that upon my Dad's return from France after WWI, he spent some time in Vermont with regard to the manufacturing process.

For a number of years we also had a banjo-mandolin (an Orpheus?) that I think was designed by my grandfather but also manufactured by others. After my Dad died in 1974, much of my his stuff was lost by my other during the course of several moves. Prior to that, in the early 20's, my grandfather's home on Beverly Road in Brooklyn was robbed and much of real and sentimental value was lost.

While the family was originally of mainly English stock, they had been in Catskill since about 1780 and in the "colonies" since the early 1600's. That said, Frank M.'s second wife Angelina was the daughter of an English couple who emigrated to Canada and then America in the late 1800's.

Frank M. Ashley was born in Catskill on 10 June 1867 shortly after his father returned home from the Civil War service (a regular army cavalry sergeant with Custer and Sheridan) and married Susan Merwin of Hensonville. Frank married twice. The first time to Jennie Woods of Brooklyn (children: Frank Sinclair Ashley, Jessie Ashley), the second time to Angelina Butler (children: Merwin Franklin Ashley, Grace Ashley).

Re: the violin "inventor" Frank M. Ashley, I know that in addition to being a patent attorney, he was a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Society of Electrical Engineers, the American Society of Automobile Engineers and the New York Micsroscopical Society. His law practice was, for a number of years, located in Nassau Street, NYC, and my Dad was in partnership with him there briefly during the mid 1930's.

The following is quoted directly from the Universal Dictionary of Viollin and Bow Makers by William Henley:


Born at Catskill-on-Hudson, 1867. English parentage. Trained as a mechanical engineer. Attorney and Counsellor in Patent Causes at New York, 1924. Inventor of new shape violins named 'Gala' and 'Gem', and claimed them to possess all the superior tone qualities of old instruments with additional advantage in the attainment of a mellow tone in a much shorter time.

These advantages are obtained by making the belly and back of flat pieces of wood which are bent longitudinally and transvesely to forn the required arch and this low arch is maintained by a corresponding arched formation of the sides and ends; thus the arching is secured without 'routing', and with a minimum cutting across the length of fibres. Sides each formed of a single piece--no corner blocks used, but there is a brace-rod which extends down the centre from the top to bottom block, just below the top plate.

The 'Gem' has the same outline as the 'Gala', but differs in that the height of the ribs is the same throughout so that the arching of the plates is slightly greater. Frequently termed the 'American Violins'. Used largely in American schools..

The Gala Violin
Design. . . . No. . . .
Date. . . . . .
Made by F. M. Ashley, M.E.
Patent New York, U.S.A.

(Photograph of the maker on the left).

Labelled Gala Model D, Number 11, March 30, 1915
Made by Rettburg and Lange, New York, U. S. A.
(The small label on the back below the button reads GALA)


Unlabelled. This one conforms more to the patent drawings (see below).
Possibly built as an early prototype by Mr. Ashley himself.

The one that got away. This one belongs to a fiddler in Staten Island and is designated style B.
It has some attributes of the two above: the body shape of the Style D but the sound holes of the other model.

Violin Patent

Click below on each page icon to download full size printable file (200ppi) of the patent for the Ashley Violin,
applied for June 17, 1914 and granted December 12, 1916.

If you have any additional information on Mr. Ashley and/or his violins, feel free to contact me.

Jim Garber