Oscar Schmidt was trained as a bookbinder in his native Germany before migrating to America. Schmidt attained great success in the 1920s by supplying his instruments to rural furniture and dry goods stores. This allowed rural musicians to buy a quality instrument locally, and resulted in a near ubiquity of Oscar Schmidt guitars in early recorded country and blues music.
Little is known for certain about Oscar Schmidt himself. He was born in Saxony, and had migrated to America by 1879, when he started a music publishing company. This was a successful venture, but within ten years it had evolved into the Oscar Schmidt musical instrument company. Schmidt manufactured ukuleles, banjos, mandolins and other folk instruments alongside guitars. By the early 1900s there were five Oscar Schmidt factories in Europe as well as one in Jersey City. Schmidt died in 1929 while visiting one of his European factories.
The Oscar Schmidt company is most famous for its “Stella” and “Sovereign” models (registered in 1909), both of which were made long after Schmidt’s death by other licensed makers. The company philosophy is based on quality materials and modest prices. Oscar Schmidt guitars fill the gap between expensive top-end guitars made by makers such as Martin, Taylor and Gibson and cheap beginners’ guitars.
By the turn of the century, Schmidt was supplying most of the more expensive guitars to both the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs. Schmidt’s real trade innovation came in the early 1920s however, when he began to explore ways to provide the growing culture of rural musicians with quality instruments. Small towns in the 20s rarely had their own music shops, but Schmidt would send his salesmen anyway, to furniture stores or other outlets. Schmidt guitars were even sold door-to-door. All this contributed to Schmidt’s becoming one of the most successful guitar companies of the time.
Just months after Schmidt’s death in 1929 the Wall Street disaster happened, triggering the Great Depression. The assets of the Oscar Schmidt company were tied up in a bank which would not recover. The company changed hands, and changed its name to “Stella co.”. The new head of guitar production, James Carver, was unable to turn the business around, despite making ornately decorated guitars, designed to look far more expensive than they truly were in that austere time. The remains of the business were sold off to rival maker, Harmony.
The Oscar Schmidt name and history have recently been revived by Washburn guitars. Washburn now operates a distinct branch of “Oscar Schmidt” instruments, with its own website and range of instruments.