Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Women at the Workbench

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins,
Mikaela Marget, and Ivana Truong

Do female violinmakers even exist?? 
del Gesu scroll

One difficult aspect of researching female violin makers pre-20th century is that there were strict laws across Europe that forbade women from owning individual property or having control of their own income. In addition, pre-20th century stigmas about what instruments were considered "proper" for women to study may have made women uncomfortable about publicly working on or playing violins, violas, or cellos. In many places, it wasn't even acceptable for women to carry a stringed instrument in public! 

It is probable that women helped their husbands in the shops but did not actually have their own labels and weren't able to sign their instruments. Although their work is not well-documented throughout history, it does exist. Women luthiers have worked hard throughout the ages on making, repairing, and selling violins--just as they do today. We were able to track down a few, many who worked in their husband's shops and/or took over after their husband's deaths.

Katarina Roda (~1699-1748) 

Katarina was likely a violinmaker and repairer, though she is most well-known for being the wife of thfamous violinmaker Guisseppi Guarnieri "del Gesu". There are a few recorded accounts of violins bearing a label of Katarina (or Catterina) Guarneri being sold or discovered. Unfortunately, the validity of these claims is impossible to secure. The labels of these instruments would have been removed (regardless of how authentic they may or may not be) and there is a long tradition of fake labels in the violin world! Though documentation of her work has been obscured, there is evidence that she worked with del Gesu in his shop.

Weiniawski Del Gesu 1742
The most convincing case for Katarina lending a hand in the shop is the variations in del Gesu's style toward the end of his life. According to luthier Roger Hargrove, "Unusual variations in style, especially in a maker's late period, are routinely explained as the work of his sons or apprentices 'del Gesu' had neither." It is possible Katarina was that extra set of hands in the shop.

del Gesu scroll
del Gesu scroll

After his death, Katarina is thought to have taken over the shop and finished some of the violins that had been left by her husband. "This theory is supported by the 1745 label in the 'Leduc' violin, dated posthumously, 'del Gesu' having died on 17 October 1744. The newly widowed Katarina remained in Cremona, at least until she remarried on 28 April 1748" (1, 2).

Elizabeth(s) in England (1700-1750)

Broadside advertising Hare’s shop 
We were able to track down three well-documented female luthiers in London in the first part of the 1700s: Elizabeth Hare, Elizabeth Hare II, and Elizabeth Miller. 

Elizabeth Hare took over the shop after the death of her husband, but it is likely that she was working with him before his death as well. "Several violins by [Elizabeth] Hare survive but no viols, though the fact that she listed “viols” first among the instruments sold in her shop strongly suggests that she built them" (3).

Elizabeth Hare II (her daughter-in-law) is a documented violinmaker as well. Her violinmaking style was similar to her father-in-law, John Hare. In addition to making violins, she was "...the proprietor of 'the Viol and Hautboy' in Cornhill between 1733 and 1748" (4).

Elizabeth Miller was the proprietor of her husband's shop 'the Violin and Hautboy' after his death, and grew the business significantly over that time. John Miller (her husband) was known as more of an instrument dealer, though his father was a prominent viol maker at that time, so it is possible that he also repaired and made instruments. Though there is little documentation of Elizabeth building instruments, it isn't out of the realm of possibility! (4 6, 7)

The violinmaking world was (and still is) extremely interconnected, and it seems as though there was overlap in familial and business relations in London at this time. Even these two competing businesses John Miller was the apprentice of John Hare's father who was a well-known viol maker of the time. Trade secrets were ample, but it seems as though women were not excluded from this interconnectedness, and in fact, were extremely important to the businesses and the craft. 

Florentine Demolliens (1797~1840) 

The Chanot shop in Paris
Like the women of the 1700s, Marie-Florentine-Sophie Demolliens (Florentine) worked in the shop of her husband, George Chanot. Unlike the others, she was an apprentice to Chanot first, then became his colleague, and after some time they were married. In the early 1800s it was still uncommon for women to be employed in instrument shops, it was "an unusual choice of activity for a woman at this time" (8). In fact, it was a tad scandalous at the time for a woman to work in a violin shop, and her output caused a stir in the community (though this isn't the most scandalous story associated with the Chanot-Chardon family--more on this in a previous blogpost(9).

Florentine's work was known for her scroll carving in addition to being an integral worker in the shop. There are three documented violins made by her in the period between 1827-1829 (10).

Olga Adelmann (1913-2000)

Olga Adelmann
Olga Adelmann was an established luthier as well as an expert in Alemannic violins, early violins made in Southwest Germany and Switzerland. She made her decision to enter lutherie when having her cello repaired by Berlin luthier Otto Möckel. She expressed her interest in becoming a luthier and while Möckel was immediately against it, he relented and employed her, first on trial and then on a more permanent basis.

She continued working at the shop under her mentors' successor until WWII. As for many women, WWII gave Olga an opportunity to play a bigger role at the workshop. With the goal of eventually opening a workshop of her own, Olga took an exam that allowed her to be recognized as a master craftsman (or rather, craftswoman). Later, she worked as an assistant under Georg Ullmann, who she said sexually harassed her and tried to make her sign an unfavorable contract for her work. 

After the war, she left Ullmann's and began her own workshop, but with men back after the war, her customers returned to their old shops and she struggled to make a living. She closed her shop in 1950 and for the years that followed, she did small jobs for various shops and colleagues. In 1961, she became the director of restoration at the State Institute for Music Research in Berlin (11, 12, 13). 

Carleen Hutchins (1911-2009)

Carleen Hutchins
Carleen Hutchins was a violinmaker, former science teacher, and researcher. Many of her first violins were expendable instruments that she made when researching acoustic properties with Harvard physics professor Dr. Frederick Saunders. 

She is most well-known for her octet of proportional instruments, sometimes called the new violin family. According to a New York Times article from 2009, "The new violin family, its enthusiasts say, not only extends the range of the traditional violin family, but it also corrects the acoustic imbalances among its members that have bedeviled composers and players for generations" (14). Her octet maintains the timbre of the violin throughout over 7 octaves across the eight instruments. 

Hutchins also developed advanced techniques for checking resonance before a violin is put together, including "free-plate" tuning (15) that violinmakers still use today. Carleen Hutchins also was a founding member of the Catgut Acoustical Society (14), an organization "founded in 1963 to increase and diffuse the knowledge of musical acoustics and instruments, and to promote its practical applications."

Dr. Virginia Apgar
A close friend of Hutchins was a well-known doctor and researcher named Dr. Virginia Apgar, who was also a violinmaker at that time. Hutchins and Apgar once stole a shelf from a phonebooth under the cover of darkness. It ended up making a great viola back! (16)

Final Thoughts 

It is worth noting that many of these women (especially pre-21st century women) had additional responsibilities to their shop work. Women were expected to maintain the home and raise children alongside their work in the violin shops. After the onset of Florentine's brain illness, it was a difficult task to find someone who could both cover her work in the shop and the home (8).  Carleen Hutchins and Virginia Apgar both had research and teaching careers outside of violinmaking.


(1)  Roger Hargrove Blog (2) Hill (3
Duke Exhibit (4The British Violin the catalogue of the 1998 Exhibition [pg 202]  (5Makers of London Bridge (6The Musical Quarterly  (7A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personel in London 1600-1800s.  (8Les luthiers parisiens auz XIXe et XXe siecles tome I (9) Chanot-Chardon Soap Opera (10) Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (11)  J-stor (12) (13) (14) (15) Cat Gut Accoustics (16) New York Times  (17) NVFA (18) Book of American Makers, James Wenberg (142)  

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