Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes, and Jose do Espirito Santo were the pioneers in establishing and developing Hawaii's unique tradition of finely crafted ukuleles and musical instruments of koa wood. Ukuleles made between 1880 to 1910 are very scarce today and little is known about these three men who were responsible for the "invention" and popularity of the instrument. Santo made instruments until he passed away in 1905 and Dias until 1911, when he retired due to illness. Nunes is often regarded as the "father" of the ukulele, at least in part because his company stayed in operation longer and produced more instruments than Dias and Santo. Nunes brought his sons into the business in 1910 and they made a full line of ukuleles, taropatches, and steel guitars. The company went out of business ca. 1918.

Samuel K. Kamaka, Sr. (1890-1953) and Jonah Kumalae (1874-1940) are considered among the finest and most prolific makers from the first generation of Hawaiian ukulele manufacturers. Kamaka Hawaii, Inc. has been in business since 1916 in one form or another and in that time has specialized in hand-crafted instruments made of koa wood including the standard or soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone models. The company has become especially known for its oval-shaped pineapple ukulele, designed by Sam Kamaka in the mid-1920s and patented in 1928. The prototype, its body painted in trompe-l'oeil fashion to look like a life-sized pineapple, can still be seen at the Kamaka factory in Honolulu. The pineapple model—an instant success—brought world-wide recognition to the company and remains Kamaka's signature model.

In response to the growing popularity of the ukulele in the mid-1910s, mainland manufacturers jumped into the business. Among the numerous imitators of Hawaiian-made instruments, C. F. Martin & Co. of Nazareth, Pennsylvania stands out above all others for its quality of craftsmanship. Established in New York City in 1833 by German émigré C. F. Martin, Sr. (1796-1873), Martin was already renowned for its exceptional acoustic guitars when they began making their first production-line ukuleles under the leadership of Frank Henry Martin (1866-1948) in late 1915. Martin & Co. developed a full line of finely-crafted instruments, including the soprano, concert (beginning in 1925), tenor (1928) and baritone (1960). The Style 0 (introduced in 1922) was made only in mahogany and had the least amount of ornamentation; Styles 1, 2, and 3 were made in mahogany or koa wood (designated 1-K, 2-K, and 3-K) and featured increasing amounts of ornamentation. The Style 3 and 3-K, along with the Style 5-K (introduced in 1925), with their seventeen-fret ebony fingerboards, were advertised as professional model instruments. The Style 5-K was Martin's top-of-the-line production instrument and featured highly figured koa wood with abalone purfling and pearl inlays on the fingerboard and head stock.

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Gibson was another famous mainland manufacturer that made fine ukuleles. Orville Gibson's (1856-1918) one-man workshop, founded in 1894, was known by 1902 as the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company, Ltd., of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Gibson soon attained the stature of a major American mandolin and guitar company and started to make ukuleles and banjuleles in 1927. Gibson's ukes came in 'Uke-1', 'Uke-2', and 'Uke-3' styles and differed in ornamentation and fretboard length; elaborate design patterns and a longer fretboard were reserved for the 'Uke-3'.

Among the other mainland manufacturers who came into the business early on was the Chicago-based Lyon & Healy Company, which, unlike C. F. Martin & Co. and Gibson, specialized in mass-produced instruments. The company first opened in 1864 as the Chicago branch of the Oliver Ditson Co., a major Boston-based musical instrument retailer. Lyon & Healy distributed the Hawaii-made Kumalae and M. Nunes & Sons instruments and produced their own Washburn line of ukes and taropatches. Although the standard Washburn instruments used less expensive woods, they were made to high standards and earned a reputation as beautiful sounding instruments. In 1923 the company offered five styles of ukes (three deluxe models in koa) and also sold unique bell-shaped ukuleles and the round "Camp" uke. Lyon & Healy stayed in ukulele production until 1928 when it sold its Washburn line to J. R. Stewart Co., another Chicago-based company.
Early Makers