The Hawaiian craze that began in the mid-1910s continued well into the 20s and early 30s. The ukulele became part of Tin Pan Alley culture and was firmly established as an integral element of the American music scene. Tin Pan Alley songwriters published dozens of novelty songs that exploited the subject of Hawaii, mentioning the ukulele in the titles or lyrics. A flood of ukulele instruction books appeared in response to the heightened interest. Numerous entertainers and virtuoso performers played major roles in the popularization of the ukulele in the twenties. Ernest Kaai (1881-1962), Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards (1895-1972), May Singhi Breen (1895-1970), Wendell Hall (1896-1969), Johnny Marvin (1897-1944), and Roy Smeck (1900-94) all helped to spread the fashion for the instrument not only in the U.S. but also across Europe. They made hundreds of recordings, participated in live broadcasts and radio shows, and wrote and published instructional books.
Guitar and banjo manufacturers offered variously sized models and introduced so-called novelty ukes that featured cartoon characters and stenciled designs. Novelty ukes were constructed of secondary and cheaper woods and were created as an inexpensive and fun introduction to the uke. They had attractive designs including art deco motifs, Hawaiian themes, exotic imagery of pyramids or Chinese dragons, or American West and college-related themes. The range of designs was intended to appeal to a variety of audiences across the nation and reflected different tastes and interests. Novelty ukes were not particularly good for making music but they were inexpensive, selling anywhere between $1.70 and $4.50 during the 1930s. Some notable exceptions among novelty instruments were the high-quality signature ukes that celebrated outstanding vaudeville performers of the era, including Cliff Edwards, Wendell Hall, Johnny Marvin, and Roy Smeck.
sasayaThe leaders during this era of mass production and distribution of novelty ukes were unquestionably the Chicago-based manufacturers Regal Musical Instrument Company and Harmony. Regal made inexpensive ukuleles throughout the twenties, expanded its brand by acquiring the J. R. Stewart and Le Domino trade names at the beginning of the Great Depression, and purchased the right to manufacture and sell Dobro resonator instruments in the early 1930s. In 1959, the Regal trademark was assigned to the rival Harmony Company. Other popular Regal ukes from the Great Depression years include the "Egyptian," the faux-leopard skinned "Jungle Uke" and the decaled "Red Dragon."
Harmony jump-started ukulele production when the popularity of the ukulele exploded in the mid-1910s. By 1923 the company produced as many as a quarter of a million instruments per year, including ukes and banjo-ukes. In 1927 Harmony introduced the Roy Smeck Vita Uke signature model, a pear-shaped instrument with stylized "seal" f-holes and soon afterward, the Johnny Marvin Professional "tenor" ukulele. Harmony also made instruments for Oscar Schmidt under the Stella trade name, and for Sears, Roebuck & Co. using the Supertone and Silvertone trade names. Popular designs included stenciled motifs of hula girls strumming ukuleles, water-skiers, and canoes drifting in calm waters under palm trees. Harmony's most collectible models are arguably the Harold Teen ukes that featured images from Carl Ed's comic strip "The Love Life of Harold Teen" which debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1919. The comic strip was regarded as a cultural icon of the jazz age. The use of cartoon characters on ukuleles demonstrates the immersion of the instrument in popular American culture at that time and its integration into major social trends. Among other noteworthy Harmony designs were the "Art Moderne," "Pep Leader," "Cheer Leader," "Touchdown," and "Whoopee." Of all the large ukulele manufacturers, Harmony stayed in business for the longest time—until the mid-1970s. During the 60s it produced three-quarters of all ukuleles made in the country.
siwaukeThroughout the 1920s, the ukulele was actively promoted as an instrument that was easy to learn and easy to play. To increase sales, retailers offered free lessons along with the purchase of an instrument. A five-minute crash-course primer with diagrams of chords became a common supplement to the packaging of the ukulele. Marketers advertised the instrument as a gateway to music making. Images of young children, elementary school, secondary school and college-aged students playing the ukulele and having fun were common.