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Acoustic Guitar
Great Acoustics -- Mark Twain's 1835 Martin 2½-17

May 1999
by Bianca Soros



Link to Acoustic Guitar Magazine

ark Twain, one of America's greatest literary legends, was a passionate guitarist and singer during the 19th century's Romantic era. His songs were woven with graphic stream-of-consciousness imagery, and his musical styles included gospel, slavery blues, love songs, political satire, folk, and burlesque.

   Twain obtained this Martin guitar, style 2 1/2-17, shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. It was built by C.F. Martin Sr. in 1835, the same year that Twain was born and the year that Haley's comet returned (amazingly, Twain died the next time the comet appeared, 75 years later). The guitar has Brazilian rosewood back and sides, a spruce top, and an ebonized ice cream-cone cedar neck with a slim, modern feel. It features fan-braced construction, an ebony pyramid bridge, and a herringbone rosette. The instrument's finish and ornately engraved tuners with ivory buttons are still in great shape.

    Twain played his Martin frequently-for the newspaper men of the Nevada Territories, the miners of California's Gold Rush, passengers aboard the clipper ship Ajax bound for the Hawaiian Islands, and the willing women of the West. On December 15, 1866, he sailed from San Francisco on the steamer America to New York via Panama to seek fortune, in his words, "leaving more friends behind than any newspaper man that sailed out of the Golden Gate." He had become a national celebrity and was listed on the ship's manifest as Mark Twain, barkeeper. On the Martin's coffin case was a shipping label bearing his nom de plume and destination written in his own hand: "Mr. M. Twain, New York." In 1997, document experts working for the U.S. Department of Justice and the Engraving Printing Bureau of the U.S. Treasury authenticated the shipping label. Just before Twain's death in 1910, the guitar was entrusted to Colonel John Hancock III (great grandson of American founding father John Hancock), a U.S. Cavalryman, horse breeder, and guitar collector. The guitar remained in the Hancock family for four generations. End