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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: World’s best, superior, super fine violin string package collection

The Green Bay collector’s items all come with a story and history.

PHOTO: Larry Frye shows samples from his collection of vintage violin string packages dating to the mid-1800s in his shop in Green Bay. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – People like to collect all manner of things. One of the rarest collections may be Larry Frye’s assortment of violin string packages.

Funny thing is, they’re fascinating. Plus, Frye knows how to run with a good tale.

Larry Frye operates the String Instrument Workshop on Broadway in Green Bay.

He says, “My collection is kind of a one-of-a-kind collection. Years ago in the course of the repair business, I discovered that a lot of people have interesting things in their violin cases. One of the things that I would come across oftentimes was a very old string package.”

By old, Larry Frye means mid-1800s up through the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the packages are from the turn of the 20th century “give or take 15 or 20 years.”

For years, he would simply chuck the old packages in a drawer. Eventually, his wife encouraged him to mount the packages in a booklet.

There’s a certain amount of joy as Larry Frye leafs through his collection.

“It’s just fun looking at the labels. The hyperbole in advertising has been around for centuries, and each one of them claims that they’re the best. So it’s difficult to tell. But they have fascinating printing, fascinating dialogue on the packages, fascinating claims. There are celebrity endorsements from years and years ago. Some of the origins of the string packages are really interesting as well. For instance, Armour Meat Packing in Chicago had a lot of raw material on hand through their other business of meat packing and actually produced a whole series of strings. They were called ConcertMaster strings, and they were endorsed by Fritz Kreisler, a very famous violinist….

“There was always the ‘Which is better?’ – the German strings, the French strings, the English strings, the Italian strings. The grass is always a little greener. There are just many, many bizarre brands that you can find throughout the years. It’s been a delight finding these things over the last 33 years. There’s some funny packaging, like the Cardinal Real Waterproof Violin Strings. It says, ‘For players that are troubled with moisty hands.’ The wording is a little verbose. They’re delightful.”

One of Larry Frye’s favorite sections contains the boastful brand names. “We have

Supertone, Expert, Perfection, Maxima, Superior, Superlative, Best, Super Fine, Superior and Extra Quality. You know, every superlative that you can think of, including ‘Superlative’.”

Quirkiness abounds.

“There was one package that I came across that I’m sure there was a marketing genius who figured out way to increase sales by 25 percent. They had written on the package, 2½ lengths. They used to have enough string so that you could cut it off and then use another one, but I’m not sure what violinist would use a half a length for other than they managed to increase sales by 25 percent.”

More leafing…

“The Elephant Brand strings are really a bizarre package. The logo is an elephant holding a bass with it trunk using a brush on the string. The tagline is, ‘Oh, but these strings are hard to break’…

“We have Bulldog and Fox. We have Eagle brand. Wolves, Wolverine, Monarch, Grizzly.”

Larry Frye has favorites…

“It’s a beautiful Art Deco style page, very elegant. A player wearing tails. And what’s nice is I have a full set of these strings.”

String packages of brands from Albania and Serbia are placed on the same page, inadvertently he says.

“And then there are some unusual materials. There are the Silky String, Studio Brand, Conservatory Strings….

“Excelsior, Acme… All the great trademarks.”

“Marbletone and Intune-a Strings”

Larry Frye has packages with the names of famous players – Sarisoti, Viotti, Paganini, Fritz Kreisler. “It’s never been proven. They’ve never known whether Fritz Kreisler actually played these strings, but I’m sure he got paid a fair amount of money to endorse them.”

There’s a lot of fine print. “It’s sort of reminiscent of a patent medicine bottle – all of the different claims that they made – These strings will make you play in tune, and everybody will love you.”

More: “They liked to use operatic-sounding names, La Tosca, La Traviata.

Tonk brand had special orange-colored strings. “What the color has to do with the string I have no idea.”

More: “Classical sounding names – Thesius, Vulcan, Olympian.”

It IS an amazing collection.

Larry Frye says, “When studying the history of the violin, oftentimes the history of the string is ignored. You know, that’s just one of those extras that people don’t think about too much, but violins aren’t much good without strings.

“Strings, of course, have evolved considerably over the last few centuries. The common misconception about strings is that they’re cat gut. And generally, the strings are made out of lamb gut. There’s three layers of the gut when they remove the intestines. The inside layer gets scraped away and thrown away; nobody wants to deal with that. The outside layer was traditionally used for something like tennis racquets. It’s a very fibrous, very tough type of layer. The middle layer is soft and pliable, and that was what was dried, spun, sent through all sorts of acid baths and then twisted into strings. So a lot of the strings that I have in the packages in my collection are actually packages from old gut strings.”

Most of the collection is from pre-World War II.

“There were violin string makers before the mid-1800s, but I don’t think the marketing aspect of it really started taking place until around that time period, with competition. There was a strong export market in Europe to the U.S. because that was the fastest growing economy at the time. So there were a lot of products that were shipped to the U.S., specifically for marketing in the U.S. And most of the distribution was done through mail order companies. Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were prime marketers of violins and violin-family instruments – as well as windmills and manure spreaders and whatever else. But they sold a lot of instruments of all different qualities and, of course, the accessories, strings and things that went along with it.”

Some of the packages still have the gut string in them – 90 and 100 or so years after the fact.

“Certainly some strings were better made. The differences that would be important would be a string that was more stable, that was processed more, so that it would be less susceptible to temperature and humidity changes, one that was processed so that it had a very even diameter throughout its whole length so it would play in tune up and down throughout a scale. Those would be the qualities that you’d really want to find in a string. And the better the string, the more even its diameter and the more stable it would be.”

Larry Frye reads articles in Strad magazine, published in England for 110 years or so, that first were printed a century ago. “Oftentimes there are people who are moaning about the quality of strings – They put a string on and it goes false right away and it doesn’t work and, you know, money that they waste having to spend, whatever few cents (at the time) on a string. But strings today are not only much, much higher quality, they’re really, really expensive, too, in some cases. It’s not uncommon for a good set of strings for violin to have a list price of over $120, which is a chunk of money.”

That’s a different type of string than 100 years ago.

“String technology has changed immensely in the last several decades. Actually, during my lifetime, gut strings have fallen almost completely out of use, except for period instruments and such, but almost everything has a synthetic core now.”

A few violinists in the area use gut.

“Gut strings have a whole different sound. It’s a warmer, less responsive sound. The reason people have turned away from gut is because it’s sensitive to temperature and humidity changes. So you’re sitting on stage, you tune up, they turn the lights on and your old string goes out of tune. I have a lot of respect for players who played on solid gut strings. It must have been incredibly difficult to do that. Modern strings are so much more stable. There’s lots of experimentation with wrappings and cores and windings and different materials and different metals.”

Given what Larry Frye does for a living being not that common in the overall spectrum of jobs, it’s hard to imagine anybody else having as extensive collection as he has.

“In the world,” he says, “I’m sure there are others. I don’t know of any, though. The famous musical instrument museums that I’ve been to all concentrate on instruments and bows and that sort of thing, but I don’t know of anybody else who has a string package collection.”

The collection is mostly for fun-sies.

“Every once in a while somebody comes in with an old instrument, and I’ll spot a package in their case. I’ll pull out the collection and show them what I’ve got. Almost always they offer to donate it to the collection. It’s fun for students to look at. And customers come in and ask questions about strings, how strings are made, how often should I change strings, and it’s fun to pull out the collection and say, ‘This is what people used to have to deal with with strings’.”

Let’s end with two observations from Larry Frye. They’re pithy.

One: “The thing about violins is nobody ever throws a violin away. Everybody in the back of their mind thinks, ‘It could be a Strad.’ Even if it gets stuck in the attic or stuck or stuck in a basement or even in a barn or garage, nobody throws it way. The instrument itself usually isn’t obsolete but most often they’re not terribly valuable but nonetheless people always hang on to them. That’s one of those things. It’s a touchstone to your heritage.”

Two: “Music has always been an important part of people’s lives, and it’s something they’re willing to invest in. And violins aren’t much good without strings.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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