F.E. Olds and Son Trumpet and Cornet production

before, during and after World War II

For a number of years, the conventional wisdom was that F.E. Olds and Son, like many manufacturing facilities in the United States during World War II, was converted to manufacturing to support the war effort. It has been reported in written histories of the company that Olds manufactured bomb sights. Very little written documentation survives about production data so for many years Olds enthusiasts have attempted to construct a serial number list for Olds instruments made before 1952 (there is a published list beginning in 1952).

Comparing Olds catalogs and marketing materials along with information from original purchases, various serial number lists have been prepared. However, there have always been inconsistencies in these lists, in part because no production was assigned for the approximate 4-year period of WWII.

A couple of years ago, I began to review the data that had been collected in the Olds Register and discovered that for the serial number range of approximately 12000 to 15000 (which had previously been generally assigned to the period before WWII began) that there was an exponential increase in the number of silver-plated trumpets and cornets in this group than in the proceeding and subsequent groups. Only 3.6% of the trumpets and cornets recorded from serial number 5000 to 12000 were silver-plated; while 58% of the entries from 12000 to 15000 are recorded as silver-plated.

Below is a photo of the bell of an Olds Cornet SN 12429 with US engraved on the bell:

Some anecdotal evidence is that many of the silver-plated Super trumpets produced during this era are noted to be excellent players. Super 14605 is one of these horns. This trumpet has a satin silver finish with polished accents and a gold wash bell. Olds offered silver (and even gold) plating on its earliest trumpet and cornet models, but very few of these were produced in the Great Depression of the 1930’s. And aside from the higher cost, another reason that there were far fewer silver-plated Olds instruments in the pre-war era is that silver-plated horns may have been considered old-fashioned at the time.  Most musicians that had Olds instruments were too hip for that!

Then after serial number 15000, only 3% of the next range of 4,000 serial numbers is recorded as silver-plated. The Olds Register consists of self-reported data by owners of Olds instruments and only amounts to a small fraction (2% to 5% of the estimated production during this era); however, there was clearly something going on during this period and my speculation, given my knowledge that the US Military has long preferred silver-plated instruments, was that Olds was producing trumpets and cornets for the military during WWII.

Serial Number range Total production % reported Silver


By taking the serial number range 12000 to 15000 and assigning this sequence to the approximate four-year period of US involvement in WWII (1942, 1943, 1944. and 1945),this helped resolve some anomalies in the existing serial number lists. Since Olds was still a small company before the war (compared with some of the larger more established brass instrument manufacturers) their production of trumpets and cornets is thought to have been between 1,000 and 1,500 per year in the late 1930’s. Taking the 3,000 instruments that would have been represented by the 12000 to 15000 sequence and moving them to the WWII years (instead of 1939, 1940 and 1941) made the late 1930’s production numbers a little more realistic.

While on the subject of “production numbers”, my analysis of the serial number and production sequence “assumes” that the serial numbers are stamped on each instrument in sequential (and date) order. That is, if Olds made a batch of Olds Super trumpets with serial numbers 7701 to 7800 and then a batch of Standard trumpets with serial numbers 7801 to 7900 that these 200 instruments were produced in date order. If Olds were producing about 100 horns per month in this example, then the assumption of the serial number list is that the 100 Super trumpets might have been made in April of the particular year and then the 100 Standard trumpets were made in May. However, knowing that Olds employed a number of highly skilled craftsmen with specific skills, it is impossible that the entire plant would have focused only on the production of a particular batch of instruments from start to completion while no progress was made on other horns. And while my analysis is focused on trumpets and cornets, the same plant was producing trombones also!

One craftsman was making valve sets; another was spinning and hammering bells; still another was doing engraving work; and on and on with the various specialties. So while the data in the Olds Register makes it clear that Olds produced batches of particular models in sequential serial numbers; it is extremely unlikely that these horns were ever completed in exact sequential date order.

More likely they had various batches of a particular model that were assigned a serial number in sequence, but particular batches might be completed on their own schedule depending on available materials, parts and labor.

The Olds literature from this era speaks to the ability to order instruments with specific bores and finishes, so perhaps the batches were scheduled to somewhat address orders and/or instruments from a batch were finished as orders were received.

While the preceding paragraph explains why the assumption that batches of instruments were completed in sequential serial number order would not have happened, in absence of any specific production records, there is simply nothing else to go on. This might mean that a particular instrument was actually completed many months (or even a year or two) after the serial number list indicates… this is just an inherent problem with no solution other than to accept a little ambiguity!

While my initial thought about the wartime production was based on two factors:

1, The production numbers for time frame just before WWII were not reasonable if Olds were to have reached serial number 15000 before the start of WWII. They simply did not have the facilities or workforce to have produced that many instruments in that time frame.

2. The unexplained exponential increase in silver-plated trumpets and cornets in the 12000 to 15000 serial number sequence.

However, thanks to the research of others, there is now corroborating evidence that Olds DID produce instruments during WWII!

Robb Stewart uncovered the testimony of R.B. Olds before a US Senate Committee in 1945 where Olds commented “We got a contract for our own product from the Philadelphia Quartermaster. Followed by “At that time the quartermaster wanted band instruments so badly that they gave us a contract for everything we could offer them. Then they wanted more instruments“.

The following documents provide the entire testimony:

I’d noticed a few instruments in the Olds Register that had notations of “Made for the Military” or “has US engraved on the bell” and I’d even seen one of these in the past, but without more photos and details, it was hard to know the history of these horns. A friend owned about 15 years ago. It was similar in many respects to a Special cornet, but had different engraving.

The serial number is stamped on the bell below “US” and there is no model name on the bell, which was customary with Olds instruments.

With both the bell engraved with US and US embossed on the case, the original ownership of this instrument cannot be doubted!

Recently, additional Olds “US” trumpets have been identified. They have similar engraving to US cornet 12429, but are not simply a “clone” of the Special model of that era. These four trumpets are serial numbers 9673, 9683, 9692 and 11238. But these three all fall well below the range that I’d speculated for the period of WWII.

Here are side views of the four trumpets in the same order:

9673 sold some time ago on Reverb. 9683 sold on eBay last fall. Robb Stewart has owned 9692 for many years hoping to find valves for it someday, and 11238 was recently acquired by Ron Berndt who initiated this discussion. I’d initially thought these were simply Special models that had modified bell engraving, but Ron has identified that 11238 has several features that are unlike pre-war Special trumpet models and the other three horns appear to be of the same design:

-The third valve slide cannot be adjusted by a push rod but is a longer slide much like the Special cornet slides of this era.

-The mouthpiece receiver is longer than Special trumpets of this era and seems to match the Standard model.

-The bell crook seems to have more volume inside the arc of the bell crook like a Standard.

-The pinkie hook is set back like a Standard

-The end of the tuning slide relative to the 3rd valve slide looks more like a Standard than a Special.

So, while the bell engraving on these four US trumpets has some similarity to the Special model, the design features are closer (but not identical) to the Standard model. It very much appears that these four trumpets (and cornet 12429) were instruments ordered by the US military with modifications that are more than cosmetic.

There are a few differences in these four trumpets: 9673 is the only silver-plated model; 9683 has different finger buttons (but it isn’t unusual to see a vintage Olds with replacement finger buttons) and 9692 has a pinky finger ring (as would be on the Ambassador after the War, and as does cornet 12429). But overall, these appear to be the same model. The fact that only one of these is silver-plated, doesn’t fit within the theory that the military ordered silver-plated instruments, but perhaps plating added to the delivery time and on the first orders it was not always a requirement.

While they don’t look to be innovative, perhaps this is the model that R.B. Olds was speaking about before the Senate Committee when he said “the Army wanted us to go a little further than we had done in developing an instrument that nobody else had developed.”

With the discovery of the R.B. Olds testimony that Olds not only produced instruments for the Army, but had 150 employees working on producing instruments and they were having a hard time keeping up, this makes a big change in the serial number and production estimates for 1942 through 1945. I’d thought that by assigning 750 instruments per year to coincide with the range of dramatically increased silver-plated instruments showing up in the Olds Register was pushing the limits of credibility (since the prevailing thought was that little or no instruments were produced during the war). However, it now appears that the 750 instruments per year was a low estimate!

If trumpets 9673, 9683 and 9692 were near the start of the Army contract, then perhaps the starting serial number for 1942 could be as low as 9650. There are a number of Olds Serial number lists in circulation, but I’ve always considered Robb Stewart to be the authority. Robb revised his list a few years ago and then I used this with some tweaks when I assigned the wartime production. Robb has noted that an Olds Standard SN 9626 has documentation of a purchase date of September 1941, and while the purchase date doesn’t give a precise manufacturing date, it is documentation that 9626 was made before September 1941. If in fact 9626 was made in late summer or fall of 1941, this would line up with the three US trumpets 9673, 9683, and 9692 being made under US Army contracts perhaps in early 1942. Here is a comparison of those lists and my new estimates based on the newly uncovered information.

This is not a complete serial number list, but only covers the years before, during and after WWII. For the three lists, the first column is the estimated serial number for the start of the calendar year with the annual production shown in the second column:

(unfortunately, this table does not format well for mobile devices)

’3847001,300 50001,30047001,100

The “new list” does a few things:

It reduces the production numbers slightly in the years before the war. Without a larger facility or more employees, it was hard to see how production could have doubled between 1936 and 1941, so this “issue” no longer exists.

-It keeps the production level before the war constant during the war.

-It reduces production slightly in the years immediately after the war (from the previous list) but has later increases to match the 1952 number.

While there was pent up demand, Olds did not enlarge facilities until 1948, so production would be limited until the new facilities came online.

While the 1946 and 1947 production numbers are still showing dramatic increases, at least part of this can be attributed to the inclusion of trombone production into the serial number sequence

These numbers improve the correlation between when a new model first appears in a known catalog and when the first serial number of this new model first appears in the Olds Register entries.

-The “production numbers” are simply the calculation of the starting and ending serial number for the year. This method certainly overstates actual production because there were no doubt instruments that were damaged during the manufacturing process. We have no way of knowing what percentage of the serial number sequence actually made it into finished instruments, but it was certainly less than 100%;

Olds and other Instrument manufacturers were anxiously awaiting the end of the war and the ability to respond to pent up demand. Here is an ad from a February 1945 publication:

But as indicated in R.B. Old’s testimony, Olds was seeking financing as the war ended. They were apparently unsuccessful until 1947 or 1948, which resulted in an expansion of facilities as noted in this Los Angeles publication in 1948 which was uncovered by Robb Stewart:

This expansion in 1948 facilitated Olds rapid expansion in the years following the war. But I’ve adjusted the production numbers down slightly for 1946 and 1947, since they did not have the larger facility in place until 1948.

I’m sure this won’t be the final word on the Olds Serial Number List, but it seems that with each new discovery that is added to the knowledge base, we get a little more accuracy on what might have actually occurred 70 to 80 years ago! I’ll go back and revise the larger serial number list and update the year-by-year comments to incorporate this new information after I hear back any comments from other Olds aficionados.


This “project” has been a collaborative effort. Robb Stewart’s excellent research and thoughtful observations have been instrumental in the ongoing effort to better understand the history of Olds and he produced one of these US Olds horns from his collection! Ron Berndt provided the catalyst for this new effort with his analysis of Olds 11238, which I’d initially dismissed as just a Special trumpet with US and the serial number engraved on the bell. Jon Patton has continued to dig through records about the size of buildings and other critical data relative to the production limitations for Olds and the brass musical instrument industry. John Irvine located the Will Connell collection of photographs at UCLA which shows the Olds craftsmen at work in the 1930’s that I’ve included in this article and has also contributed his uncanny research abilities!