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In 1879, Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira arrived in Honolulu to work in the sugar cane fields. To celebrate their arrival, they played folk songs on small four-stringed instruments called machete de bragas, more commonly known as machetes. The instrument was immediately popular with the Hawaiians. In response to demand, Portuguese cabinet makers who had traveled to Hawaii with the group opened up instrument shops and were producing machetes for sale by 1886.

Cabinet makers Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes, and Jose de Espirito Santo redesigned the machete for the Hawaiians to make it easier to play. They also constructed the instruments from koa wood, which is native to Hawaii. The Hawaiians renamed the instrument "ukulele" which means jumping flea. Hawaiian King David Kalakaua was an accomplished musician and quickly became an enthusiastic ukulele player. Association with the king helped to quickly elevate the status of the ukulele to the unofficial national symbol of Hawaii.

Many vintage ukuleles were cheap instruments for tourists made in the '20s and '30s when Hawaiian music was a popular fad. Besides the early Hawaiian-produced instruments, quality ukuleles were made by the C.F. Martin Company and the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company. The oldest manufacturer of ukuleles still operating in Hawaii is the Kamaka Ukulele Manufacturing Company, established in 1913.

Quick Facts

  • The ukulele was introduced to the continental United States at the Panama Pacific Exposition of San Francisco in 1915
  • Television star Arthur Godfrey regularly played the ukulele during his performances, resulting in skyrocketing sales of the instrument
  • A C.F. Martin & Company Model 5K ukulele from 1928 was sold by Skinner auction house in 2005 for $9,988

Recommended Items at Auction

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Vintage C.F. Martin & Co. 21" Ukulele & Case, 20th C
Nov 06, 12:00 PM EDT
Vintage C.F. Martin & Co. 21" Ukulele & Case, 20th C
by Winfield Auction Gallery
Est: $400- $600
$2000 Bids
Nov 06, 9:00 AM MDT
by Davis Brothers Auction
Est: $150- $200
$100 Bids

Sellers Who Sell Ukeleles

Winfield Auction Gallery

Winfield Auction Gallery

Davis Brothers Auction

Davis Brothers Auction