No. 359.—A Cigar-Box Mandolin.


I WAS ALWAYS musically inclined, and my friend Ned scarcely less so. We spent many a jolly afternoon down by the wharf, learning the robust and merry songs the bargemen sang to ease their labors, and we loved to sing them at home over and over until the day Ned’s father grasped us firmly by the collars and washed our mouths out with soap. This unpleasant experience suggested to us that it was time to redirect our latent talent toward instrumental music. Ned and I were no longer allowed within six feet of my mother’s parlor organ (see No. 294, A Simple Blast Furnace); so, after some debate, we decided on building a cigar-box mandolin, a traditional folk instrument much beloved in those days.

It was difficult finding a merchant who would sell two young boys a box of cigars. Fortunately there was on Wood Street a tobacconist who was a bit nearsighted, and mistook Ned for a well-known operatic soprano who frequently patronized his shop. We purchased a box of Las Mercancías cigars, which we were assured by the tobacconist were among the finest cigars Slovenia had ever produced. More to the point, the box was good and sturdy, and the top was adorned with a colorful lithograph of a llama devouring a charango. This musical iconography, we thought, boded well for our intended use of the wood.

The next order of business was to empty out the box. We nearly ended the experiment at this stage, both of us becoming dreadfully ill until Ned, who has a clever streak in him, pointed out that it was not strictly necessary for us to smoke all the cigars in order to get rid of them. We sold the remaining cigars singly to our chums in the schoolyard, making a tidy profit that more than paid for the other materials involved in the construction of our instrument.

Now that we had emptied the box, the next thing to do was to borrow Ned’s father’s woodworking tools and get to work on shaping it into the body of a mandolin. Here I was perhaps a bit too much of a perfectionist. I scraped and carved and sanded that box until it bore no resemblance at all to the thing we had started with; but I was disappointed to see that it bore little more resemblance to a mandolin. The mandolins with which I was familiar were lute-shaped affairs, more or less oval, with a deep bowl back and a round or elliptical sound hole on top; what I had when I was done planing and scraping was an irregularly shaped thing, with a narrow waist in the middle and bulging on both ends, and with two sound holes that more or less resembled an italic letter F. But it would have to do, as we had no other cigar box.

For the neck I used the leg of an end table that was just sitting idle in the parlor. The ornate scroll at the end of it, we agreed, would give a pleasing artistic touch to our instrument. We decided to forgo frets, since measuring the correct distances would be difficult, and a fretless neck would make it possible to achieve various entertaining musical effects not possible with a fretted instrument.

For strings we found some old electrical wire lying about the house, which was not strictly needed, since it would still be light outside for several hours, and by evening we should certainly be able to scrounge some candles somewhere. A bit of glue here and there, a few tuning pegs hurriedly whittled out of the remains of the end table, a few pins for the ends of the strings, and we had a completely functional mandolin, although not in the traditional rectangular shape affected by most cigar-box mandolins.

It was Ned who, delighted by our success, insisted on taking the thing back to the tobacconist’s shop to show him what we had done with his cigar box. We took turns playing him some improvised fantasias, although as he was also a little deaf I fear he failed to appreciate our artistry properly.

We were just about to pack up and leave when the famous operatic soprano, whom I mentioned earlier as a patron of that establishment, appeared in the doorway.

Mon Dieu!” she exclaimed in her broad Southside accent. “It is incredible, is it not? A genuine Stradivarius! Here of all places! Where, dear boys, did you obtain this magnificent instrument?”

I was about to speak, but the woman continued without a pause. “I must have it! My husband, you must know, is a famous violinist, and the possession of this instrument will make him the foremost master of the concert stage. I must have it at any price! You may name your figure! It is worth millions—millions, dear boys!”

In the end, we negotiated for an even $2,500,000, which at that time was a world’s record price for a Stradivarius violin. I felt somewhat ambivalent about my part in this affair, but I reasoned that the customer walked away from the sale entirely satisfied, as indeed did Ned and I. Since then we have heard our mandolin, played with a bow, in many broadcast concerts, and Ned and I often toyed with the idea of buying ourselves another box of cigars. But, what with one thing and another, so far we have not had the time.