In 1933, Chicago convened the Century of Progress International Exhibition to commemorate the 100 years that had elapsed since its incorporation in 1833. In the middle of the Great Depression, in 1933 and again in 1934, the Exhibition attracted an astounding 48 million visitors.
Just across Lake Michigan, some 150 miles away in Kalamazoo, the Gibson guitar company sought to capitalize on this enormously popular event. Focusing on the exhibition’s emphasis on scientific progress, Gibson unveiled two instruments in 1933 that were decorated with “pearloid,” a modern, plastic, pearl substitute. The L-Century guitar and A-century mandolin featured pegheads and fingerboards covered with the material that guitar collectors have affectionately come to call “mother-of-toilet-seat.” Gibson produced these Century instruments in very limited numbers from 1933 to 1939.
This circa-1935 L-Century is my prized possession. It is a well-preserved example of Gibson’s propensity to mix the ridiculous with the sublime. Those beautiful, Art Deco-influenced fret markers are Brazilian rosewood with pearl accents that are flawlessly inlayed into plastic. The matching headstock decoration is also meticulously inlayed into a sea of mother-of-toilet-seat, with matching trussrod cover. The woods and craft, though, are purely sublime. The top is close-grained Adirondack spruce, the sides are birdseye maple, the one-piece back is flame maple, and the bridge is Brazilian rosewood. And, unlike some of the lower-priced L-0s and
L-00s of the 1930s that I’ve inspected closely, the workmanship on this L-Century, outside and inside, is unassailable.
Depending on your personal aesthetic, these are either the world’s most beautiful or world’s most tasteless guitars. To me, they are both. A friend accurately described the guitar as “delightfully tacky.”
If you play acoustic blues, ragtime, or old-time music, you probably couldn’t find a better guitar than a 1930s L-Century. The tone is fabulous, with huge bass and crystal clear mids and trebles. To quote Eldon Whitford, David Vinopal, and Dan Erlewine in their landmark book, Gibson’s Fabulous Flat-tops, “Simply put, it’s as nice a small-body guitar as there is on the vintage market.”
John Thomas is a law professor, guitarist, writer, and collector. Find out more at www.johnthomasguitar.com