Industry Meets Art: The History of the Iconic Hill Bow

By Kass, Philip J. | Strings, November 2010 | Go to article overview

Industry Meets Art: The History of the Iconic Hill Bow


Kass, Philip J., Strings


In 1892, or so the story goes, during the British Parliamentary election campaign, Alfred Hill, of the London firm W.E. Hill & Sons, got into an argument with one of his employees over the subject of Irish Home Rule. The argument became heated and ended with the employee erupting at his employer and walking out.

This confrontation had an unusually strong impact on Hill, for the employee was Samuel Alien, the company's only bow maker.

Hill's response? Take two men from the casemaking department, William Retford and William Napier, and assign them to make bows. This was no easy task, as neither had experience as bow makers and Alien's working method was a mystery to everyone who observed it. Still, Retford and Napier made lemonade out of Alien's lemon, and developed the fine and reliably consistent product that the violin world has come to know as the Hill bow.

The two men went on to become enormously respected in their craft. They also came up with, an unorthodox method that produced extremely consistent bows as well as a system of identification marks that gives a certain measure of delight to Hill bow owners today. Here's how it worked: the bows were created in something resembling an assembly line, with different people making the various parts, with the frogs fitted early in the process, before the stick was even carved. The parts were assembled only at the end of the process. In this way, they could produce bows in volume, and what started as an accessory became an integral part of the violin business.

THE MAKERS' MARKS

The Hills' inspiration was probably JeanBaptiste Vuillaume, the great French violin maker and dealer, the only dealer to have had a bow-making department. Perhaps they heard from Vuillaume how much trouble his bow makers had given him! The Hills certainly knew this from personal experience, as neither James Tubbs nor Samuel Alien, their two previous bow makers, were on good terms with their former employers.

Much of the Hills' employment system was oriented around employees not learning enough to go into competition with them. A method of compartmentalizing the skills and keeping track of the workers was necessary. The solution was to come up with some sort of marking system to identify who made what, enabling the Hills to know who to blame, and presumably whose wages to garnish, when something broke. These marks were once the subject of great speculation, but their code is now quite well known.

The maker's marks are of two sorts: one to mark the makers of the frog and stick and another to indicate which bow went with which frog. The makers' marks began with notches and points pressed into the head plates, which were almost without exception made of metal, as had now become the English tradition. During the First World War, a new batch of bow makers was hired, young teenagers just out of school who could be hired cheaply, and it was decided to give each a brand with a number on it. This system began in 1920 and continued until 1980, the last number given out being 20.

The frog was stamped with a letter on the underplate, which corresponded to the stick for which it was made, which then bore, ahead of the trench, the same letter. The makers of the frog also stamped the underplates with their number. The frog, of course, was never the work of just the maker whose mark it bore. Others in the shop made the ferrule, heel plate, button, and side ornament that the frog's makers then fastened to them.

There was one further stamp on the stick, near the letter - a two-digit number that indicated the year in which it was made. This tradition also began in the 1920s.

Thus, the curious owner today can find out who carved the stick, who made the frog, and in what year, and whether the frog is original to the stick or was replaced with another Hill frog at a later date.

A HILL FOR EVERY BUDGET

William Retford ran the shop with an iron will, even though he was never actually head of the workshop. …

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