Hansen, Harvey (1898-1990)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 11/04/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8817
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As the Electric Guitar Era dawned in the 1930s, the strange keening sounds produced by those revolutionary new musical instruments profoundly impressed many early ear-witnesses. In at least a few instances, the pioneers who first designed, built, and marketed electrified guitars -- such as Seattle musician Paul Tutmarc (1896-1972) and his Audiovox brand instruments -- inspired others to follow the trail that they’d blazed and actually begin manufacturing and selling their own instruments. One such instance was Seattle lamp-maker and can-do handyman, Harvey Hansen, who borrowed liberally from those Audiovox designs and marketed his own -- now exceedingly rare -- line of Hanburt Electric Guitars between the years of about 1939-1950.

Great Expectations

Harvey M. Hansen was born in South Dakota and from an early age he showed an ability to use tools to repair broken household items -- even if that meant improvising or creating a new tool from scratch in order to accomplish the task. Although his formal schooling was limited, he was a hard worker, and by the 1920s  had become a railroad fireman in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

After meeting, wooing, and marrying Emily Mae Holburt (1901-1993), the couple’s first son, Harold (1923-2004), was born and after he turned 4 in 1927 the young family jumped into their old Model T Ford and bravely embarked on a harrowing cross-country winter drive over the Rockies and Cascade Mountain ranges to Seattle. And even though they had absolutely no family, friends, or other connections in Seattle, Hansen was determined to carve out a better life on the coast.

Great Depression

Upon arrival, Hansen discovered that economic times were just as tough in Seattle as they had been back home. Still, by 1928 the Hansens had settled into a rental home (5218 35th Avenue S) in Columbia City -- an old neighborhood set in south Seattle’s Rainier Valley area -- and Hansen first found employment at the Columbia Lumber Company. He worked as a lumberyard truck driver and by 1929 they bought and moved into their first home (4220 Lucille Street).

That same year also saw the birth of their second son, Forrest Henry -- and the arrival of the worst economic collapse in U.S. history: 1929’s Wall Street stock market crash and the subsequent worldwide Great Depression. 

Works Progress Work

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was elected president and in 1933 he rammed his first series of “New Deal” programs through Congress to help offset the harsh economic times. The three stated goals of “Relief, Recovery, and Reform,” however, were slow in coming and so in 1935 FDR pressured Congress to appropriate nearly $5 billion more for those first programs, and to fund some new ones including a work relief program to be administered by the Works Progress Administration. This WPA “make work” program helped many struggling Americans immensely, putting paychecks in the pockets of thousands and along the way improving urban environments with efforts to build or fix badly needed schools, roads, bridges, and dams.

“He did all kinds of jobs,” Harold said of his father. “From working in manufacturing in a furniture repair shop, digging the hole for the Seward Park fish aquarium, and he worked for the WPA during the war putting concrete between the streetcar tracks so there could be more room for the cars to drive on.” 

Door-to-Door Sales Work

In addition to that WPA work, Hansen also hustled to raise money by trying to sell anything he could door-to-door. “My dad, if he got, oh, anything, he’d go knock on doors and try to sell it -- all over Seattle,” recalled Harold. “He’d do peddling, knock on the door [and say]: ‘Would you like to buy this?’”  The times were lean and he was generally handy and had a habit of making just about anything he needed -- or anything that he could try and sell to raise money.

“He used to make everything,” concurs brother Gail (b. 1934). “He made everything by hand. He was a tinkerer. Anything he ever needed, he just made.” And it was while selling objects door-to-door one day that Hansen got the idea that would eventually result in the launching of his main occupation for his remaining years.

Seeing the Light

“One day he saw a lady making a lampshade in a house,” Harold recalled. “She was sewing on a lampshade and he says: ‘What are you doing?’ And she says: ‘I’m making a lampshade.’” In no time, Hansen had commandeered his wife’s kitchen and was busily trying his own hand at creating a shade. Gail recalls that his mother used to help “make ‘em on the kitchen table and clear ‘em off for dinner. The first ones were parchment. Some were all cut out and stenciled and painted.” "He’d paint these roses, or camels, on them and stuff like that,” adds Harold. “And so, he made all of these lampshades, floor-lamp shades, and bridge-lamp shades, and he would sell them.” “He’d make shades and sell them door-to-door. Thousands of ‘em, Gail recalls. “After years of making all those parchment shades, they got into making silk shades too.”

“Then, he made radio lamps,” Harold continued. “Back when we had household radios, everyone had a radio lamp on it. And he made and wired lots of radio lamps. He sold them door-to-door. He was handy. He was uneducated, but very, very clever.”

Hearing the Future

And it was while listening to their family radio one Sunday afternoon that fate intervened, as Harold recalls, in the form of a religious radio broadcast that featured the electric Hawaiian guitar playing of Paul Tutmarc, who was Seattle’s most prominent early Hawaiian steel guitarist and guitar and vocal teacher. From his downtown shop (806 Pine Street) Tutmarc had also launched Seattle’s Audiovox Manufacturing Co., which began marketing a line of electric guitars around 1934. As sales picked up he hired Emerald Baunsgard to do woodwork on the Audiovox instruments and in November of 1936 Baunsgard invited him to perform a few sacred hymns his new-fangled electric Hawaiian Steel guitar at his church, the Hollywood Temple (6801 Roosevelt Way NE).

Tutmarc -- a businessman who rarely turned down offers to perform (given that he would simultaneously be promoting his guitars and music school) accepted the offer -- which included being broadcast (1:30 p.m.-2 p.m.) on Seattle’s most-powerful radio station, KJR. The congregation was appreciative, Tutmarc returned several Sundays in a row, and in early-December he and his entire family joined the church. It would seem that those radio broadcasts were successful in drawing others to the church as well: formerly members of the Christian Church, the Hansen family drove up to Hollywood Temple one Sunday to see Tutmarc perform his wondrous music. Emily, in particular, loved the electric sounds and she even sighed about owning her own one day.

Hansen Lamp Shop

Meanwhile, the economy was improving and Hansen began dreaming about opening his very own retail lamp shop -- and in 1937 the family moved to Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood, became members of the Calvary Temple (the recently renamed Hollywood Temple, and today’s Calvary Christian Assembly) church, and rented a storefront with a residential apartment upstairs (6244 Woodlawn Avenue N).

By the following year, the Hansens had modified the building to include both a workshop and a retail store on the street level and they opened their Hansen Lamp Shop. In addition to making and selling lamps and shades, Hansen also repaired electrical appliances, including radios and organs. Being a do-it-yourself fellow who never shied away from borrowing ideas from others and then plunging ahead on his own, he decided to build Emily a guitar.

Although Hansen understood basic electrical wiring techniques from his lamp-making business, rigging up an electro-magnetic guitar pickup was significantly trickier. After a few less-than-successful experiments Hansen hooked up with a mechanic named Barney E. Egerer (7323 11th Avenue NW), who worked for Countner’s Record and Phonograph Co. (3207 Eastlake Avenue E), a firm that sold and serviced “automatic phonographs,” nickelodeons, and pinball machines.

Harold recalled that “they got together and figured all this stuff out. I think Dad went and cut out the steel or iron t-shaped [pick-up blade component] things. And then Egerer helped teach him how to make the coils that make the sounds. And the two of them worked on it to get the sounds right.” But even after the duo settled on a workable pickup design, Hansen still had his work cut out for him. It seems that his first attempt at creating a guitar body was a design failure. “He finally got the thing to make a sound, and then he got to making a guitar for it” says Harold. “[But] then he had trouble when he tightened the wires too tight and it bent the guitar! He worked and worked on that.”

“Lamps & Musical Instruments”

At what point Hansen abandoned his efforts to build a uniquely designed lap steel guitar remains unknown, but what is fully apparent is that by the time he finished his first complete instrument, it had taken on quite a few physical -- and technological -- attributes of Tutmarc’s Audiovox guitars.

Emily was delighted that her husband had come through with such a nice gift and she adored it. Indeed, she took to the instrument with natural ease, and before long the Hansens reorganized their storefront by dedicating a portion of it to a music studio where by 1940 Emily began offering Hawaiian steel guitar lessons to the public.

The 1941 R. L. Polk Seattle Business Directory notes Emily’s first listing as a “Music Teacher (guitar),” and the following year it featured a listing under the “Musical Instruments Manufacture and Repair” category for Harvey. That same Polk also shows that the Hansens amended their main business listing to reflect the new side business. Now instead of just advertising that they retailed lamps and lamp shades, they could boast of providing both “Lamps & Musical Instruments.”

Hanburt Electric Guitars

Hansen had realized that he could produce guitars to sell to Emily’s students and thus decided to establish his own commercial line of instruments under the brand name of Hanburt Electric Guitars -- a moniker derived as a simple conflation of “Hansen” with Emily’s maiden name, “Holburt.”

Seattle was still a small town back then, and so it didn’t take long for Tutmarc to take note of Hansen’s competitive activity -- and the fact that Hanburt instruments bore an obvious debt to his own Audiovox guitars. And, reportedly, he was not pleased with Hansen: “There was some friction between him and Paul Tutmarc,” Harold admits. “Oh, my dad would take any ideas. He’d steal them. He got ahold of one of [Tutmarc’s] guitars and took it apart. ... And Paul senior: He was pretty upset for a while, that dad had come in there and done that.”

What Hansen had done was to copy the basic design of Tutmarc’s historically significant electromagnetic “blade-style” pickup system from scratch rather than create his own variation. But given that Tutmarc had not acquired a design patent for that electronic component, his anger led to no legal challenge towards his fellow church congregant, Hansen.

Three Models Marketed

And thus over the next decade Hanburt marketed at least three models of Hanburt electric Hawaiian Lap Steels. The earliest (“Style 1”) -- as best as can be determined by examining Emily’s beloved unit -- featured a full-shouldered guitar-shaped body. The second (“Style 2”) had a body with a cutaway upper treble bout with a squared-off profile. The third (“Style 3”) featured a stair-step body contour. Details that varied instrument-by-instrument include: flat “mirror steel” face-plates (just like Audiovox guitars) or plates that Hansen had etched textured rings into on his lathe; typical inlaid fret-markers or inset colored-glass faux “jewels;” alternating light and dark wood fret-board strips; and palm-rests consisting of simple, commercially available, drawer-pull handles or those hand-made from sheet-steel.

In 1944, the Hansens' landlord raised the rent too high, and by 1945 they’d relocated westward beyond Green Lake a few blocks. There they bought a multi-zoned commercial/residential building (6508-10 Phinney Avenue) where they opened the Hansen Lamp and Music Shop. “It was an old, old building -- one of the oldest buildings on this avenue,” recalled Gail. “There was six units: one was a grocery store. One was somethin’ else. A couple of apartments up and a couple bachelor apartments in the basement. Our family lived where the store part is.” Gail also recalled that the main floor featured the lamp and shade retail area, and a separate music studio where Emily continued offering guitar lessons. “My mother used to teach Hawaiian electric guitar here in this building. One side [the northwestern space] was the lamp store and the other side [the southwestern space] was the guitar studio.”

Seattle’s “Lost” Electric Guitar Company

From his basement workshop, Hansen made Hanburt instruments through about 1950 -- guitars that must now rank among the most obscure, and therefore rarest brands of early electric instruments known. So, how rare are they? Even the two Hansen brothers interviewed could not agree on the probable quantity of guitars that their father produced a half-century prior: Harold said that “He sold a lotta them.” OK, but how many? Ten? One hundred? “Oh probably more than that. He had them stacked around there. He had a lot of them. I remember that he ran around the country [Washington state] showin’ it to people, and he sold a lot of them.” Well, perhaps so, but Gail -- the younger brother who lived at home long after Harold moved out -- offered an estimate quite different: “Maybe 20 over all the years. Then he got full-time into lampshades to make a livin’.” What this writer can add is that in my years of research I have documented the existence of a total of about one dozen Hanburt instruments -- with only eight still known to survive in private collections.

Such a small production rate -- coupled with Hansen’s apparently low-key, under-the-radar (or even nonexistent) level of advertising -- would help explain why the saga of this interesting company is missing from every published book on the topic of early electric guitar history.

Passing the Torchiere

Although Hansen wound down his making of instruments around 1950, his lamp business carried on and in 1951 he attempted to open a second shop (10706 Bothell Way) that would be run by his brother, Hadley, but after a falling out it was closed. The following year the Hansens moved into a new home (15525 Greenwood Avenue) and in 1963 Harvey retired, passing his shop along to his son, Gail. That same decade Harold opened his own business, Harold’s Lamps (1912 N. 45th Street), in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood -- a shop that his son, Kim, now runs. Meanwhile Gail’s son, Jeff, now operates Hansen Lamp & Shade, which moved from Phinney Ridge over to the family’s former “Bothell Way” site (10706 Lake City Way NE) in 2004.

As for Emily, she kept on playing and teaching up through her 70s, while Hansen took up new hobbies including still-life oil painting, and as a couple the two participated in lawn bowling tournaments for years. Although Hansen was no great inventor, he was a resourceful man who provided well for his family through some tough times. As his eldest son Harold stated: “He wasn’t a musician, he was a mechanic. ... He could do anything with his hands. Couldn’t read a book -- but he could make anything.”


R. L. Polk Seattle Business Directory 1941, 1942; Peter Blecha interviews with Gail Hansen June 9, 2002, and January 28, 2003, Harold Hansen, January 31, 2003, Seattle, Washington, recordings in possession of Peter Blecha; Peter Blecha conversations with Paul “Bud” Tutmarc, 1984-2006, and Kim and Jeff Hansen, 2007-2008, Seattle, Washington.

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