Anderson, Otto (1857-1938), Furniture Designer and Guitar-Maker

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 2/02/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8916

The excellent wood-working skills of Swedish immigrant, Otto Edward Anderson provided him with good job opportunities upon his arrival in the Pacific Northwest in 1888. One highlight of his career must have been winning a gold award at Seattle's first world's fair -- the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition -- for the innovative designs of some fine handcrafted furniture. But in hindsight, it seems that it was his years of making musical string instruments -- guitars, violins, and perhaps a mandolin -- and an association with the region's legendary instrument manufacturer, Chris J. Knutsen, which may bring him longer-lasting fame. 

From Sweden to the Pacific Northwest

In 1888 Swedish cabinet-maker, Otto Anderson and his wife, Elise Katrina Anderson (1880-1943), immigrated to the United States. Arriving in the Washington Territory, the couple -- and their first three children – Hannah (1884-1966), Esther (1887-1961), and Oscar (1889-1941) -- initially arrived in Oysterville, and then moved across Willapa Bay to spot nearby the fishing and timber town of South Bend -- a berg that also was home for Otto's brother who'd married Elise's sister.

But Otto did not enjoy fishing. In June 1888 he relocated his family to a rental home (at Broadway and Pine Street) in Seattle where he hired on at a cabinetmaking shop on Front Street (today's 1st Avenue). One year later -- on the fateful day of June 6, 1889 -- Otto was too ill to go to work, but hours later fire-bells and a huge commotion prompted him to walk downtown where he witnessed the historic Great Seattle Fire underway. The fire had begun in Victor Clairmont's cabinet shop (at Front Street and Madison Street) -- perhaps the very place where Otto worked -- and it proceeded to burn down the town's core business district. What is certain is that in addition to the loss of many buildings, and the businesses they contained, Anderson lost his personal set of woodworking tools in the conflagration.

A New Venture and Another Disaster

The Andersons struggled ahead and by November they were able to move into a new home that Otto built high above Lake Union (near today's Dexter Avenue). Because only a cow path led from town to that site, Otto built a rowboat that he used to "commute" to a new job at the Lytell Cabinet Shop, located at Westlake Avenue and Mercer Street. As work got scarce the Andersons and six friends all moved north to Halla City (today's Arlington in Snohomish County, the one-time "Shingle Capital of the World") where they built and successfully operated a shingle mill until 1893, when a storm caused the flooding Stillaguamish River to destroy their business.

The Andersons then returned to South Bend. For a period Otto found employment in Chehalis at the Donbecker Furniture Company.

Making Musical Instruments

Eventually word spread that there were opportunities aplenty in the thriving town of Port Townsend, and many years after-the-fact, one Anderson child -- Ellen Rebecca (1900-1994) -- penned a memoir of recollected family history, including the following saga: 

"Around 1895 or 1896 there was a boom in Port Townsend. The family moved to Port Townsend and rented a large house and Dad made a cabinet shop upstairs where he made violins and guitars. Dad made 200 instruments for a man named Knutson [sic] who played the violin. He sold them along the Coast. One violin, which was said to be like a Stradivarius, was sold in San Francisco, I believe for $200. Esther and Hannah helped Dad by jumping on the board which made the machines go round and round ..." (Ellen Rebecca Anderson Duncan).

That misspelled mention of Chris Knutsen (1862-1930) -- an immigrant from Norway who'd moved to Port Townsend in 1895 -- is fascinating to guitar historians because it was he who received a patent for his own unique "one-arm" guitar design in 1896, and whose Knutsen brand instruments are intriguing oddities from that era. And, that was the exact same year that Anderson produced his first "one-arm" violin. Experts (including Tom Noe and Gregg Minor) have speculated as to whether Anderson taught Knutsen the art of lutherie, or the two men worked in collaboration, or (most likely) that Knutsen employed Anderson as a subcontractor to build the Knutsen instruments. But these puzzles remain unresolved beyond a consensus that there was some interaction between the two enterprising men.  

Back to Seattle

By 1897 the Andersons had returned to Seattle, living on Lynn Street just east of Lake Union, and Otto once again found employment at the Lytell Cabinet Shop. Soon he was out scouting for a new site to build another house, and he eventually met with Henry L. Denny (second cousin to Seattle founder, Arthur Denny) to discuss some land just north of the tiny community of Green Lake. But before he could make the purchase Denny sold the large tract to John Wallingford (d. 1913) who then sold Otto a one-acre lot where construction of the small new home (8031 Wallingford Avenue N) began. 

In April 1900 the family moved in and Otto commenced building a workshop adjacent to their house. It was there that he began making guitars again -- quite probably the vast majority of the "200" units mentioned in Ellen's memoirs. In addition, Otto also launched a business making custom-designed furniture -- a skill that would soon bring him some measure of recognition.

A-Y-P Gold Medal Award

Organizers of Washington's first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held in Seattle on the University of Washington campus, sought out interesting local products to exhibit in the massive 60,000-square-foot Manufactures Building (on the site just east of the University of Washington's Drumheller Fountain). They chose to include a display of Anderson's furniture, including a remarkable six-person table that -- using a unique mechanical device in its undercarriage -- could be extended to seat as many as 22 people. That remarkable design impressed the A-Y-P judges enough to award him a gold medal, which was labeled as their "Highest Award for Extension Table."

And those judges were apparently not the only people impressed by Anderson's designs. It seems that Anderson's old associate from Port Townsend, Chris Knutsen -- who had also relocated to Seattle and was settled just west of Lake Union (219 Westlake Avenue N) -- may also have taken note of the mechanical components of the table because during that exact same time period Knutsen altered his guitar designs in a quite radical manner. Beginning in 1909 one model began to feature an adjustable metal brace at the heel of the neck that allowed a player to select one setting for strumming the instrument Spanish-style -- or by shifting that device and raising the string height/angle -- it would accommodate the emerging Hawaiian "steel guitar" method. 

Anderson's Legacy

Several of Anderson's musical instruments are known to still exist -- at least four (three guitars and one violin) have remained within the family. As well, numerous pieces of his beautiful furniture (and some associated A-Y-P mementos) are treasured by his descendants.

Ellen's daughter, Jeanette Detlor (b. 1939), has taken an active interest in her grandfather's accomplishments. She is understandably proud that the old Green Lake house remains in the family, and that her own daughter represents the fourth generation of the family to reside in their historic abode.


Sources: Peter Blecha conversations and interviews with Jeanette Detlor (November 19, 2008, December 15, 2008), Seattle, Washington; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle burns down in the Great Fire on June 6, 1889," (by Walt Crowley) http://historylink.org/ (accessed November 19, 2008); Ellen Rebecca (Anderson) Duncan, Anderson family history notes, ca. 1984, in possession of Jeanette Detlor; Jeanette Detlor, "Otto Anderson, Instrument Maker for Chris Knutsen," Harpguiars.net website accessed November 18, 2008 (http://www.harpguitars.net/knutsen/jeanette.htm); George T. Noe and Daniel L. Most, Chris J. Knutsen: History and Development of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar (Everett: Noe Enterprises, 1999), 13, 15, 17-18; Gregg Minor, "Exploring the Knutsen -- Anderson Connection," Harpguitars.net website accessed on November 18, 2008 (http://www.harpguitars.net/knutsen/knutsen-anderson.htm).

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