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Oliver Ditson Company

Background   •   Dating Guide  •   Catalog   •   Labels and Badges   •   Examples  •   blog




Oliver Ditson began on his own as a music publisher in 1835. His company would grow to become one of the great American music publishing houses of the 19th century. The company was always known first and foremost as a music publisher and only secondarily as a musical instrument manufacturer and retailer.

Oliver Ditson, 1811 - 1888

Ditson's history is documented in great detail in William Arms Fisher's Notes On Music in Old Boston published in 1918. Of note is that not only did Ditson have a hand in founding Cincinnati's John C. Church and Chicago's Lyon & Healy, but that Ditson also established Chas. H. Ditson & Co. in New York in 1867, and J. E. Ditson & Co. in Philadelphia in 1875. These additional Ditson 'houses' functioned simultaneously within the Oliver Ditson Company and along with John C. Haynes & Co. mainly as music and musical instrument retailers in their respective cities throughout the late 1800s. The Philadelphia branch was discontinued in 1910.

The Boston based Oliver Ditson Company moved between several different addresses over the course of the mid - late 1800s. From 1891 - 1901 the company was located at 453 - 463 Washington Street. And from 1901 - 1904 the company was housed at 451 Washington Street.

In January of 1904 the Oliver Ditson Company moved from 451 Washington street to a new eight-story building constructed especially for its needs at 150 Tremont Street.

150 Tremont Street, home to the
Oliver Ditson Company 1904 - 1917


Instruments labeled with the Ditson name began appearing in 1904 and continued into the 1920s. Drums labeled 'John C. Haynes' were built under the umbrella of the Oliver Ditson Company for Haynes between 1861 and 1904.

Labels which list all three Ditson outposts - Boston, New York, and Philadelphia - date from between 1904 and 1910. The Philadelphia branch was closed in 1910, so labels listing only Boston and New York and date from 1910 or later.

Dating Guide
Labels and Badges


Early Ditson drum labels, ca. 1904 - 1910, list branch offices in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Specially Made For Oliver Ditson Company Drum Label
Made Expressly For Oliver Ditson Company Drum Label
Oliver Ditson Drum Badge

Later labels list only offices in Boston and New York as the Philadelphia branch closed in 1910.

Oliver Ditson Company Drum Label, ca. 1910s
photo: ebay
Ditson Houses Drum Shell Label, ca. 1904 - 1910
photo: ebay

Instruments built by other companies for Oliver Ditson often contain language to that effect on the makers label.

Manufactured for Ditson by Lyon & Healy Drum Label
photo: ebay

Badges were not commonly applied to Ditson drums but do occasionally appear installed on wooden counterhoops.



Published in 1910, the Ditson Wonderbook Number Four is described as listing the Company's "Vibrating Membranes and Sonorous Substances". The publication spans more than seventy pages in length and lists instruments ranging from drums, cymbals, bells, and percussion accessories, to wind instruments including flutes, piccolos, trumpets, and bugles. Only the snare drum pages are pictured below.

Ditson was a respected manufacturer of musical instruments, but it was not uncommon for retailers at this time to have instruments built for them by smaller makers or other companies and Ditson was no stranger to this practice. While the drums cataloged here do not match those manufactured by any other Boston drum maker, there are traps and small percussion instruments illustrated within that clearly bear the the name of other companies demonstrating that Ditson was for certain purchasing at least some of their instruments from outside sources by this time.

Exactly who was building the drums sold by the Oliver Ditson Company during its later years as a musical instrument retailer is unclear. Many drums dealt by Ditson have labels specifying that they were "made expressly for" Ditson, not by Ditson. Some labels go so far as to list the maker, often Lyon & Healy of Chicago a firm with which Ditson shared historical ties and apparently maintained an ongoing business relationship.

Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Dress Parade Snare Drum & Army and Navy Standard Model
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Regulation Model Snare Drums
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Front Outside Cover
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Oliver Ditson Special Orchestra Drums & Single Head Orchestra Drum
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Oliver Ditson Special Orchestra Drums
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - "Modern Drums"
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Inside Cover
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Ditson Resonance Drums
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Simplicity Orchestra Drums & Resonance Orchestra Drum
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Regulation Pattern Snare Drums
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Ditson Simplicity Snare Drums
Ditson Wonderbook No. 4, 1910 - Dress Parade Snare Drums
178 - 179 Tremont Street, ca. 1918
Oliver Ditson Company Musical Instrument Department, ca. 1918


Oliver Ditson Special Orchestra Drum
Oliver Ditson "Army and Navy Standard" Snare Drum

Mr. Ditson took in John C. Haynes as a partner in 1857 and the firm was renamed Oliver Ditson & Company. In 1861, upon purchasing the remaining stock of the Elias Howe musical instrument business, the John C. Haynes Company was formed as the musical instrument department for Oliver Ditson & Company. This arrangement continued until January 1st, 1904 when the John C. Haynes Company was officially consolidated within the Oliver Ditson Company. Theodore Presser purchased the Oliver Ditson Company's music catalogue in 1931 and Ditson was out of business completely by the late 1930s. 

In 1917, Ditson relocated to a still larger ten-story building at 178 - 179 Tremont Street. This extravagant new facility housed all facets of the Oliver Ditson Company's Boston based operation including the retail and wholesale music departments, retail instrument departments, the repair department, and business offices.


A great number of drums were built for Ditson by Chicago's Lyon & Healy including this very large, ornately patterned "Dress Parade Drum" which bears an uncanny resemblance to Lyon & Healy's "Monarch" drums. For more on this drum, please visit

This Oliver Ditson Special Orchestra Drum may well be another instrument made for Ditson by Lyon & Healy as identical instruments exist with conflicting makers marks. The label inside reads "made expressly for Oliver Ditson Co. Boston - New York". 


This particular drum appears to be an example of what Wonderbook number four (1910) lists as model no. 609 described as follows:


14 inch, bird's-eye maple shell, 3 inches high, rosewood veneered hoops, 10 nickel plated rods and trimmings, 8 woven silk waterproof snares, 2 calfskin heads.

Ditson's "Army and Navy Standard" is essentially the same drum as the above "Simplicity" model snare drum but with black "ebonized" hoops and a U.S. coat of arms applied to the birds eye maple shell.

Ditson Wonderbook number four (1910) offers the "Simplicity Snare Drums" in a variety of configurations utilizing either maple or nickel plated shells. This drum appears to be an example of model no. 611 constructed around a 16" x 6" maple shell.

Oliver Ditson "Simplicity Snare Drum"
photo: ebay
photo: ebay
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