The History of the Pitch Pipe
80 Years and Still On Pitch
by Grady Kerr - Barbershop Harmony Society historian

 

If you are a singer chances are good you own a little red box labeled “The Master Key - chromatic pitch instrument - A-440 - 13 keys - a product of Wm. Kratt Co - Made In The USA” and inside is your little silver and black disc shaped friend.

It's estimated the Kratt Company has made over 3 million of these pitch pipes in the last 80 years. Have you ever wondered where they came from and who made them?  If so, here's your answer.

Mr. William Kratt Sr.The Beginning
William Jacob Kratt Sr. is the inventor and the man mostly responsible for its impact with singers world-wide.  He was born September 22, 1892 in Trossingen / Baden-Württemberg, Germany also known as “music town”.  Trossingen was also the home of Hohner, a very well known harmonica manufacturer, where Bill found work at an early age. By age 18 he decided to come to America. The year was 1910.

Mr. William Kratt Sr.            

His Aunt Christine owned a popular restaurant in Orange, New Jersey called “The Old Homestead”.  She agreed to be his sponsor so he boarded a steamship and headed for the land of opportunity. 

Aunt Christine can be described as fair but very strict and headstrong. About three days after Bill arrived in America she insisted he start paying her back for being his sponsor.  She put him to work in her restaurant as a dishwasher.

Influenced By A Legend

Three long days later it was clear that young Kratt wasn't happy washing dishes so she began looking for another job for him. The Old Homestead was popular with the local businessmen so she started to ask around.  She approached one of her regular patrons who interviewed Bill and hired him as a machinist working a lathe. That local business man was Thomas Edison

As a way to help and encourage young Kratt Tom Edison provided him with his first set of tools.  During Bill's time working for the inventor at his Orange, New Jersey plant it wasn't uncommon for Edison to come in with an idea, draw up that vision right there on the spot and have Bill create it.  He worked his way up through the ranks and became a foreman.  For the next six years he learned much from Edison and gained a great deal of experience and inspiration.

In 1915 Kratt left Edison to work for a string manufacturer in New Brunswick, NJ.  They produced strings for guitars, banjos and violins. It was here he met his future wife Emily Bennett.

Bill was always very interested in manufacturing, tooling and production so in 1918 he took his experience and moved back to Germany and started his first solo venture, The National Harmonica Company located in his old home town of Trossingen.

Back Home Again

In 1925, after many successful years in Germany, he returned to New Jersey and soon married his longtime sweetheart Emily Bennett. 

He began making music boxes and “plates” for musical toys.  This was the device that enabled them to make sounds such as “humming” or the “tinkling” sound when used.  He provided these plates for several businesses including J. Chein & Company, a major toy manufacturer. His plates appear in thousands of toys world-wide.
 

Original location - 988 Johnston Place, Union, New Jersey (circa 1942)
Original location - 988 Johnston Place, Union, New Jersey (circa 1942)

The original Wm. Kratt Company plant (1925-2002) was located at 988 Johnston Place, Union, New Jersey. It was here he invented the pitch pipe that we all know and love today. The first model was C to C in a red cardboard box and looked very much like today's version.  Aside from the reeds inside being made of a slightly different metal, the first one was about two-thirds smaller and only had 8 notes (the white keys - C4 to C5).

Thanks to William Kratt’s association with friend Harold Lindner, these pipes became vastly in vogue.  Harold and his brother Al were “supply jobbers” (wholesalers) of school supplies. Kratt suggested they introduce these pipes to school teachers to help them as they taught their kids to sing.  This caught on and soon Kratt was being flooded with thousands of orders from around the country.

It was also about this time he discovered the need to include ALL 13 notes; not only the white notes but also the sharps and flats.  The pipe was quickly redesigned and offered just as it is today.


to see other vintage Kratt sales brochures, click here


There are six models of the pitch pipe. Singers know of the popular F to F pipe (model Master Key 1) and are aware of the C to C (model Master Key 2).  The C to C is by far the most popular.  They also produce an Eb to Eb (MK3). 

Ad from 1949 SPEBSQSA HarmonizerAn advertisement for their pitch pipes first appeared in the Harmonizer in 1949 and only cost $2.50.

The Wm. Kratt Company still remains the only company in America producing these pitch instruments.  They create several hundred thousand pitch pipes each year and estimate sales of about three million over the past 80 years.

Each pipe is literally hand-crafted and individually tuned by workers, some of whom have been working for the Kratt Company over 30 years.


Wm. Kratt also invented his own style of harmonica. It was his #1 item and sold in the millions distributed world-wide as well.



Kratt soon decided to invent a pipe to help tune stringed instruments. He manufactured the new pipe in three models (Super, Synchrotone 1, Synchrotone 2).  They were used for violin, Spanish guitar, ukulele, banjo and bass fiddles and were VERY popular.

By 1935 business was booming.  His tool shop employed 45 tool and die makers and a stamping plant.  He manufactured items for several major companies such as Wright Aeronautical, Sperry Gyroscopes, KDI, Picatinny Arsenal, Westinghouse, General Motors and Day & Zimmerman.

By the war years, like most major plants, he converted much of his shop for defense projects. But unlike some companies, he was able to continue part of his original line due to a very special request.  The War Department allowed them a limited allotment of brass.  With this they requested he CONTINUE to manufacture the Kratt harmonica.

They asked him to make them for the men overseas in an effort to help build up morale.  Hundreds of thousands were distributed by the Red Cross. If you were in the war and you had a harmonica, it was most likely a Kratt Harmonica. After being manufactured for decades, it was discontinued but may be manufactured again someday soon.

MRS. DWIGHT EISENHOWER


New York City

January 16, 1953

Dear Mr. Kratt:
I cannot tell you how delighted we all were to receive the harmonicas and blow-accordions!  The little ones are simply thrilled as you can imagine, and the pleasure and happiness your gifts brought to us is heartwarming, indeed.  The General is looking forward to a few free moments when he, too, can enjoy your Kratt Chromatic.  We are all deeply grateful for your thoughtful kindness, and we regard these remembrances as symbols of your friendship and good wishes.

I do hope you will forgive me for not writing long before this, but I am sure you understand how full, exciting and thrilling these days have been for us.

With our deep appreciation and warm wishes!

Mamie David Eisenhower


(written just four days before husband and President
Dwight David Eisenhower was inaugurated)


A Family Run Business

Wife Emily Kratt was a very important part of the business helping with time studies and perfecting the techniques needed to operate the machines and training their employees throughout the years.

William Kratt and Emily had two children. Daughter Jean lives in Wisconsin and is not involved in the business.

Son William Kratt Jr. was very involved. Following his service in the Army Ordinance Corp. he joined his father's company in 1954.  Together they created a NEW company and called it The Plastic Injecto Company

“Magic Music Box”
They made musical toys under the “Arist-O-Kratt” line such as plastic harmonicas.  One of the most popular items was the “Magic Music Box”.



The original site of the Plastic Injecto Company was 879 Rahway Ave. in Union, NJ where the site is now home to an outpatient dialysis facility.  In 1965 the Plastic Injecto Company was sold lock, stock and barrel to Auborn Rubber Company of Ohio who set up shop in Deming, New Mexico.

In later years the Kratt family started a new custom molding business and did various jobs.  That business was also sold.


Born in September 22, 1892,
William Kratt Sr. died in November of 1983 at the age of 91.
Emily Kratt died in September of 1973.



William Jr and wife Linda
His son, Wm. Kratt Jr. successfully ran the business for many decades. He is now 77 and has semi-retired to Vermont with his wife of 42 years, Linda.  They have twin daughters; Susan (37) an executive for Pfizer and Christine (37) a doctor and medical researcher.



William Jr. and Linda also have two sons, Martin (40) and Chris (36). They have taken off in a different direction.  You or your kids may have heard of them before. Known as the Kratt Brothers, Chris and Martin Kratt are famous and self proclaimed “Creature Adventurers” producing TV shows and empowering kids to be creature heroes and helping animals. They produce the “Be The Creature” TV Show seen on the National Geographic channel in the US and on CBC TV in Canada.  They also produced two shows that air on PBS:  Kratt Creatures (a family animal show) and the very popular Zoboomafoo.

The Business Today

The Kratt family manufactured the pitch pipe for 76 years until February 27, 2001 when they sold the business to the McNamera family. Previously the McNamera’s were producing only the plastic parts for the pipe. Today the company is run by John and his son and daughter, Robert and Jill. They are keeping the tradition alive and manufacturing our beloved pitch pipe and many other tuning devices (9 total). Today the Wm. Kratt Pitch Pipe Company is located at 40 Lafayette Place, Kenilworth, New Jersey.

The Wm. Kratt Crew 2006
The Wm. Kratt Crew 2006 - 40 Lafayette Place, Kenilworth, New Jersey

Some who have seen our place here describe it as “Santa’s Last Toy Shop” but these pipes are, of course, not toys." explains Robert McNamera.

The Wm. Kratt Company does not sell to the public but supplies American and Canadian distributors as well as the Barbershopper's Harmony Marketplace.

They do, unfortunately have some overseas competition.  There are two companies creating lower quality pipes that look just like the Kratt version.  There are TEMPUS pipes from China and the PYRAMID pipes from Germany.  Both are below the quality of the original and described by some as “throw-aways”.  Add to the mix the new electronic pitch generators of today. This has created a negative impact on the sales of the Kratt Pitch Pipes and causes concern regarding the future of these quality pipes.

Robert McNamera explains, “We're very proud of the work we do here and consider this an America tradition - all American made. It's still a family run business.  We've been making these the same way, one at a time as has been done for 80 years.

We're even still using most of the original 1936 dies.  We employ only 7 people and the workers here are the best at what they do, in fact, the ONLY ones in America doing what they do.



This article is copyrighted and may not be used without permission.


Vintage catalogues and sales brochures









From SPEBSQSA's Harmonizer magazine showing why
founder O.C. Cash began the organization. Instead
of a box, he mistakenly ordered a "box car" of pitch pipes



Garfield comic strip - Christmas 2005


The History of the Pitch Pipe
80 Years and Still On Pitch

was researched and written by Barbershop
Harmony Society historian

Grady Kerr
of Dallas, Texas

Mr. Kerr has been a researcher, writer
and historian for over 30 years.



Thanks to
Mr. William Kratt Jr.
Mr. Rob McNamera
Mrs. Jill Farewell
Mr. Chuck May
Mrs. Chris Frear
Mrs. Susan McLennan
Mrs. Sally Cunningham


This article and website is NOT directly associated with the
Wm. Kratt Co and does not represent them in any way.
All opinions are that of the author.



This article is © Copyright by Straw Hat Productions 2006
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