The ukulele isn't a native or ancient instrument: it started with Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii in the late 19th century. The largest wave of Portuguese immigration lasted about 30 years, and 11,000 Portuguese immigrants would arrive in its first decade.
The ukulele is not a direct descendant of any particular instrument; rather it is a hybrid, most likely of the machete and the five-string rajão. These instruments are all in a family of small guitar-like instruments dating from the 18th century. These and similar forms are still popular throughout Latin America, Spain and Portugal. These and other European instruments were originally imported into Hawaii by the immigrants, and continued to be imported through the late 19th century, even after local makers started building their own.
Manuel Nunes, Joao Fernandes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo all arrived from Portugal in Hawaii on the Ravenscrag, in 1879, along with 400-plus other immigrants, to work the sugar cane fields.
Fernandes allegedly surprised and delighted the dockside natives by playing tunes on a small stringed instrument. This has been variously identified as a Portuguese braguinha (a nickname for a Portuguese instrument also known as the cavaquinho), or a small four-stringed Madeiran guitar called a machete (from the Portuguese-owned Madeira islands, sometimes called a machete de Braga after the city and district in northern Portugal where the instrument originated), and even described as both a rajão, a small, five-stringed Portuguese instrument.
Because these little instruments were often carried by farm workers to the taro fields, they became known as 'taro patch fiddles' and also as pila li'ili'i - little fiddles.
Nunes, Dias and Santo were also cabinet makers - and as a sideline, instrument makers. Once their contract ended and they left the sugar cane fields, they quickly started making versions of their native instruments for themselves and their friends - identified on contemporary ads for their shops as machetes.
Dias opened a small shop making and repairing musical instruments (as well as furniture), in 1884. Santos and Nunes opened their shops in 1888.
The next year, the ukulele was played at a party aboard a British yacht anchored at Honolulu. The trio of women performers included Princess Victoria Kaiulani.
Nunes and his sons opened a ukulele production factory in 1910; although Nunes died in 1922, it was still making ukuleles in the 1930s, after the others closed. His son, Leonardo, took over at the end. Although Nunes would later claim to have invented the ukulele, that claim has since been debunked (or at least challenged). That's not to deny him his important role in its early development, however.
The little instrument became an almost instant hit among the native Hawaiians. Even the royal family of Hawaii took to playing it. In part because of their patronage and also the use of native woods and materials, Hawaiians took to it and soon developed their own musical style and sound around it. Native Hawaiians opened their own manufacturing shops in the first decade of the 20th century.
According to John King, the uke's tuning came from the rajão: "The ‘ukulele’s famous my-dog-has-fleas tuning was actually borrowed from another Madeiran instrument, a five-string guitar called the rajao (pronounced rah-ZHOW). The original machete tuning is open-G; when and why it was changed to my-dog-has-fleas is one of those little mysteries that always leads to more questions than answers. In the early 1890s, a fellow named Holstein, who headed up the music department of the Hawaiian News Co., published a pamphlet entitled Chords of the Taro-patch Guitar, which is what Honoluluans called the rajao in those days. Holstein, an astute businessman, also included directions for tuning the “‘ukulele-guitar”; you tune it, he said, the same as you tune the top four strings of the taro-patch."
The uke has many cousins in the musical world. Aside from the ancestral guitar, the family includes the aforementioned braguinha, cavaquinho and rajao, and also the charango, timple, tiple and Venezuelan cuatro, as well as the tenor or parlour guitar and the more recent "guitarlele" or U-tar.
In 1907, Martin started making ukuleles, but they were not very popular and soon stopped production. They started up again in 1915. In 1917, Martin changed its design to cater to the growing craze for the instrument and their model took off. In 1920 they moved to ukes made from Hawaiian koa wood. In 1925 they made their first concert-scale uke. At its peak in 1926, Martin made 14,000 ukuleles that year. Read Martin ukulele history here and here.
Ukuleles were first shown on the mainland in 1893, at the World's Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, but they didn't develop much interest. However, the performance of Hawaiian music helped cement the popular association between the ukulele and Hawaiian culture. The exhibition also appeared in San Francisco at the California Mid-Winter Fair, 1894. Other Hawaiian musicians took to the mainland vaudeville stage circuit, performing in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Buffalo and Atlantic City over the next decade.
The first printed reference to the word ukulele comes from the Hawaiian Gazette of 1895. Koa, a native Hawaiian wood, made its first appearance on ukuleles at a party aboard the British yacht Nyanza, anchored at Honolulu, in 1889. That further helped associate the uke with Hawaii and Hawaiian culture.
Espirito Santo was the first to advertise "ukuleles" in 1898. That same year Dias advertised his "instruments made of Hawaiian wood." The abbreviation "uke" dates to 1891, from a travel book about Hawaii. The ukulele was first shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. By 1910, the instrument was being sold by the Ditson Co. in New York City. The 1911 play, "The Bird of Paradise" featured an accompaniment of Hawaiian music.
In 1915 the ukulele was shown in a Hawaiian exhibition at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and that seems to have launched the mainland craze. Ukulele-maker Dias died two weeks before that show opened and never witnessed its popularity. But from that show, the uke's popularity began to soar.
That same year, Sears Roebuck bought the Harmony guitar company to make ukuleles and cash in on the craze. Hawaiian music also became incredibly popular, as a result. Ukes were mass-produced in the thousands - Harmony sold 500,000 in 1931 alone.
Ukulele fever rapidly spread across the mainland, branching out to develop new sizes and designs. In the decade following its 1915 introduction, mainland companies like Martin, Regal, Harmony, Lyon and Healy, National, Dobro and Gibson had all started making models. They made ukes for themselves or as rebranded instruments for other companies. In reaction, Hawaiian makers created a distinctive trademark, protected by legislation, with authority to say "Made in Hawaii, U.S.A." It was illegal to use the marker on any ukuleles not made in the Hawaiian Islands.
Vintage Martin ukes remain the most sought-after ukuleles among collectors (the 5K models being the most treasured). Around the turn of the 20th century, some manufacturers also started producing tenor guitars, which are like the progeny of a ukulele and a standard guitar.
The small size, ease of play, friendly sound and low cost (compared to many other musical instruments) helped keep the uke popular and it soon spread across to Europe.
In 1917, a Hawaiian maker, Alvin D. Keech introduced his "banjulele-banjo", which became known as the banjolele or banjo ukulele. Although Keech (who later moved to England) claimed to have invented the instrument, and who trademarked the name 'banjulele', there were earlier pioneers working on the same design. John A, Bolander of California filed a patent for a banjo ukulele design with a closed back resonator on June 25, 1917. He had been manufacturing his "Boldander's Ukulele Banjo" at least since 1916. See here for photographs.
The BU was most popular in the 1920s and '30s, and was commonly used in Vaudeville acts where its loud sound was more easily heard than the sound of the ukulele. George Formby was one its most successful players.
Concert scale BUs seem to have been developed in the early-mid 1920s. Many of the early BU makers were banjo makers as well, but some, like Gibson, made a range of stringed instruments, while Slingerland also made drums. I can't find a reference to any tenor or baritone scale BUs made until fairly recently.
The Waikiki beach boys of the 1920s gave the uke a romantic, exotic mystique that suited the islands, but the real popularity came from the mainland where ukuleles sold literally millions in the pre-war decades. Small, easy to carry, fun to play and inexpensive - it became the most popular musical instrument in that pre-war period.
Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville both took up the uke in many acts and songs, and you can still find many song sheets and books from that era with ukulele chords shown (see my page on vintage music). In an era with no at at best primitive amplification for stage shows, the banjo ukulele became popular for its greater volume.
The uke quickly became the most popular musical instrument in the world. Even Edward, Prince of Wales played the ukulele in the mid-1920s. Harmony built a special, gold-engraved uke for Edward, with his coat-of-arms and seal embossed on it.
Uke fever even reached into Germany. A 1924 newspaper story reported uke sales in Germany were growing rapidly, and that the tax applied to musical instruments was helping Germany pay down its war reparations debt.
Performers like Arthur Godfrey, George Formby, Roy Smeck (the Wizard of the Strings) and Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike) helped further popularize the instrument between the wars. Formby took the uke from the stage to the silver screen, starring in dozens of films playing the banjolele (or, less often, a ukulele). Edwards also starred in films, but was better known for his popular music radio shows, at one time broadcast on 400 radio stations.
Manuel Nunes, the last of the original ukulele makers, died in 1922, still in Honolulu. In 1927, his one-time apprentice, Sam Kamaka, patented his pineapple uke, aimed at a fuller, richer sound than the Portuguese style.
The Depression was hard on the ukulele. Competition from the mainland had already hurt local producers, and the Great Crash forced several Hawaiian manufacturers to close. John King notes that, by 1933, uke-maker Sam Kamaka estimated he was selling 15 ukuleles a month, down from three to four hundred a month in better times before the Depression.
By the mid-late 1930s, the guitar had started to muscle in and was taking over in terms of popularity. In part that was because the electric guitar (and its associated amplifying and recording technologies) had been improved enough that the guitar was increasingly able to be part of the bands and orchestras of the day, so it picked up momentum through popular music. Before that, unamplified guitar was lost in the sound and volume (the banjo was the popular stringed instrument in orchestras for its volume). Also the arrival of some talented jazz guitar players like Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt helped make it an increasingly popular instrument.
After WWII, the guitar rocketed in its ascendancy as the most popular instrument for the new sound - R&B, rock & roll, and pop. Ukes were on the way out, at least as a popular instrument. Although they would continue as a Hawaiian instrument, and there was a brief resurgence in the post-war years, they were not the popular instrument of the 1920s. At one point in the late 1960s, there was apparently only Hawaiian uke manufacturer left.
In 1947, Albert Augustine, a string and instrument maker in New York, worked with chemical and plastics producer DuPont to make the first nylon strings for guitars. The success of his experiments meant nylon soon replaced gut and silk strings on instruments. Nylon stings were endorsed by classical guitarist Andres Segovia, which gave them credibility among musicians. I can find no reference to when nylon strings were first used on ukuleles, but it was likely soon after they started to appear on guitars.
The uke went through another minor surge in popularity in the late 1940s when US servicemen returned from the Pacific war with ukuleles and Hawaiian music. But it more a novelty spurt than a Renaissance.
All-plastic ukuleles were first manufactured in the 1950s. The most popular was the Islander, made by Maccaferri’s Mastro Plastics Corp. The guitar maker, Maccaferri, became intrigued with making instruments out of plastic. He applied his instrument-making skill to produce the "TV Pal," a plastic ukulele. By March, 1950, Mario Maccaferri was making 2,500 of his plastic ukuleles a day. More than nine million of these had sold by 1958. Sales were spurred by its low cost and a link with the popular television show "Arthur Godfrey and his Ukulele."
Godfrey is also credited with introducing the baritone uke, which he asked Eddie Connors, of Vega instruments, to design for him. Connors was also a well-known banjo player in the 1920s. Tiki King notes this as 1961, but the Vega brochure for this instrument seems to be dated 1951. However, according to Tiki King's database, Favilla is also credited with inventing the baritone. Regardless, it was Godfrey who promoted it and made it popular.
Maccaferri also made plastic banjo ukes, from the 1940s until the 1960s, produced by his Mastro Industries company. Other companies like Emenee and Carnival made similar products. Most of these plastic banjo ukes were designed for children.
The first use of ukuleles to teach music in the classroom happened around this time. In 1952, American educator William Mihalyi gave Islander ukuleles to a fourth-grade class to teach them the basics of stringed music.
That mini-revival lasted through the 1950s and sputtered on through the 1960s. The changes in popular music in the 1950s and 60s saw it give way to the guitar and other instruments, especially the electric variety. Aside from the novelty acts of Tiny Tim and Martin Mull, and a few performances by George Harrison of The Beatles, almost no one played the uke commercially or professionally outside Hawaii in the 60s and 70s. Popularity eroded under the influence of the guitar.
Several companies continued to make or sell ukes in the 1960s, but they slowly evaporated until few were still on the scene by 1970. By the 1970s, there was only one major manufacturer left - Kamaka, started by Sam, an apprentice of Nunes.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, Canadian educator, J. Chalmers Doane, tried to resurrect the uke through his "Ukuleles in the Classroom" program, using his own Northern ukulele design, manufactured in Japan.
In the 1990s, the picture began to change. Thanks to the Internet, ukulele performers, makers and aficionados were able to meet, communicate, and share music. That rapidly blossomed into a subculture, and today the ukulele is one of the most popular musical instruments around. It's popularity is growing rapidly, with one of the largest and most active online communities.
Performers like Jake Shimabukuro, Mike Okouchi, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, Brittni Paiva, and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain have been able to find a new and appreciative audience. New, brilliant ukulele musicians have found a large audience through the Net, and helped spread the passion throughout the ukiverse.
Dozens of new manufacturers have sprung up to cater to that market. The uke is enjoying its third bloom and it's not even begun to reach its peak. Ukuleles are being used today for a wide range of music - not just Hawaiian - including pop, jazz, folk, blues and classical. Just search online and on YouTube to see what is being done with the uke.
Banjo ukes are seeing a similar resurgence, and there are more manufacturers of them today than there have been for 40-50 years.
This is only a sparse overview. For more details, read more here and here and here and here and here. And here. For a very interesting comment on the history and Portuguese ancestral instruments, read here.