You won’t see a lot of Pepper instruments out in the world these days. All told, the company only manufactured instruments for less than 30 years. During that time, however, Pepper led the way in innovation, creating new accessories, perfecting techniques, and even inventing a new instrument. While we are not known for our instruments today, manufacturing and sales of brass, string, woodwind, and percussion instruments and accessories were a key part of the foundation of J.W. Pepper.
Pepper began factory operations in the early 1880s with the Superior First Class line of instruments. This line was made in collaboration with Henri Distin, a celebrated brass instrument manufacturer out of London, England. Distin continued working with Pepper throughout the 1880s and ‘90s, contributing to some of the most popular lines of instruments. In 1888, Pepper also brought in Alexander LeForrestier to be the superintendent of bell making. The combined efforts of these experts and J.W. Pepper himself earned the company several high honors over the decade that followed, including the highest medal and diploma for craftsmanship at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1883.
During that period, the company was a bastion of innovation. Between 1880 and 1900, the company filed a number of different patents for both instruments and musical accessories. In 1892, Pepper acquired the Excelsior Drum Factory – another manufacturer in the city of Philadelphia – which led to the well-known Excelsior trade name. Pepper produced one of the earliest drum pedals, patenting the design in 1894. The concept of double drumming – that is, playing a bass and a snare at the same time – was in its infancy at the time, and Pepper’s pedal contributed to what has now become a percussion standard.
Perhaps Pepper’s most recognizable creation was a modified helicon called the sousaphone. Conceived by John Philip Sousa himself, the instrument was originally intended for concert use. Sousa expressed a desire for a bass instrument with an upturned bell in a conversation with J.W. Pepper, who named the instrument after the famous band leader out of gratitude. The very first sousaphone ever created now resides in Pepper’s corporate headquarters in Exton, Pennsylvania. The story of how it disappeared and made its way back home is a fascinating one.
In 1910, J.W. Pepper & Son ceased producing instruments and shifted entirely to importing them from Europe. While the time Pepper spent manufacturing was short in comparison to the company’s 140-year history, those days have nevertheless left a deep imprint on both the company and the musical world.
See more on our 140th Anniversary Interactive Timeline.
Read the rest of our A History of Service Series: