Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties


Celebrating the Rich Legacy of My Great-Grandfather

May 27, 2015
Posted by: Aimee Ellis, Community Organizer

I am the proud Great-Granddaughter of Mr. Aaron Burdwise; a Baltimore-based musical merchandise importer, inventor, composer and entrepreneur who came to America from Uman, Ukraine in 1904. For many years, my family and I searched for detail regarding the history of the Burdwise Company — we’d been told it was a prolific musical merchandise operation, but nothing could be found. All we had to document this was bits and pieces of stories we’d been told by our parents, and a beat up black and white photo of a Burdwise storefront.

In 2012, during a holiday visit with family, my cousin Jeni Josephson-Rhodes and I looked a little closer at a scribbled name on the back of a black and white family photo and alas, we’d been spelling the name incorrectly during the years of searching, Burdwise was the spelling, not Birdwise.

Therein began a frenzied internet search during which we discovered all sorts of fascinating information about Mr. Aaron Burdwise, and our hunt for antique Burdwise instruments and corresponding historical detail continues to this day. One of the most interesting facts we discovered is that he invented the second pick ever issued a patent in the USA in 1917, known as the “Burdwise Wire-Looped Pick,” a pick that is still being celebrated by pick collectors and world class musicians such as Andy Summers of The Police. In Summers’ book “Light Stringshe references Mr. Burdwise as one of the architects of the pick, right along with the ancient Egyptians, ancient Chinese and the Moors! Incredibly, we were able to purchase a Burdwise Wire-Looped Pick on Ebay that same evening, as a rare opportunity to buy one just happened to occur the very moment we discovered this detail. We were also amazed to discover numerous articles from the time the company operated (1871-1930) available online. We are grateful to now be in touch with one of the leading historians on picks in the world, Mr. Will Hoover. Mr. Hoover has kindly offered to assist us in submitting historical detail on Mr. Burdwise’s work to Jewish and music history museums and archives, including the National Association of Musical Merchandise. The Burdwise Pick is featured Mr. Hoover’s book “Picks!” and he has long speculated on the eventual value of a Burdwise Pick. Mr. Hoover also shared with me in a personal conversation that he is absolutely fascinated by the Burdwise Pick, and the fact that it was patented in 1917, during a time in which the technologies were not as advanced. Mr. Burdwise’s ability to invent and mass produce thousands of cellulose picks with a wire loop threaded through them was no small feat.

Aside from the pick for which he is most well-known for today, Mr. Burdwise was also a wholesale instrument dealer out of Baltimore, MD starting in 1904. The Burdwise Company was an operation passed down to him as a family run small business in Europe, founded in 1871 (six years before he was born in 1877). In 1904, he brought the operation to America so it could expand and grow in the land of opportunity. Violent pogroms against the Jewish people are what brought him to America, and thankfully, he arrived well before the Holocaust, or none of his descendants would be alive today. His company had over 100 staff, five Baltimore shop locations, and a traveling salesforce that delivered his merchandise across the USA. His career began in the late 1800s, traveling on behalf of a Russian musical merchandise company at the age of 18, before immigrating to the USA. Mr. Burdwise was an expert on market conditions in Europe and the USA and he was interviewed frequently on this topic.

Mr. Burdwise not only produced his own company label instruments — he also sold other brands of merchandise from popular companies at the time. He sold every type of instrument under the sun, including small parts and record players. He was also a composer and copyrighted several songs. He was considered one of the leading experts on the conditions of the musical merchandise market in Europe, and was one of the first Americans post WWI to travel to Europe to assess the market conditions. During WWI, Burdwise bugles were produced “infantry issued” in Paris, France, exclusively for his company, and utilized widely amongst American troops – we are lucky enough to have several of these bugles in our possession today. Mr. Burdwise not only produced his own company label instruments, he also sold other brands of merchandise from popular companies at the time (like York, featured in the photo).

Learning about my Great Grandfather’s legacy has been incredible and has greatly expanded my understanding of my family and what brought us to America. Discovering this detail led to further family research, during which my cousin Jeni Josephson-Rhodes and I led an effort to re-unite all the living descendants of Aaron Burdwise, which we have accomplished with great success. For Jewish American Heritage Month, I reflect on the fact that against all odds, we made it to America. While I didn’t know my Great Grandfather personally, I feel like I am living his legacy with every step I take, as a proud Jewish American.

If you come across any vintage instruments that are “Burdwise” label, please let me know – my family will be furiously hunting them down across the globe in the meantime.

This post originally appeared as part of the JCPA’s project “Celebrating New Americans” as part of Jewish American Heritage Month.

PHOTO: A Burdwise storefront (top) and Mr. Aaron Burdwise (above), provided by Aimee Ellis.