The earliest Orville guitar
Up until now, the earliest known instruments made by Orville Gibson were mandolins from 1899-1900 and his oddball 10-string mando-lute from 1894 (the date on a celluloid medallion inside the instrument). The paper label inside this Orville Gibson guitar (inv. #AG4749) dates it to 1897, making it not only the earliest Orville guitar but the earliest Orville-made instrument of any kind with a dated label.
The closeup of the front shows the contours of the carved spruce top -- Orville Gibson's revolutionary new way of making fretted instruments. This instrument is 15 1/2 inches wide, which is moderate by Gibson standards but over an inch wider than the typical flat top guitar of the day (such as the 14 7/8-inch Martin 00-size). Orville's top is also large in surface area, thanks to the circular lower bout that would become an identifying characteristic of most Gibson company-made archtops and of such noteworthy Gibson flat tops as the Super Jumbo 200 and J-185. The pearl bridge inlays are of the pre-cut, engraved German type.
The label is handwritten in a floral professional calligraphy style -- it's not Orville's handwriting. It states that the guitar was made by O.H. Gibson and dated "August 2, '97." (That would be 1897, of course.)
The fingerboard is unbound, with plain dot inlay. The fingerboard wood is difficult to determine. It looks something like the "red bean" fingerboards found on Dobros of the early 1930s.
The "paddle" peghead was another Orville trademark, and you wouldn't have to worry if you were stuck up the creek with this guitar. What looks to be a nicely grained walnut veneer is not a veneer at all. It's the wood that the back, sides, neck and peghead are made of.
The back of the body is carved from a single piece of walnut, with the lip around the edge and the flat center area typical of Orville- and early Gibson company-made instruments. Orville stated in his one-and-only patent (granted in 1898) that ideally, the back, rim and neck should all be carved from a single piece of wood. As he also stated in his patent, that that would be impractical from a production standpoint, but he comes close to his goal with this instrument. It doesn't have "sides," technically speaking, rather it has a rim cut out of a single piece of walnut. There is no seam in the tail area (where a strap button would go), and the neck heel area is still part of the rim. The rim piece extends more than halfway up the back of the neck.
As the earliest known guitar made by Orville Gibson, the historical importance of this instrument is incomparable.