Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

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Thanks Bob for the ads!  I'll look through them as soon as I get the chance.

Hi Dan'l,  Well, I'd always assumed that pre-Civil War banjos were pretty rare birds, mostly crafted as one-offs for professional musicians.  Reinforcing this view are the handful of genuine (and often elaborately-decorated) minstrel banjos that have survived to the present.   But these ads seem to be telling us something else:  namely, that large numbers of relatively cheap (and probably plain) banjos were also being made and sold to the general public as early as 1845.  For me this is a really exciting finding since few if any of these amateur instruments seem to have survived the ravages of time.         

Bob, do you think these banjos could have been Bouchets?  I remember reading somewhere a period reference to cheap Bouchet banjos in storefront windows.

John, The short answer is "very possible," although so many stores were selling banjos by the early 1850s that I can't imagine Boucher was the only supplier.  By the way, I found a series of ads placed by a Cleveland music store in 1855 trumpeting the fact that they were selling Wm. Boucher banjos, the same instruments "used by all of the popular minstrels of the day."  One of the ads is reproduced in the current early banjo exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.     

That's a great example of 19th century advertising, since we know Boucher banjos weren't very good or popular with professional minstrels.

Hi, John: Roberta here. Why were Boucher banjos not popular with professional minstrels?

The Boucher banjos were made with some of the same techniques that mass produced furniture was made.  Boucher took some shortcuts so that he could make a banjo faster.  Drive a Chevy or drive a Cadillac.  The pros wanted the Cadillac.

Thanks, John: What would have been the Cadillac of the day?

The nicely made one-off banjos, or instruments made with professionals in mind.  If you go through the galley at www.banjodatabase.org, you can see how much variation there was among the early instruments.   One feature that was popular with the stage minstrels was a larger rim (14'' or larger in diameter)- something that Converse himself championed.  Here's a picture of one with a 15'' rim from my little (but growing) collection.  

Many of the Boucher banjos were pretty unplayable.  They have a beautiful design but were poorly constructed.  The necks were very thin, which doesn't provide the best stability.  


Not to get off topic, but I've always wondered about minstrels playing ornate banjos.  The minstrels seemed to have painstakingly constructed their costumes, some even buying clothes off the backs of African Americans they encountered and impersonated.  One would think having an ornate banjo like a Levi Brown, for example, would not fit in with the rest of their appearance on stage.  Further, if they can be trusted (big disclaimer), the illustrations of minstrels on playbills and advertisements depict simple looking banjos.  Take, for example, the picture I posted above.  This is what I imagine the early minstrels playing.  It's an 1850s banjo that is very well made, has a lot of tensioning considering its age, and has a 15'' rim.  It was nicely finished, but doesn't have any elaborate details and looks rather rustic and primitive. 


I would be curious to know if individuals such as George Wunderlich, Greg Adams, Pete Ross, and Jim Hartel, who have examined many of the extant Boucher banjos would share your opinion that they are "poorly constructed".

Jim has told me that before, and described to me why he thinks they aren't very good. His Boucher banjos feature a number of pretty major improvements to the original Boucher design. Maybe he can comment here and share his thoughts as I'd rather not put words into his mouth.

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