Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Many years ago my group and I did some performances in blackface. At the time we just used some simple black greasepaint and really only did our faces. I would like to investigate a more authentic approach to blacking up and I wondered if any of you have any practical advice about how to do it. I think the first step is to burn some bottle corks in alcohol and I think this was even shown in Spike Lee’s movie “Bamboozled” but I’d like to hear from someone who has done it.

What is the best thing to use as the base? Is any exposed skin to be covered like the back of the neck and the front of the hands? I don’t see how one could play in gloves and so I assume the front of the hands and fingers is not covered.

I’m not sure if this subject is considered on-topic but I thought I’d start here looking for practical experience. I’d really like to try it in the authentic manner with the idea of maybe putting together another show for the reenactment circuit or even just for a video.

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Well Dan, I've never personally done this, but from what I have read a little oil/fat was mixed into the burnt cork to make it easier to apply. In terms of exposed skin, look at picture 39 of R Bishop Buckley.


It looks like all exposed skin is covered. Notice that the white that you see in some pictures around the mouth and eyes is not done here. From what I have seen this was an affectation that started some time after 1880. Notice also that there is very little exposed skin/hair, he is even wearing a hat, which makes the whole thing easier.
Since the blacking up tradition spanned over a century I'm sure there was an evolution in the style, I certainly don't want to use any techniques that would be out of place in the antebellum period. The makeup in the Buckley image is pretty subtle. W/R/T oil and fat I had heard about the origin of being a "ham" on the stage and wonder if I should be looking for lard. I'm currently located in the Northeast US and I'm not sure they even stock that at my local grocery store.
The way I have done it is to apply ham fat (ever wondered why we call people who act "hams") or a cold cream to my face first. they I apply dry cork powder to my face. This gives the "dry" look seen in early photos while allowing for good coverage and easy clean up.

DO NOT apply directly to skin unless you have several cakes of Lava Soap (don't ask how I know, it is too painful to repeat.

The following is from Wehman's Burnt Cork of The Amateur Minstrel By Frank Dumonl, 1881.

"Select a quantity of champagne corks, if obtainable , and placing them in an iron or old tin vessel, saturate them with alcohol and apply a match. Reduce the corks to cinders, pulverize them, then sift them through a fine sieve. Apply water to the mass, and reduce it to the consistency of thick paste. Put this in a tin box, and close tight, until required for use. The paste may dry up and be reduced to dust, but the application of water will again render it fit for use."

This description is consistent with the other books I have in my collection.

I am interested if anyone has any contemporary documentation for using animal fat. I would think that is would get rancid. Not to mention that the above recipe applies easier than any grease paint, looks better, and will wash off with water and a little soap surprisingly quick. It is also completely harmless. So it seems any other additive is not necessary.

Yes, the books say to cover all exposed skin except the palms of the hands and around the mouth. Even the inside if the ears. Remember it washes off very easy and will not stain clothing. Animal fat will stain and ruin fabric.

Don't use lipstick.

All this info is for historical education. Now for some advice. Don't cork up. It is a bad idea, and will hurt peoples feelings and offend.

The only place that this could even be remotely appropriate is in a full submersion event with all living historians attending and no public.

If you have a job and want to keep it, no video or photos.

There are plenty of images that can be shown for educational purposes, we don't need more. This is a sensitive subject with questionable lyrics and titles, our small group does not need the attention, nor do we need to be labeled as a hate group.

We do not need to be associated with the same types of people that fly the Confederate battle flag because of their "heritage." It is obvious that if they were not simply after the shock value they might have chosen the National flag.

Sorry about the rant.

Conclusion, Burnt cork = bad idea.

I would be concerned that applying the burnt cork directly to the skin would get into all your pores and that might be a bad thing. I figured that’s why the fat or lard base is used. Maybe that's not so good for the skin either but given the choice I think I'd go with the fat.

Interesting you brought up the subject of questionable lyrics and titles. I posted about that subject on this board’s predecessor and was chastised by a few members for changing lyrics that I was uncomfortable singing in front of some audiences. Several posted that they always performed the period lyrics and took time before hand to explain their context. I actually don’t have strong feelings about this one way or another and was just trying to figure out what really works. I'm pretty sure my performances have never hurt anyone's feelings, or caused offense but I'm pretty careful about sizing up an audience and giving them what they want.

Dave Culgan
It is completely harmless to the skin. In fact, all the folks I know that have used this recipe report clearer skin afterwards (including me).

As far as lyrics go, I am a terrible singer. I mostly play solo banjo. But when I do sing, I go with the period lyrics. I also sing the 2nd verse to "Oh Susanna!" But I also choose my company well, and only sing at full submersion events with no public.

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