Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I'm not sure if this is minstrel-era or not, but the price was right and it's now a part of my collection.  It's a whopping 17'' in diameter!  My initial thought was "how could it not be a minstrel tambourine with these dimensions!?", but I'll let the experts decide.  It turned up at an estate sale in Illinois, and the woman I purchased it from was told at the sale that it is Italian, although nothing more was known about it, and there is nothing on the tambourine linking it to Italy.   The rim is in good shape and could take a new head, but I'll probably leave it as is.

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Looks cool.   :)      Duct tape?-lol!

"how could it not be a minstrel tambourine with these dimensions!?"   Easy. Tambourines are a big part of many musical cultures, so we can't just assume that large old tambourines are either American or 'minstrel', even if they are from the 1800s. I mean, what if this was an Italian, Romany, or Turkish tambourine (just some examples of folk tambourines that can look similar and are often quite large diameter, and shallow, like yours)...would you tell people it's a 'minstrel tambourine' if it were from the 1800s --even if it had never been used to play 'minstrel' music or even American music?  How do you know for sure it's American, or was used to play minstrel music?  Unless by the term 'minstrel' you mean folk music from any part of the world in the 1800s.

That said, I'm no 'expert' so I wouldn't myself attempt to identify this tambourine without some kind of maker's clues or provenance, for sure.  :)   It's a cool item though!

I'm not sure we can say for certain whether any of the surviving "minstrel" tambourines were used to play American music.  You're right- I'm not even sure it's an American instrument, but my suspicions are aroused.  It's not every day that a 17'' diameter tambourine with this much age shows up in Illinois.  

D'anal writes:  John - Some posters seem to want to discern everything through a folky lens. That agenda gets tiresome, and has short-circuited some of the more serious investigations here.  And of course we all know that in the context of this forum "minstrel" refers to stage minstrelry originating in antebellum times in America, just as you meant.

Well it's Mr. Insult-i-Pants!    =8-o

Hey well I'd rather be looking through a folky lens than a f**ked up lens, for sure.  (Duuuude!)


I'll take some better photos of it and post them.  Maybe somebody can I.D. the species of wood, and I'll do my best to examine the zills.  They are in rough shape.

At Antietam this year someone brought a very old tambourine- did you see it John?  It had cross braces in the back from which little bells were hung.  Significant or maybe not, that design is like various 'folk' (!)  or ethnic tambourines common to Italy, the Ukraine, and some other countries.  Goodness knows there were a lot of first generation immigrant groups to America in the mid 1800s, from all over the place, bringing their rich musical cultures along with them to blend with the many others here already.

I did see it, and I agree with you that we have no idea where some of these tambourines came from.  If you remember from Antietam, there was a large tambourine with tensioning similar to that invented by Boucher (maybe we are talking about the same tambourine?).  The owner (James Pentecost if I'm not mistaken) had a replica of it made and performed with it at the public concerts.  I've attached an image of a 19th century painting showing a very similar tambourine... the painting is of a Romani woman in Europe.  I'll have to examine my tambourine closely and see if I can draw any conclusions from its construction.


We're talking two diff tambourines- James', and the other mystery one with inner bells and braces that was brought in briefly to show- yes I love James' (16"?) new exact replica one he has and plays now (that Dave C. made)- great that you can tension it to the weather.   There are indeed images showing minstrel players and also apparently early American community dance musicians playing very large tambourines.  they must have sounded terrific and deep. 

I actually have a native Quebecois drummer friend coming over in the morning to give me some playing tips on my frame drum- she plays various frame drums.  I would love to play better.  A tambourine is simply a frame drum with jingles after all.  ;D  I think frame drums are among the world's oldest instruments.  They are shown in some of the oldest musician images known.

I brought the tambo to an expert who confirmed that it is "without any doubt" American made, most likely from the 1840s-1860s.  The zills are either American made or were important from Germany by an American manufacturer, a common practice at the time.  I'll take some better pictures of it soon and post them here.  I'm also going to look into the possibility of having a reproduction of it made.  It looks like it was so much fun to play! 

Better pictures (soda can for size reference):

Somebody tried to repair it at one point using modern methods (duck tape on the head, staples from a staple gun holding the head to the rim where the tacks no longer got the job done, copper wire holding together a crack in the rim).


There are tambourine experts?   Who knew?   lol   Seriously though, I'm quite curious- how is it that it's "without any doubt" American made? 

John, it'd be interesting to know whether that was the original skinhead, or a later replacement one.  Is there a place where you can peek under the outside skin edge to see if there are previous tack holes, now covered over... indicating an earlier head?

There sure are a lot of tacks on it, and somewhat irregularly spaced, two different sizes.  Duct tape and staples... somebody 'really' wanted to keep that thing going.

I remember one time I had a big hole in my pocket and I was too lazy to get out my needle and thread.  So I just stapled it together.  Worked for a while anyway, but wound up sticking myself in the fingers after a while.... served me right.

The guy I brought it to (not sure if he wants me to post his name or not) took one look at it, the construction, and the wood and just knew right away.  He's seen a lot of 19th century tambourines, American and European, and was able to immediately rule out European origin, and given the location it was found and its age, that narrowed it down nicely.  By the way, he is primarily a 19th century banjo and guitar expert, and I'm not sure he'd consider himself to be a tambourine expert.  The jury is still out on whether those actually exist ;)

I don't think there are previous tack holes although it is a bit hard to tell.  The skin that's on there is practically petrified.  It feels like really thin cardboard and I'm worried if I fool with it to peak under the edge it will shatter into a bunch of pieces.  Besides the duck tape, staples, and different tack sizes, there is also some copper wire tied to the rim and holding it together in a place where it split in two.  Somebody was really determined to keep this thing in one piece!

Yeah i was just pulling your leg about the tambourine expert.   ;)   But there must be a few out there, somewhere!

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