Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

When do you think these first came into being.  I've read different dates ranging from the late 1850s to the 1870s.  It seems that different materials have been used as well- spun aluminum, brass, and iron.  I wonder if one material predates another or if they all appeared at around the same time.  Check out the banjo in the photos I attached.  It appears to be from the 1860s-1870s, although I'm not sure which, and it combines some early and later features.  The headstock looks similar to that of a Dobson, and the banjo has some characteristics of NY manufacture.  Maybe it's an early Dobson Silver Bell?  If I remember correctly that design was patented in 1858.

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Back of the neck.

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John--It's a beautiful banjo, possibly 1870's, but hard to say.  It can't be a Dobson, however, because as far as I know, all Dobson's are marked "Dobson," regardless of which of the seven or eight Dobson companies marketed them.. Most, if not all Dobsons  were made at the Buckbee factory.  Buckbee seldom marked their own instruments.

I was under the impression that Buckbee made some unmarked banjos in the late 1860s and 1870s that incorporated Dobson design features like the Dobson headstock shape.  I don't know if this would include the Dobson Silver Bell rim or not.  In my research I have yet to discover any Dobson Silver Bells from the 1860s, so there is nothing to compare this banjo to.

Here are a few more photos of it.  The tailpiece is original and so are the inlays.  The only part that isn't original is the headstock finish, which was restored.

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I've got several Buckbee banjos from the 1860's, 1870's, and 1880's, and they resemble the Chas. Dobson banjo I also have.  People tell me they are Dobsons, but the only ones that are Dobsons are the ones that one or more of the Dobson brothers paid to have made.  I've got a James Morrison banjo made in the Buckbee factory, constructed just like my Chas. Dobson banjo, with the same peghead shape and all, that actually was made  with a dowel stick marked "Edward Dobson".  The parts were that interchangeable.

Ok, yes, this is what I meant.  I should have been clearer and said Dobson-style when describing the banjo.  Some people have suggested to me that it is a Cubley, but the headstock isn't the correct shape, and I believe the hardware to be older.  I also have not found a Cubley that doesn't at least have partial flush frets, if not raised frets.  I may purchase this banjo since I'm on the market for a mid 1860s style instrument, hence my question about the clad rim.  I've seen a few references to clad rims from the 1860s but I haven't seen any actual banjos with them.

Rob Morrison said:

I've got several Buckbee banjos from the 1860's, 1870's, and 1880's, and they resemble the Chas. Dobson banjo I also have.  People tell me they are Dobsons, but the only ones that are Dobsons are the ones that one or more of the Dobson brothers paid to have made.  I've got a James Morrison banjo made in the Buckbee factory, constructed just like my Chas. Dobson banjo, with the same peghead shape and all, that actually was made  with a dowel stick marked "Edward Dobson".  The parts were that interchangeable.

John--I believe all of my metal clad early banjos were from the 1870's and 1880's, but that certainly doesn't mean there weren't any made before that.  Again, it's a beautiful instrument.

It is beautiful.  I'm torn between it and a banjo for sale at Bernunzio that they are holding for me while I decide.  Whichever I get, I'll bring it to AEBG along with my Hartel Boucher.  Here are a few pictures.  I've examined it in person and noticed some interesting things.  It was a fretless banjo for a long enough time to wear down the area of the first 7 frets significantly, and after that it was fretted with brass bar frets like those on early to mid 19th century guitars.  The globular hardware seems original, but the wing nuts and hooks are newer.  The internal nuts are the old square type.  The dowel was modified so that the current tailpiece could be used.  The tailpiece is dated 1886, which is where Bernunzio got their date from, but the banjo is older than that.  The inlays are wooden and there are carved details that have been painted white.  It's pretty primitive marquetry.  The tuners are period and are the exact same model as those on a parlor guitar I own that dates from the 1850s to 1860s.  That said, this style was produced through the end of the 19th century.  I've never seen anything like the grape vine carving at the heel or the other ornamental wood overlays.  I think it is an 1870s or 1880s banjo that was thoroughly upgraded, although I guess it could be mid to late 1860s.

Here are the images as attachments...

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Hi John,

Folks who lived through it wrote that the clad or "silver rim" banjo started in 1855.

Try to forget any supposed Dobson family influence prior to the very late 1860s to 1870s (unless you want a research project into the early careers of that family, I'd read it-I went far enough to learn that they had some tragedy and depression in their lives and were not above board in their business dealings).  They got big in the late 70s.

The banjos that came out of the Buckbee factory were Clarke knockoffs.  They looked like Clarke banjo but were not the same. Baur wrote about that.  Take a look the photos I posted of famous minstrels.  Many of those folks are holding Clarke banjos (Converse and Brimmer come to mind).

The "Dobson" brothers actually played with Jimmy Clarke (who himself was a minstrel banjoist).

It is popular (for some reason) to constantly call banjo things "Dobson" currently.  Go back 15 or so years and everything was a "Vega."  For some reason folks get stuck on a idea.

A Dobson can take (and have) full credit for their closed-back patent banjo but not heel/peghead shape.


John said:

Ok, yes, this is what I meant.  I should have been clearer and said Dobson-style when describing the banjo.  Some people have suggested to me that it is a Cubley, but the headstock isn't the correct shape, and I believe the hardware to be older.  I also have not found a Cubley that doesn't at least have partial flush frets, if not raised frets.  I may purchase this banjo since I'm on the market for a mid 1860s style instrument, hence my question about the clad rim.  I've seen a few references to clad rims from the 1860s but I haven't seen any actual banjos with them.

Rob Morrison said:

I've got several Buckbee banjos from the 1860's, 1870's, and 1880's, and they resemble the Chas. Dobson banjo I also have.  People tell me they are Dobsons, but the only ones that are Dobsons are the ones that one or more of the Dobson brothers paid to have made.  I've got a James Morrison banjo made in the Buckbee factory, constructed just like my Chas. Dobson banjo, with the same peghead shape and all, that actually was made  with a dowel stick marked "Edward Dobson".  The parts were that interchangeable.

Joel--Yes, what you say about the current craving for all things "Dobson" is true, but it has always been thus.  It's called marketing.  When I was a mere lad in 1954 my Daniel Boone hat suddenly became a Davy Crockett hat overnight.  It's the same now with "Boucher " banjos which represented an infinitesimally small proportion of the banjos actually produced and played in the 19th century.  

Thanks for the info Joel. A few people have also suggested that the first banjo I posted is a Cubley. Apparently Edwin Cubley was making banjos in the 1870s and maybe earlier, contrary to the 1881 starting date often given on the web. Aside from the marquetry, which could have been sourced rather than made by the maker, the most striking feature of the banjo is the elegantly executed carve at the 5th string peg.

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