Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

what year were steal strings introduced on the banjo?

I am somewhat confused about when the steal string banjo came out since groups like the 2nd South Carolina String Band can be heard playing songs in which it sounds like they are using a steal string banjo.   One example that comes to mind is their playing of The Battle Cry Of Freedom.  any information would be welcome.  thanks.

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Could be that it is just the old gray mare ain't what she used to be...

Scott Johnson said:

Wes, maybe it's they just don't make horses like they used to... :-)

Actually mares' tails would not have been used as I understand it.  Plumbing is the problem.  A mare regularly urinates on her tail and this causes the hair to become more brittle and less flexible.  A bow maker pointed this out to me quite a few years ago.  He said only stallion tail hairs are preferred for violin bows and I have always assumed the same was true for the old waxed horse hair banjo strings.

I've never done a peer reviewed scientific study on the matter, but I did twist up a waxed horse hair set for a short necked gourd banjo about 25 years ago.  I finally solved the breakage problem by tuning the banjo the same as a lap top dulcimer.  I used a Dorian and a Mixolydian tuning with success as low pitched as I could and still get a decent sound.   
 
Joel Hooks said:

Could be that it is just the old gray mare ain't what she used to be...

Scott Johnson said:

Wes, maybe it's they just don't make horses like they used to... :-)

Celluloid coated drum heads were advertised as waterproof and introduced in 1880.  I'll bet that's what they were using.

See: https://www.google.com/patents/US233604

From a drum to a banjo is a small transition.  Parkesine and Xylonite, both also derived from collodian, were being experimented with as a waterproofing from the late 1860s.
 
Rob Morrison said:

OK-4--This advertisement is very interesting.  It claims the heads are waterproof.  I wonder what they were made of.  Also these instruments stayed in tune like a piano.  Huh?

I see this is page 198 of something.  What publication is this from?  Do you happen to know?  This is great documentation and the earliest reference I have seen for an actual steel stringed banjo.  I would like to include this image on my web site.  Is that OK with you?
 
OK-4 said:

An 1895 ad for the Farris banjay, with steel strings. Note the odd bridge that spans the head, an adaptation to the pressure of steel strings.

I gotta get me one of them laptop dulcimers!   :)

John Salicco said:

I finally solved the breakage problem by tuning the banjo the same as a lap top dulcimer.

I prefer tablets myself. (Ducking for cover)

Hello John Salicco,

I found that Farris ad through an internet search. It is in the 1895 Trinity Ivy, the yearbook of Trinity College (Hartford CT). It is available online in Trinity College's digital repository. I am having trouble getting a link for you, but if you enter the search term "Farris banjay Trinity Ivy" in Google you should find a downloadable PDF at the top of the hit list. You are welcome to use the image from my comment, but you can probably get one at least as good from the online source.

For what it is worth, my Farris "banjay" is a cool instrument. Mine arrived with steel strings, but I replaced them with nylon as soon as I got it - without even bothering to tune the steel strings up to pitch (that was before I learned that it was meant to have steel strings) so I have still never heard it with wire strings. It is a fine instrument for classic-style playing. It has a built in mute and needs no tailpiece.

Thank you.  I was able to find it on line with no difficulty.  I saved it to a PDF and will use it update my steel strings article on my site.

There was a bonus for me as well.  There was an ad in the yearbook for Ponds Extract, a patent medicine I used to represent as a Gold Rush patent medicine salesman.

Sounds like you have a great banjo!  Thanks again.

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