Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hi--I posted this over on the collectors forum at Banjo Hangout, and wanted to post here as well--any help is appreciated!

I  just won an ebay auction for an old 19th century banjo with eagle brackets around the rim. I'd appreciate any help in IDing this along with any ideas about the possible date. I'm attaching some pics.

Thanks in advance!

Jim Jacquet

Olympia, WA

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Your banjo looks like so many generic fretless store tubs assembled out of interchangeable parts from  the Buckbee factory in the 1870's or 1880's.  They make pretty good minstrel banjos and I like their plain looks.  These were in umpteen catalogs all throughout the late 19th century.  I just call them Buckbees and leave it at that.--Rob Morrison

Thanks, Rob--I was thinking eiither Buckbee or Pollman.

Now to get it playable!



As far as I know the banjos in the Pollman catalogs were Buckbees too.  They ghost manufactured for everybody and their mother until Rettberg and lange bought them out in 1897.--Rob

Think I will go to the library and look at one of the old Sears catalog reprints from 1900 or so. Bet there is something similar in there, altho they were called Acme Banjos there.This research is fun!!


Just heard back from Phillip Gura about this banjo:

Yes, I would say 1870s. The eagle brackets often had to do with  the centennial of the country in 1876 rather than the Civil War. Nothing else that really indicates a maker, though-a fairly common piece for that period.  SOrry not to be able to say more!
Best, PFG

It is most likely late 70' to the early 1900's.  These banjos appear in print as late as 1910.  My main concern about placing them earlier is that the earliest eagle brackets were much less standardized in the 60's as hardware was still not being mass produced.  I have seen an eagle banjo with good provenance to the 60's and the shoes are very stylized and the nuts were handmade.   Even banjos like the Jacob's still had odd proprietary hardware in the 60's.  

Just picked up the banjo from the post office this morning. Neck is straight, which I wasnt sure about from the pics. I've attached a close up pic of the eagles right next to the neck. They are both upside down, because they wouldn't fit up against the neck otherwise. Sort of an interesting detail.

As you can see from the pic, I am missing one holding bracket, and also one square shaped nut to hold it in place.

Anyone know of any of those square shaped ones anywhere, either new or vintage?

As to the probable age of the banjo, the consensus of opinion, from Phillip Gura to Bob Carlin to Peter Szego and others seems to be 'circa 1870s'. I think if the 5th peg faced downwards I might be able to say earlier, but it projects outward from the neck the same way a modern 5th peg would, so I'm not comfortable saying 1860s.

This seems reasonable...Have I stirred up more controversy with this line of reasoning?


Just to further muddy things, there is a photo dated 1866 in the Joseph Weidliclich book "Early Minstrel Banjo" depicting a man named Sam Jordan in blackface who is playing a banjo that looks exactly like one of my banjos.  I have gone as far as making careful measurements of all the various parts and they produce virtually identical ratios.  Beyond that, they just plain look just alike.  The only fly in the ointment is that the focus is just slightly blurry, and while the brackets sure look like they could be eagles, you can't definitively say one way or the other.  But my banjo definitely has eagles.  There are two basic kinds of Buckbee eagles.   The ones on my banjo that looks like the banjo in the Weidlich book are identical to yours.  I have another early Buckbee pony banjo that I just finished restoring with the other Buckbee eagle.  It has folded wings with a sheild and motto that proclaims "Union Forever."

There is no doubt whatever that Buckbee made these lower end instruments throughout the years of the Civil War.  Production  dates were from 1861 to 1897.  I can't produce a smoking gun to show there was unquestionably a manufactured eagle bracket banjo from the 1861 to 1865 time frame, but I honestly think it's a lot more likely that there were than there weren't.  And please remember, this is just an opinion.

Interesting, Rob. What about the 5th peg--straight down, or out to the side?


I have six of the eagle bracket shoes from a fretless banjo I bought for parts -- it should have had about 10-12, I forget exactly how many were missing.  The artistic vision seems a little different, so I thought a side by side comparison might be of interest.  Mine were plated with some silvery metal, I don't think it's nickel -- anyway, the brass only shows through at spots that were rubbed a lot.

The style and feel of the Union Forever castings would lead me to believe that they were just post war or possibly right at the end of the war.  I do not feel that they are centennial pieces.  We do not see much use of that term "Union Forever" in any other centennial celebrations but it is a common wartime theme. 


Indeed, my banjo with the "Union Forever" castings looks as if it went through the Peloponnesian War, as do the brackets themselves.  While obviously mass produced, this banjo is very crudely made.  The bass string is barely over the fingerboard.  However, it is obviously made with the typical Buckbee techniques of red milk paint underpainting, a faux rosewood finish on the wooden rim, square nuts, a rounded boat heel, and a square peghead.  I don't know when these brackets first appeared, but they persisted until the very end and can be found in the 1897 Pollman catalog.--Rob Morrison

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