Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I've spent the last couple of months downloading antebellum newspaper advertisements for sellers of banjos during the period stretching from roughly 1845 through 1865.   It's turned into a gargantuan task, one that I wasn't smart enough to anticipate in advance.   I'm only up through 1853 and have already collected more than 2,000 ads placed by approximately 40 vendors in the north, south, and far west.  As a result, I don't see any end to the project for a good long time (maybe never).   

However, I can make a few broad generalizations at this point.  First of all, banjos were plentiful and cheap in most parts of the country by 1850 or so.  Some of the earliest ads imply that large numbers of the instruments might have been imported from Germany and France--although with few exceptions most of the early vendors were pretty secretive about revealing their actual sources.

Second, banjos more often than not were advertised alongside tambourines, bones, accordeons, violins, and other "minstrel instruments," rather than being sold by themselves.   These instruments in turn were segregated in the ads from keyboard and brass instruments.   I can just imagine a group of young boys going into one of these stores and saying:   "Hey, kids, let's start a minstrel band!  Let's see:  We need a fiddle and a triangle and a tambourine and a banjo..."  

A surprising finding is the frequency of ads describing recent shipments of "banjos and tambourines" and sometimes "banjos and tambourines and accordeons."   In one 1849 ad, E. W. Boucher, Sr. of Baltimore even claims to have been the first manufacturer of "banjos and tambourines," while at the same time touting his ability to repair accordeons.  So there seems to be a connection there.

Therefore, I'll go out on a limb here and speculate that it wasn't a drum that provided the model for frame-head banjos, but rather a tambourine.  Early modern banjos, of course, were tackhead instruments--just like tambourines.  It wouldn't take much effort, I'm guessing, for a tambourine maker to add a wooden neck and dowel stick to one of his instruments and--viola!--a banjo.   

I'm guessing as well that it was the Industrial Revolution and the mass production of musical instruments in the 1830s and 1840s that, sadly, spelled the end of the gourd banjo.  

So that's about it for now.  At some point, I can report on the types of stores selling banjos during the early period (there's quite a variety).  But that will have to await further analysis.  


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Sounds like an interesting venture you took on and is revealing some early trends

If your travel through time is chronological and starting at 1845....and is more daunting than you ever anticipated, you could cut 5 years off and refer to your study as "antebellum".  Seems it would still be of considerable value.

Hi Al,  I actually meant to finish with the year 1860, as you suggest.  That's why I used the term "antebellum."   My first search used the keyword "banjoes," and I came up with a couple hundred hits through that end-date.   That seemed doable.   So I thought that maybe I should extend my search through the Civil War.  That worked well, too, so I extended it a second time through 1870.  

Then, of course, I tried "banjos" (without the e).  That search identified an entirely different set of banjo vendors and, biggest problem, literally thousands of hits.   So that's where I am now, slogging through vast numbers of music store advertisements.   I've promised myself to try to harvest everything through 1860.   At that point, I'll have to see if I still have the energy and interest to keep going through the end of the Civil War.  

I've tagged each downloaded advertisement by newspaper,  vendor's name, and date.   So the information is lining up in neat columns that should be fairly easy to analyze when I'm finished.   At the very least, I'll have a list of vendors around the country who advertised and sold banjos in the 1840s and 1850s, along with examples of their advertisements.   It's turning out to be an interesting exercise.   

On the matter of tambourines, I could use some help from Minstrel Banjo members.   I'm assuming that jig-dancing, Irish fiddling, and certain musical forms came with the Catholic Irish who immigrated to the U.S. in the second decade of the 19th century.  (I'm not speaking here about the earlier Scots-Irish immigrants who settled in Appalachia and other parts of the South.)   My question is:   DId they introduce the Irish tambourine to American vernacular music at the dawning of the minstrel era in the late 1830s and early 1840s?  Did the tambourine even figure in Irish music at this time?   If so, that may strengthen my argument that the tambourine provided the Bouchers and other makers with at least one important model for the frame-head banjo.  

I hope I don't get flamed (framed?) for suggesting this.




Sorry Bob.  I read your entire posting but your use of "antebellum" in your first sentence escaped me when I responded.

Did they sell tambourines with adjustable tension brackets back then, at the same time they had brackets on the banjos?   Tambourines are basically frame drums with jingles I think.

Hi Strumella,  From what I can tell, tambourines back in the 1840s were almost exclusively tack-head instruments (as they still are).  But so were the earliest frame banjos.  

What got me thinking about this was a handful of ads suggesting that early vendors were taking shipments of "banjos and tambourines."  Then I found a series of 1849 ads placed by E. W. (Wilhelm) Boucher, Sr. claiming that he was the first manufacturer of banjos and tambourines.   That may be more than hyperbole, especially if he means the first mass-production manufacturer of frame banjos.  

Now here I'm really going to go out on a limb (please don't hit me, banjophiles!).  Could it possibly be that Joe Sweeney, who was performing in Baltimore from March through July 1841, approached local instrument maker Wilhelm Boucher and said "Gee, this gourd banjo is really uncomfortable on stage.  Can you make me a banjo with a flat back, maybe something like a tambourine with a banjo neck?"  If that were the case, then Sweeney (along with the elder Boucher) really can claim to be the father of the (modern) banjo.  And it has nothing to do with adding a fourth string or a chanterelle string.  

I mentioned to Greg Adams that this reminds me of the story, exactly 100 years later, of a young Pete Seeger approaching John D'Angelico in New York and asking him if he could add three frets to his banjo so that he could sing in a lower key.  Professional musicians are always tinkering with their instruments. 

Strumelia said:

Did they sell tambourines with adjustable tension brackets back then, at the same time they had brackets on the banjos?   Tambourines are basically frame drums with jingles I think.

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