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mmm Bacon

United States
57 posts
since 2/11/09

05/19/2017 08:30:19 View mmm Bacon's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

I recently visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum and was quite impressed with this whalebone banjo. After a whale hunt, the whalers would craft scrimshaw items made from the whale's bone and ivory teeth.

(Yes, I agree that killing whales is a terrible thing, but it was a way of life in the 19th century. So please let's not get into that in this post.)

BTW: "panbone" is the name of the bone that makes up a whale's jaw.

Here is the museum's description:

Scroll-head, five-string, American minstrel type banjo; English- or American-made, circa 1850-70. The scroll head, baluster-shaped neck, drum, nut, bridge, tailpiece, and tuning pegs are carved and assembled from sperm whale panbone (jawbone); the tailpiece loop is "catgut" (sheep gut); the drum hoop and six screw-machines (tension clamps) are bronze, likely recycled from a late 18th-/early 19th-century military-type drum; the skin is parchment, a cast-off and trimmed 15th-century British legal indenture document bearing the name of a baronet and his respondent. The strings are not indigenous, but were purchased by Mary Foulke Morrisson at Lyon & Healey, Chicago, circa 1888.


Edited by - mmm Bacon on 05/23/2017 05:51:06

kyleb

1492 posts since 1/4/09

05/19/2017 09:02:39 View kyleb's Classified Ads View kyleb's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

impressive!

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trapdoor2Players Union Member

United States
10196 posts since 4/23/04

05/19/2017 09:09:09View trapdoor2's MP3 Archive View trapdoor2's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

Pretty cool. I've seen photos of this banjo in a variety of books but never seen the details as in your photographs.

Whoever made it was very, very familiar with 1850's stage banjos. This isn't something made by someone with no previous banjo experience. Many 'home-built' banjos of the period look out-of-whack in subtle ways...this one doesn't. I would bet that the bone was supplied to a banjo builder...ie, not made on shipboard. That's just a WAG on my part though...many cool/complex/beautiful items made by ships' crew.

The hex nuts on the tension hooks seem out of place to me. I would have expected cast (or hand made) square taper nuts on a banjo of the proposed vintage. That doesn't mean it isn't of its listed time period, nuts are pretty easy to swap out.

Amazing about the head being made of a 15th cent. bit of parchment. And I thought having a 19th cent original head on one of my banjos was sumpthin'! shock big

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dfwest

United States
468 posts since 7/24/06

05/19/2017 15:08:32 View dfwest's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

 

Wow!  I would say that is definitely pre-war...pre-Civil War, that is.  What a work of art.

Dave

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PKM

United States
360 posts since 4/19/11

05/19/2017 16:08:57View PKM's MP3 Archive View PKM's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

I'd be so curious to hear what it actually sounds like !!  What a fantastic piece of history. 

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tdennis

1835 posts since 3/30/08

05/19/2017 16:31:53 View tdennis's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

I've read several accounts in folklore studies  that a sailor who was a musician would be paid a premium wage to be part of a crew, because of the extraordinary service  of providing music on a long voyage.  

 

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Andy FitzGibbon

United States
1068 posts since 1/13/12

05/20/2017 04:56:00 View Andy FitzGibbon's Classified Ads View Andy FitzGibbon's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

Ah, the whalebone banjo.

There is a certain amount of evidence, and expert opinion, that the banjo was made in the mid 20th century in emulation of an 1850s banjo.  It came from the collection of Ruben Rubens, who was known for sometimes commissioning such instruments.  A discussion of the banjo, which included Bob Webb (now deceased, organizer of the "Ring the Banjar" exhibit at MIT and a whaling historian) occured at a Banjo Collectors Gathering a few years ago.  The general consensus of those who knew Rubens, and the history of this instrument (or Rubens reticence to divulge where he got it or anything about its history) was that it was fairly likely that he had it made for his collection.

These memories are a bit fuzzy now, so if anyone here knows the story better, please correct me.

Andy

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kyleb

1492 posts since 1/4/09

05/20/2017 05:52:42 View kyleb's Classified Ads View kyleb's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

 


That's pretty crazy. If it's real whale bone even when Rueben was young this would have been


 


 


extremely


 


expensive


 to


manufacture. Not sure why this spacing like it is. If real it would be very early whaling was at its peak well before the civil war. So I think that's suspect too.


 


 


quote


:


Originally posted by Andy FitzGibbon

 

Ah, the whalebone banjo.




There is a certain amount of evidence, and expert opinion, that the banjo was made in the mid 20th century in emulation of an 1850s banjo.  It came from the collection of Ruben Rubens, who was known for sometimes commissioning such instruments.  A discussion of the banjo, which included Bob Webb (now deceased, organizer of the "Ring the Banjar" exhibit at MIT and a whaling historian) occured at a Banjo Collectors Gathering a few years ago.  The general consensus of those who knew Rubens, and the history of this instrument (or Rubens reticence to divulge where he got it or anything about its history) was that it was fairly likely that he had it made for his collection.




These memories are a bit fuzzy now, so if anyone here knows the story better, please correct me.




Andy







 


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Dan Gellert

United States
567 posts since 2/9/07

05/20/2017 06:56:53 View Dan Gellert's Classified Ads View Dan Gellert's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

quote:
Originally posted by Andy FitzGibbon
 

Ah, the whalebone banjo.

There is a certain amount of evidence, and expert opinion, that the banjo was made in the mid 20th century in emulation of an 1850s banjo.  It came from the collection of Ruben Rubens, who was known for sometimes commissioning such instruments.  A discussion of the banjo, which included Bob Webb (now deceased, organizer of the "Ring the Banjar" exhibit at MIT and a whaling historian) occured at a Banjo Collectors Gathering a few years ago.  The general consensus of those who knew Rubens, and the history of this instrument (or Rubens reticence to divulge where he got it or anything about its history) was that it was fairly likely that he had it made for his collection.

These memories are a bit fuzzy now, so if anyone here knows the story better, please correct me.

Andy


Whoa!  So, who was this Ruben Rubens? 

and just when was this banjo first seen other than by him?

The museum's blurb implies that its provenance is known from "circa 1888", or is that pure BS?

Was there anyone both knowledgeable and passionate enough about antebellum banjos to have made such a piece during the "mid 20th century"? 

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Andy FitzGibbon

United States
1068 posts since 1/13/12

05/20/2017 19:17:16 View Andy FitzGibbon's Classified Ads View Andy FitzGibbon's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

Rubens was a collector in England. Got interested early on, before most people cared anything about banjos. Tsumura bought much of his collection when it was dispersed.

This thread has a short BBC film about the man:

http://www.banjohangout.org/topic/329330

As I recall, nobody saw this banjo before Rubens had it, and he was vague about where he got it- one of the reasons that it's provenance is suspect. I can't remember details now, unfortunately.

Andy

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Dan Gellert

United States
567 posts since 2/9/07

05/21/2017 09:22:36 View Dan Gellert's Classified Ads View Dan Gellert's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

 

Aaah!  I remember seeing that clip, and didn't connect the name.  He certainly had all the right models around to study, and it's actually pretty easy to imagine that one of the myriad dark and dusty corners he must have investigated in the course of his collecting could have contained a whale's jawbone.

Does anyone know how and when the museum acquired the banjo?

 

 

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Andy FitzGibbon

United States
1068 posts since 1/13/12

05/21/2017 09:40:27 View Andy FitzGibbon's Classified Ads View Andy FitzGibbon's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

quote:
Originally posted by Dan Gellert
 

 

Does anyone know how and when the museum acquired the banjo?

 

 


 

Unfortunately, that's one of the parts of the story that I heard, and then forgot.

Andy

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Bob Sayers

United States
69 posts since 2/5/14

05/21/2017 11:37:52 View Bob Sayers's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

Just to add to the confusion a little bit: I recall sometime in the 1970s seeing a full-page color advertisement in The Magazine Antiques for a "scrimshaw banjo," which I believe is this one. I called the dealer and they quoted a price, if memory serves, of $18,000. They said that they were aiming the ad primarily at scrimshaw and maritime collectors, not banjo collectors. I doubt they even knew that there was such a thing as a "banjo collector." It would certainly be interesting to know if the curators at the Bedford Whaling Museum had seen the ad--I presume so, as The Magazine Antiques was kind of the bible of the Early American antiques trade at the time. This is all from memory; I wish that I'd saved my copy of the magazine.


Edited by - Bob Sayers on 05/21/2017 11:38:51

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G Edward Porgie

United States
3429 posts since 8/28/13

05/21/2017 18:08:16 Reply with Quote

Where would an ordinary sailor/whaler get a 15th century legal indenture document? 

That, at least to me, would make the provenance a little suspect.

 

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Dan Gellert

United States
567 posts since 2/9/07

05/22/2017 07:06:36 View Dan Gellert's Classified Ads View Dan Gellert's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

quote:
Originally posted by Bob Sayers
 

Just to add to the confusion a little bit: I recall sometime in the 1970s seeing a full-page color advertisement in The Magazine Antiques for a "scrimshaw banjo," which I believe is this one. I called the dealer and they quoted a price, if memory serves, of $18,000. They said that they were aiming the ad primarily at scrimshaw and maritime collectors, not banjo collectors. I doubt they even knew that there was such a thing as a "banjo collector." It would certainly be interesting to know if the curators at the Bedford Whaling Museum had seen the ad--I presume so, as The Magazine Antiques was kind of the bible of the Early American antiques trade at the time. This is all from memory; I wish that I'd saved my copy of the magazine.


That kind of price would sure make it worth someone's while to fake it.  Was even the most desirable holy-grail flathead Mastertone or presentation-grade Fairbanks fetching anything near that at the time?

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Ira Gitlin

United States
2801 posts since 3/28/08

05/22/2017 07:28:14View Ira Gitlin's MP3 Archive View Ira Gitlin's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

quote:
Originally posted by G Edward Porgie
 

Where would an ordinary sailor/whaler get a 15th century legal indenture document? 

That, at least to me, would make the provenance a little suspect.

 


That does seem a little unlikely. But bookbinders did sometimes have scraps of vellum lying around, often ones that were centuries old. They would use them inside the bindings to stiffen the spine or pad out the covers.


When I was in grad school (classical studies--Greek and Latin), I learned about this and would prowl the stacks of the library looking for old volumes with vellum bindings. Some of them--even books made a couple of centuries after Gutenberg--would contain hidden scraps of old manuscripts. In one case, the scraps were from a piece of medieval musical notation. In another book, from 15th-century Spain, there was a scrap of Hebrew (or possibly Ladino, which was written with Hebrew letters).

So while a very old document used for a banjo head may legitimately raise suspicions, it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility.
 


Edited by - Ira Gitlin on 05/22/2017 07:28:39

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Joel HooksPlayers Union Member

United States
3426 posts since 9/21/07

05/22/2017 07:34:33View Joel Hooks's MP3 Archive View Joel Hooks's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

Here is a previous discussion on this subject.  It seems that they added the banjo to their collection in 2013.

http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/268492 

I don't have any comments other than the addition of the strings in 1888 is very specific.  Almost uncannily specific for something as trivial as changing strings.  

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AndrewD

United Kingdom
653 posts since 4/29/12

05/22/2017 07:42:09 View AndrewD's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

quote:
Originally posted by G Edward Porgie
 

Where would an ordinary sailor/whaler get a 15th century legal indenture document? 

That, at least to me, would make the provenance a little suspect.

 


That's the bit that suggests it may be the real deal. Old vellum documents would have been easily available and just treated as a re-usable commodity in the mid 19th century. By the mid 20th century they would have value and there would be no reason to use such an old and rare document when faking a 19th C banjo. Banjos were just as popular in England in the 19th century as in the US and large whaling fleets sailed from English and Scottish east coast ports. It'd be interesting to know where the indenture was from. If it was from Hull or Dundee that would be pretty good circumstantial evidence. I saw a whalebone banjo - maybe this one - hanging on Reuben Reuben's wall in the 70's. It wasn't treated as a particularly rare beast.

Reuben Reuben was a regukar fixture of the antique markets of London in the 60's and 70's - Portobello road, Bermondsey and Camden passage. All the dealers knew that an old banjo would probably sell to him. So the arrival of such an oddity in his collection with no provenance is not that surprising.

 

 


Edited by - AndrewD on 05/22/2017 07:45:22

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AndrewD

United Kingdom
653 posts since 4/29/12

05/22/2017 08:17:34 View AndrewD's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

More on Reuben here:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xfA7AwAAQBAJ&pg=PT35&lpg=PT35&dq=whalebone+banjo&source=bl&ots=RAEAV3ldTt&sig=kAERRBgQ8zbw1egYo8F5PNKp284&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiC1rv144PUAhWCK8AKHUmxBiMQ6AEIPTAE#v=onepage&q=whalebone%20banjo&f=false 

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kyleb

1492 posts since 1/4/09

05/22/2017 08:47:03 View kyleb's Classified Ads View kyleb's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

I agree, a 19th century whalers would probably have more access to old velum than new paper back then.
quote:
Originally posted by AndrewD
 
quote:
Originally posted by G Edward Porgie
 

Where would an ordinary sailor/whaler get a 15th century legal indenture document? 

That, at least to me, would make the provenance a little suspect.

 


That's the bit that suggests it may be the real deal. Old vellum documents would have been easily available and just treated as a re-usable commodity in the mid 19th century. By the mid 20th century they would have value and there would be no reason to use such an old and rare document when faking a 19th C banjo. Banjos were just as popular in England in the 19th century as in the US and large whaling fleets sailed from English and Scottish east coast ports. It'd be interesting to know where the indenture was from. If it was from Hull or Dundee that would be pretty good circumstantial evidence. I saw a whalebone banjo - maybe this one - hanging on Reuben Reuben's wall in the 70's. It wasn't treated as a particularly rare beast.

Reuben Reuben was a regukar fixture of the antique markets of London in the 60's and 70's - Portobello road, Bermondsey and Camden passage. All the dealers knew that an old banjo would probably sell to him. So the arrival of such an oddity in his collection with no provenance is not that surprising.

 

 


 

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trapdoor2Players Union Member

United States
10196 posts since 4/23/04

05/22/2017 11:08:25View trapdoor2's MP3 Archive View trapdoor2's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

LOL. I knew there was a reason my spidey-senses were tingling. big I hadn't heard the 'fake' story.

Old parchment isn't all that rare...and much of it isn't very collectible and thus inexpensive...esp. if you deal in such things.

I suppose one could carbon-date the whale-bone. Nobody's going to go that far though, so unless somebody digs up better provenance (or knows who built it), we'll never know the truth.

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Ira Gitlin

United States
2801 posts since 3/28/08

05/23/2017 06:39:46View Ira Gitlin's MP3 Archive View Ira Gitlin's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

The margin of error for carbon dating is too large, I think, to distinguish betweed a whale that died in the 19th century and one that died in the 20th century.

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mmm Bacon

United States
57 posts since 2/11/09

05/23/2017 07:07:26 View mmm Bacon's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

"The strings are not indigenous, but were purchased by Mary Foulke Morrisson at Lyon & Healey, Chicago, circa 1888."

The name Mary Foulke Morrisson is quite unique and only one person shows up with an internet search. Wiki says that she was a pioneer of the Women's rights movement. If she did purchase those strings in 1888, she would have only been 9 years old. Seems unlikely.

 

 

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kyleb

1492 posts since 1/4/09

05/23/2017 10:57:19 View kyleb's Classified Ads View kyleb's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

onlyone remembered enough to make wiki, but 3 mary Foulke, 12666 Mary Morrissons and 900 Mary F Morrissons in the 1880 census.
quote:
Originally posted by mmm Bacon
 

"The strings are not indigenous, but were purchased by Mary Foulke Morrisson at Lyon & Healey, Chicago, circa 1888."

The name Mary Foulke Morrisson is quite unique and only one person shows up with an internet search. Wiki says that she was a pioneer of the Women's rights movement. If she did purchase those strings in 1888, she would have only been 9 years old. Seems unlikely.

 

 


 

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Dan Gellert

United States
567 posts since 2/9/07

05/23/2017 17:44:08 View Dan Gellert's Classified Ads View Dan Gellert's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

 

 

The old parchment is pretty much a moot point, but I'd think it just a little more likely to have been found by a mid-20th C. antique collector than by a mid-19th C. seaman.  But then the banjo might be old and Reubens collected it and the vellum separately...

Reed Martin used to use fancy old diplomas for banjo hides. I think I remember him saying they could be had pretty cheap back then (c. 1970).

I don't think it would be possible to date the bone, but even if you could, chances are the whale dates from the right period even if the banjo was made later. 

Knowing that the museum acquired the banjo so recently makes the business about the strings smell strongly of steampunk fantasy to me.  Or maybe someone (Reubens?) bought an old set of L&H branded gut strings from the estate of Mary Foulke Morrison and installed them on the banjo-- some time between 1960 and 2013.

 

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Dan Gellert

United States
567 posts since 2/9/07

05/23/2017 17:59:24 View Dan Gellert's Classified Ads View Dan Gellert's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

quote:
Originally posted by AndrewD
 

More on Reuben here:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=xfA7AwAAQBAJ&pg=PT35&lpg=PT35&dq=whalebone+banjo&source=bl&ots=RAEAV3ldTt&sig=kAERRBgQ8zbw1egYo8F5PNKp284&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiC1rv144PUAhWCK8AKHUmxBiMQ6AEIPTAE#v=onepage&q=whalebone%20banjo&f=false 


Thank you, Andrew!

Reading that suggests to me that he wouldn't be one to go to all the trouble of faking an antique banjo...  And I agree with you that the way he collected, he must have not known much about the provenance of any of his stuff.


Edited by - Dan Gellert on 05/23/2017 18:07:44

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