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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Old Sears / S.S. Stewart Banjos from the early 1900's


Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link: http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/383169

kd8tzc - Posted - 05/12/2022:  10:30:23


I was doing some geneology research the other day, and somehow I started looking at an old Sears Catalog from the 1900's and was looking at the drawings of the banjo's that they had in them. Wow... they actually had some nice looking ones. There was one that was labeled "Their finest banjo - nothing better made" that they called the University Glee Banjo No. 12T868 for a whole $22.45 (I'm sure a good sum of money in the early 20th century). It says that SS. Stewart manufactured these, and upon the receipt of $1.00, they would send any banjo by express COD subject to examination and you would get a 10 day trial offer.

The model that I mention above looks to have beautiful inlay work and carvings on it under the neck and on the heal.

I'm just curious how often these old Sears / SS Stewart banjo's come up for sale? I'm sure they cost a lot more now and maybe even a premium depending on the model. I'd love to see what this University Glee model looks like in color someday (actually, I'd love to own one maybe).

Joel Hooks - Posted - 05/12/2022:  11:43:55


They come up from time to time.

But slight correction, if you look closely the actual statement is that they are made by the "Makers of the Famous Stewart Banjos", an important distinction.

S. S. Stewart was dead and cold by the time his successor (and eventual double-crosser) started making private label banjos for Sears. Stewart was against private label banjos and refused to do it.

Once SSS was dead, George Bauer was free to do whatever he wanted (including forcing SSS' widow and son out of their own company).

By the time these were made, there was no longer a "S. S. Stewart" banjo company, it was "Stewart & Bauer" or "The Bauer Company."

Some of the very early Acme branded banjos show the expected SSS quality but Bauer found ways to cut costs. Acme banjos were sold for significantly less money than regular line Stewart banjos (and you have to include a markup on top of that). That markup had to come from somewhere. Acme banjo examples show the many ways they were able to hit that price point.

One trick that is still done today is to hide poor quality under a bunch of fancy nonsense. These University Glee banjos are exactly that. The fingerboards were a stock item that were paper thin and punched out for the inlay. Some later examples had the inlay painted/printed on.

They are hit and miss as far as quality. I've seen decent examples, and I've seen some that were not much more that the lowest level banjo dressed up.






kd8tzc - Posted - 05/12/2022:  11:51:27


Thanks Joel.... really good info to know. I didn't know the back story of these. How much do these normally run when they do come up?



I did find a picture of one that just looks beautiful, but looks can be deceiving.



billsbanjos.com/AcmeProf.htm

Joel Hooks - Posted - 05/12/2022:  12:08:36


quote:

Originally posted by kd8tzc

Thanks Joel.... really good info to know. I didn't know the back story of these. How much do these normally run when they do come up?



I did find a picture of one that just looks beautiful, but looks can be deceiving.



billsbanjos.com/AcmeProf.htm






That is an example of one of the earlier ones.  They go downhill from there. 



How much do they run?  As much as someone thinks they can get, usually too much. 

G Edward Porgie - Posted - 05/12/2022:  13:16:48


Good information. Although many are aware that these Sears were made by Bauer, there are still many who believe they are actual Stewarts and too many sites and sellers keep that misinformation alive. I hope potential Sears banjo buyers see this thread and do some serious thinking as to what they may be getting.

notty pine - Posted - 05/12/2022:  14:48:56


What ways are these (banjo pictured in the link) less desirable. Is it the wood, fit and finish?

kd8tzc - Posted - 05/12/2022:  15:26:38


And how can you tell a Sears vs a truer SSS?

G Edward Porgie - Posted - 05/12/2022:  16:36:43


A true SSStewart would be labeled as such, a Sears banjo may or may not have a different name, but won't say Stewart anywhere on it. The difference in quality could be wood, durability, and/or fit and finish. Joel Hooks has already mentioned some of the many issues with Stewart products after Bauer took over.

I once worked on one of those fancy Sears banjo but I don't recall what model. The inlays looked good, but only from a distance, and were made of celluloid instead of MOP. Mostly it was just bargain basement quality and I can well imagine it folded in half now from the steel strings the owner wanted to use.

Making sow's ears into silk purses was a common practice both then and now. Unfortunately, these items remain as sow's ears where it counts; the added silk is just superficial eye candy.

Joel Hooks - Posted - 05/12/2022:  16:52:53


quote:

Originally posted by kd8tzc

And how can you tell a Sears vs a truer SSS?






Oh, that is easy.  Years of relentless research and experience. 

kd8tzc - Posted - 05/12/2022:  17:43:54


I find this fascinating actually, although I have always enjoyed history. Are there any good books on the history of such things? I’m sure much of this is bits and pieces of information stringed together, but has anyone written any of this down? I’m sure I can search the archives for this but I would prefer to read a book if one were available.

Thanks for all the info!

tbchappe - Posted - 05/12/2022:  20:39:46


quote:

Originally posted by kd8tzc

I find this fascinating actually, although I have always enjoyed history. Are there any good books on the history of such things? I’m sure much of this is bits and pieces of information stringed together, but has anyone written any of this down? I’m sure I can search the archives for this but I would prefer to read a book if one were available.



Thanks for all the info!






There's the Tsumara banjo collection book, and also "America's Instrument: the banjo in the nineteenth century," a literal textbook on banjo history by Bollman and Gura.



 Those are starts.

kd8tzc - Posted - 05/13/2022:  04:09:52


Thanks... those are mighty pricey books... wow. I'll have to see if I can find them in the library or used.



 



Edit: Scratch the library... according to WorldCat, the nearest library to me in Ohio would be in Germany.  The price of the used ones of America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Ninteenth Century, start at $175.... not sure why so expensive, but it looks like I will need to find something else.


Edited by - kd8tzc on 05/13/2022 04:20:12

Joel Hooks - Posted - 05/13/2022:  05:48:58


quote:

Originally posted by kd8tzc

Thanks... those are mighty pricey books... wow. I'll have to see if I can find them in the library or used.



 



Edit: Scratch the library... according to WorldCat, the nearest library to me in Ohio would be in Germany.  The price of the used ones of America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Ninteenth Century, start at $175.... not sure why so expensive, but it looks like I will need to find something else.






This is free...



digitalguitararchive.com/2017/...-journal/



digitalguitararchive.com/2020/...-cadenza/



digitalguitararchive.com/2020/...rescendo/



archive.org/details/@joel_hooks



 



If you are going to study a culture I recommend that you learn to speak their language.  In the case of banjo history, they recorded their music using notation.   No complete history of the banjo can be understood without that part. 



Something seriously lacking in all books written about the history of the banjo is a deep understanding of the music they produced.  It seems strange to me that historians are willing to leave thousands and thousands of documents unstudied because they did not want to learn to read the language. 



 



 

kd8tzc - Posted - 05/13/2022:  06:11:29


Thanks Joel, what I find fascinating is learning about the people and companies that made certain things. I mean, the comments you had above regarding Stewart and Bauer I find fascinating... it affected families and peoples lives... it also influenced generations, and even though the early 20th century Acme banjo was a cheaply made SS Stewart influenced instrument, I wonder how many people got to learn how to play the instrument who might not have been able to with a higher priced instrument.

I don't know what a real SS Stewart cost, but the sears one being $10 - $25 in today's dollars equals about $344 - $860 according to one online inflation calculator. When you think of it, that sounds like many of the beginner banjo's on Amazon that are made cheaply overseas, although I do believe there are the Deering Goodtimes that fall in that mix, which I would consider a decent openback banjo for a beginner (I have one and love it). Could it be nicer, absolutely, but it fills a niche.

Joel, I'm not sure I understand your comment about learning to speak the language... are you talking about learning to read music, tabs, etc? I know how to do both, but I agree, understanding that is critical to the study of the music that was produced and what the instrument could do.

Joel Hooks - Posted - 05/13/2022:  06:14:34


Yes, learning to read music for banjo, specifically the so called "A notation system".

"Tab" (or the various "simple methods") were few and far between until the folk revival.

kyleb - Posted - 05/13/2022:  06:52:28


The bauer made acme professionals are still top quality instruments.

kd8tzc - Posted - 05/13/2022:  06:55:31


quote:

Originally posted by Joel Hooks

Yes, learning to read music for banjo, specifically the so called "A notation system".






I assume you are talking about Limondjian's musical notation system that I believe was invented/introduced in the early 19th century?

Joel Hooks - Posted - 05/13/2022:  07:00:53


quote:

Originally posted by kd8tzc

quote:

Originally posted by Joel Hooks

Yes, learning to read music for banjo, specifically the so called "A notation system".






I assume you are talking about Limondjian's musical notation system that I believe was invented/introduced in the early 19th century?






Nope.  I'll post an article I wrote this evening that will explain everything.

kd8tzc - Posted - 05/13/2022:  07:31:36


Thanks, I'm looking forward to reading it. I know there were a lot of different notation systems over the years.

Just curious, how do you know so much? History professor?

Joel Hooks - Posted - 05/13/2022:  10:45:32


quote:

Originally posted by kd8tzc

Thanks, I'm looking forward to reading it. I know there were a lot of different notation systems over the years.



Just curious, how do you know so much? History professor?






Nah, just an enthusiast.



Here is that article "A Notable Expiation" which I hope helps you understand what I mean better.  It is very confusing and seems to be one of the first questions people ask when they start looking at this stuff. 



archive.org/details/abf-5-stringer-219

kd8tzc - Posted - 05/13/2022:  11:57:26


I've gotten three pages in, and confusing is an understatement. I'm stuck on the Timeline of Banjo Pitch. Looking at the C Pitch (1885 to present), it says C, G, B, D, G.... but we have open G tuning or g, D, G, B, D... or am I not understanding what is written? I know there was that statement about pitch and tuning... am I mixing up tuning?

Joel Hooks - Posted - 05/13/2022:  13:16:39


quote:

Originally posted by kd8tzc

I've gotten three pages in, and confusing is an understatement. I'm stuck on the Timeline of Banjo Pitch. Looking at the C Pitch (1885 to present), it says C, G, B, D, G.... but we have open G tuning or g, D, G, B, D... or am I not understanding what is written? I know there was that statement about pitch and tuning... am I mixing up tuning?






Sometime around WW2 the nostalgic music that eventually became "Bluegrass" was formed. It was at that time that the one variant we see in "tuning", raising the 4th string one step, became the "standard tuning".



Before WW2, the de facto string intervals were based around gCGBD or what is now called "drop C" (for some reason).  Raising the 4th string was done on some pieces to make them easier to play. The "G" tuning was sealed as the standard with the folk revival.



Something to keep in mind about banjo history is that most of "old time banjo" is post WW2.

G Edward Porgie - Posted - 05/13/2022:  13:57:36


Joel Hooks has, indeed, done a ton of research and should be listened to. I wish he were a writer/publisher. but that's a different ballgame. I just hope that he continues to add his knowledge to the Hangout and that people actually read his posts (and I don't just mean one or two people).

I know from studying other instruments (mostly the evolution of the piano) that not only does the instrument influence the instrument, but the instrument also influences the music, and that new features are included many times because the music demanded it. Once the new feature is in place, composers and performers are free to exploit those new features with new music. That new music then can lead to more advances in the actual instrument. One cannot play, for example, a complex Liszt concerto on an 18th century Cristofori piano; There isn't enough range, not enough power, and not a fast enough action for Liszt's complex and rapid-fire repetition and fortissimo passages. A modern bluegrass banjo, and even those open back "clawhammer" banjos are not much like the 19th century instruments simply because the music played has changed and requires a new type of banjo structure and set-up. A study of banjo music can therefore indicate when, why, and how the banjo got to its present form.

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