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S.S. Steward Identification Help

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Dec 4, 2019 - 2:36:49 PM
2 posts since 12/4/2019

I have an antique banjo that was handed down to me when my father passed away. He was an accomplished banjo player and we had a family bluegrass band. I don't play banjo. I was a fiddle player. Anyhow, I'm trying to identify this S.S. Stewart banjo my dad left me. Part of the challenge is there are no serial numbers or models anywhere on the banjo. Only the dowel stick has the S.S. Stewart name and logo. Any help would be greatly appreciated.


Edited by - goose914 on 12/04/2019 14:39:50

Dec 4, 2019 - 4:59:51 PM

4620 posts since 3/22/2008

Here is what I think.  You do not have a nineteenth century S. S. Stewart banjo made by the original Stewart firm.
After S. S. Stewart's death the trade name "S. S. Stewart" was owned by several different banjo manufacturing firms in the early twentieth century.
Finally, in October 1915 jobbers, Buegeleisen & Jacobson (B&J), bought the factory making S. S. Stewart branded banjos. B&J now owned the S. S. Stewart name but was a distributor not a maker. So, B&J contracted out the manufacture of S. S. Stewart branded banjos to existing banjo manufacturing companies. Then B&J sold these Stewart branded banjos thru their catalog and sales force. Now look at the S.S.S. shield on the dowel stick. I've never seen that branding mark. But it sure looks like the branding mark B&J used for one of their other banjo products - The Serenader banjo.  See this link for what I mean:http://reverb.com/item/5355655-the-serenader-tenor-banjo-1920-30-s

Attached is a page from B&J catalog 1915-1916 for banjos similar to your example.

Trouble is - it is hard to identify the actual makers of S. S. Stewart branded banjos after B&J got the name.  Over the years B&J used a number of different banjo makers to built their Stewarts - even Gibson in the 1930's.

So, I don't know who made your banjo but perhaps someone here might recognize it from the heel shape or peghead shape or some other feature.


Edited by - beezaboy on 12/04/2019 17:06:03

Dec 4, 2019 - 6:14 PM

302 posts since 5/29/2015

The headstock shape suggests this banjo was made by Lyon and Healy. Do an image search on Google for Lyon and Healy Banjo Headstock and see if the shape of your banjo headstock matches what you find with Google image search.

Dec 4, 2019 - 6:28:23 PM
likes this

1577 posts since 1/13/2012

Definitely made by Lyon & Healy. Interesting. I've never seen a Stewart-branded L&H before.

Dec 4, 2019 - 8:56:35 PM

rcc56

USA

2574 posts since 2/20/2016

Well, to show how complex the frequent "jobbing out" of instruments was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I know of a Stewart Thoroughbred #2 that is stamped "Stahl." Although the Stahl name is usually associated with the guitar and mandolin builders August and Carl Larson, some Stahls were also made by Regal.

But before I encountered this banjo, I had never before heard of a Stahl branded banjo made by Stewart.
For that matter, this is the only banjo I have ever seen with a Stahl brand, and haven't seen another one since.

I have seen the Ditson name on instruments made by Lyon & Healy, Vega, Regal, and Martin. I wouldn't be surprised if someone else could add a couple more builder's names to the Ditson list.

Dec 5, 2019 - 5:49:45 AM

5056 posts since 9/21/2007

Hmm... Something is not right here. I'm getting the same vibe that I might get seeing a Kay banjo with a fake Mastertone label in the rim or Gibson on the peghead.

John, you would know more than myself, but all of the B & J era Stewart banjos I've seen that try to emulate real SSS banjos tend to use the original peg head trademark stamp, the original "S. S. STEWART PHILA, PA" stamp or "S. S. STEWART, NEW YORK."

This might exclude those built by Gibson or other later high end makers.

In the catalog cut you posted (as far as I could tell from the low resolution) the banjos all look like Bauer Co. offerings. There is anattempt to make them look like Stewart banjos (with the later Bauer era peghead inlays). And more importantly, they all have three octave necks except for the woodcut of the Champion model.

The OP banjo conforms to mid/ late 90s L&H jobber banjos. It has 19 frets and the 9th position is marked. Clearly not a high end custom banjo, which means that it likely predates the 10th/15th fret official mandate of the Guild of Mandolinists, Banjoists, and Guitarists.

I think the OP banjo was built during SSS' life and a previous owner, or more likely a Pawn Shop owner, marked it this way.

SSS complained about Pawn Shops and Music Stores advertising or selling "Stewart" marked banjos. I think that this is one of those.

Edited by - Joel Hooks on 12/05/2019 05:57:04

Dec 5, 2019 - 7:32:03 AM

5056 posts since 9/21/2007

quote:
Originally posted by rcc56

Well, to show how complex the frequent "jobbing out" of instruments was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I know of a Stewart Thoroughbred #2 that is stamped "Stahl." Although the Stahl name is usually associated with the guitar and mandolin builders August and Carl Larson, some Stahls were also made by Regal.

But before I encountered this banjo, I had never before heard of a Stahl branded banjo made by Stewart.
For that matter, this is the only banjo I have ever seen with a Stahl brand, and haven't seen another one since.

I have seen the Ditson name on instruments made by Lyon & Healy, Vega, Regal, and Martin. I wouldn't be surprised if someone else could add a couple more builder's names to the Ditson list.


William C. Stahl was a jobber, publisher, musician, composer, and likely also ran a retail store (I have not looked into him much) in Milwaukee, WI. 

He wrote and published a series of instrument instruction books.  I have only read and played his banjo book (because I play banjo) and it is very good.  It was one of the early "C Notation" books and was even republished in the 1950s I think.  It holds up and would be fine today to learn to play from.

I scanned a copy and posted it here...

https://archive.org/details/Wm.C.StahlsInternationalBanjoMethod

It is extremely unlikely that the Stahl banjo you know of was made by Stewart.  I would need to see clear photos to know for sure.

There is no evidence that the SSS company ever made private label banjos during Stewart's lifetime.  Actually, there is evidence that he did not.  He wrote that he did not.  Often.  He did not have to as he had more business than he could keep up with under his own name.

The first private label banjos built by Stewart & Bauer were built after The SSS family lawyer shut down the company to try and sort out the damage that George Bauer had done.  Swaim was dead and it was about 1899.  SSS' widow was forced to make a personal loan to George Bauer to pay bills and vendors.  Fred Stewart, Swaim's eldest son, started working as a Manager but a short while later went to work for Jos. Sterns in NYC.

The most probable case is that the banjo you know of was built by Stewart & Bauer, The Bauer Co.-- but most likely R&L or L&H.

There is also the possibility that Stahl bought banjos from SSS and stamped them with his name.  In that case there would still be all of the SSS markings.

My wife and I were given a banjo for our wedding that was restored by a friend that was likely built by Lange.  The neck is the EXACT shape of a late Thoroughbred.   It was duplicated in every way except the inlay.  The rim is much lower quality than a SSS rim.

Dec 5, 2019 - 8:00:42 AM

rcc56

USA

2574 posts since 2/20/2016

Yes, I know the instrument is controversial.

I restored the banjo about 5 or 6 years ago. It is identical to an 1890's Thoroughbred, carving, inlay, hardware, and all; and it sounds like a Stewart. I've owned a couple and worked on others, so I know what they look like.

It's an anomaly. My guess is that it was a sample, stamped by or for Stahl, and never went into general production.

Pictures will not be available. It belongs to a retired pro whom I rarely see. He's in his 80's, tired and battered from 40+ years on the road, and I'm not going to disturb him.

I've seen stranger things than this over the years.

Dec 5, 2019 - 8:10:09 AM

11 posts since 9/15/2016

Look under the dowel stick for a serial number. I was surprised to find a serial number on my late 1880’s SS Stewart during my amateurish restoration of it. I posted eight photos of it on the hangout asking for help in recreating the dowel tensioner, which is still in a playable “temporary” condition. And I got great advice from other hangout members. I’ve attempted to link one of those photos which shows the maker stamps on either side of what remains of the makers sticker in the middle of the dowel stick. You’ll need to zoom in to see the imprints. The other 7 photos of the banjo are posted in my media, and probably a link to the hangout discussion threads at the time. Steve


Dec 5, 2019 - 8:38:05 AM

5056 posts since 9/21/2007

quote:
Originally posted by rcc56

Yes, I know the instrument is controversial.

I restored the banjo about 5 or 6 years ago. It is identical to an 1890's Thoroughbred, carving, inlay, hardware, and all; and it sounds like a Stewart. I've owned a couple and worked on others, so I know what they look like.

It's an anomaly. My guess is that it was a sample, stamped by or for Stahl, and never went into general production.

Pictures will not be available. It belongs to a retired pro whom I rarely see. He's in his 80's, tired and battered from 40+ years on the road, and I'm not going to disturb him.

I've seen stranger things than this over the years.


Early Stewart and Bauer banjos are nearly identical to late SSS era banjos.  It could have been made by S&B.

Dec 5, 2019 - 9:19:57 AM

4620 posts since 3/22/2008

Joel - You are correct. Every Buegeleisen & Jacobson S. S. Stewart branded banjo 1915-1920 I have seen had some sort of original looking Stewart trademark stamp or sometimes the Stewart & Bauer S. S. Stewart decal. This until B&J began using Puntolillo as its banjo source ca 1922. Puntolillo "Stewarts" didn't have stamps or decals to my knowledge on the ones I've seen and owned.
I was influenced in this case by the shield with S.S.S. in it. I have never seen that S.S.S. shield stamp before the OP. It reminded me of the B&J Serenader banjo shield so I was taken in apparently.

Dec 7, 2019 - 8:46:16 AM

2 posts since 12/4/2019

Thanks for all of the feedback everyone! I can't believe how crazy tough this is to pin down. I guess in the end it doesn't matter unless I'm trying to sell it and place a value on it. Is it better to restore it or just leave it as is? I think I will at least clean it up and make it playable. Where is a good place to get parts like the tension hooks and nuts, etc.? Thanks again guys!

Dec 7, 2019 - 3:58:31 PM

staceyz

Canada

102 posts since 5/30/2010

You would get the biggest bang for your buck to just leave as is. Any money you spend on it would be tough to get back. As is.. it should sell as a project for someone at $100-$150

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