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Feb 23, 2024 - 8:19:27 AM
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8202 posts since 9/21/2007

I'd like to discuss the Stewart numbering system. Many times I have been told, and seen, examples of SSS banjos described as "#4", or rather "Grade 4". I have been curious where this "4" designation came from.

I currently have access to 8 different Stewart catalogs spanning from when he was operating a small music store (selling German accordions along side banjos) to The Bauer Co.. None of those catalogs have the designation of "#4", No. 4", or "Grade 4".

What he did use is Nos. 1 to 3. Then after 3 you get some form of "you can get more decoration for more money".

Let us take this example, called a "Grade 4" by Bernunzio:

bernunzio.com/product/s-s-stew...-4-30186/

In the catalog page below you have 1, 2, and 3, at price points of $35, $40, and $50. Added to that you get "The "Orchestra," No. 3, may also be ordered with chased border on rim and with silver plated brackets, etc. Price, $60. Elaborately finished instruments of this style may be had at prices ranging from $75.00 to $150.00 each."

So, by SSS' description the Bernunzio banjo is a No. 3, $60 banjo.

Where did this No. 4 come from? Well, I have long thought it was the fantasy of "collectors", or rather dealers, used to pump up the perceived value.

But I did find that SSS used No. 4--- way back in a single issue of the Journal of June 1884 (image below). But that is a different banjo, priced at $100 "with gold plated brackets (plated over nickel), and silver plated hoop, plated over nickel. Handsomely carved neck and pearl inlaid. Very handsome ivory keys and tailpiece and chased work around edge of rim. Suitable for presentation."

By that description, this banjo is not a "No. 4" as described in a single advertisement in 1884. This level designation was dropped or appears to have never been used again.

The Bauer Co. stopped using the numbering system and started using the cost. So a Special Thoroughbred No. 50 was $50 and a No. 40 was $40.

Why don't we stop with this No. 4 since we have better access to documentation?


Feb 23, 2024 - 11:04:20 AM
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3296 posts since 3/30/2008

The entire field of collecting objects is full of misnomers, colloquialisms, nicknames & made up descriptors. Ordinary people, dealers, flippers & grifters put little effort into studying catalogs. Buyers have learned to accept these fictions & sift through them as a matter of course.
I prefer accuracy & catalog correctness, but trying to change the onslaught of colloquialisms is a task worthy of Don Quixote.
(Your post has probably added fuel to the fire of SS Stewart nomenclature by actually finding a #4. I doubt many dealers will peruse the nuances of your explanation).

Feb 23, 2024 - 6:24:20 PM

11332 posts since 4/23/2004

LOL, I was talking to our friend "D" and all his fancy ones are #4s...in his mind. I think he just is old school and listens to what Mr. Bernunzio tells him. Meh. Not going to change his mind.

I have the 1884 catalog but never really looked at it all that hard. My take-away from that ad is that Stewart was fully prepared to make even fancier banjos, $200 and $300 banjos for "the nobility of Europe and aristocracy of America." That $200 banjo, adjusted for inflation would be $6294 today. The $300 would be $9441. Imagine ordering that banjo today...with a two-week turn. LOL! laugh

Edited by - trapdoor2 on 02/23/2024 18:25:12

Feb 24, 2024 - 6:06:20 AM

523 posts since 1/26/2020

I endorse this “No #4” nonsense

Feb 24, 2024 - 1:37:34 PM

OK-4

USA

491 posts since 3/18/2011

Thank you, Joel. I appreciate your recourse to documentary evidence.

But I am in a mood to be a bit of a troll, so... When it comes to language, can we really argue with usage? If "number 4" has come to mean "better than a standard #3", then who are we to argue? I know what a "minstrel banjo" is, but I doubt anyone in the 1850s was using that term.*

(I have no axe to grind here; my only Stewart is a nice, simple Thoroughbred circa 1896.)

* Earliest use of term "minstrel banjo" that I know of (and I haven't looked hard) probably shouldn't count, since it is in German and may refer to the stage context rather than the instrument per se: "Die Amerikaner finden allmälig Geschmack Ott dieser bessern, gediegenen Musik und gelangen zu der Ueberzeuguug, baß die Noten nicht lediglich für den „Yankee Doodle" und das Minstrel-Banjo erfunden worden sind." -- Westliche Blatter (Cincinnati) Jan 12 1873.

Feb 25, 2024 - 12:22:25 PM
Players Union Member

rmcdow

USA

1395 posts since 11/8/2014

Bill Destler has three banjos with the same peghead, fretboard inlays, and other details (he does not list the pot size), the last of which he compares to his Special Thoroughbred No. 4. ( billsbanjos.com/Stewartno4.htm ) He designates all three of these as No. 3's. The first one is pretty much identical to the original one posted here.  The No. 4 in the Stewart ad from 1884 mentions gold plated brackets; this one doesn't have that, but it looks like there is worn nickel over brass.

billsbanjos.com/restoration.htm

billsbanjos.com/StewSpTh_3.htm

billsbanjos.com/Champion3.htm

Edited by - rmcdow on 02/25/2024 12:27:17

Feb 26, 2024 - 9:00:52 AM

13 posts since 12/2/2008

My view is the use of #4 is not something to get too excited about. Yes, the designation is not one that Stewart used. And yes, the use whenever it started by someone may have been for puffery. And yes, some folks may still use it for that purpose.
Now, however, it looks to be used mostly for describing a Stewart that in the view of the user has a bit more splash than a basic #3 as described by Stewart, and yet does not approach the Presentation level.
If you ignore the early fancy Stewarts that just have #3 level inlay, the features that make a basic #3 are the fancy inlaid peghead and fingerboard, a carved heel, and some sort of “marquetry” on the inner rim.
To bump that up a bit, but not to reach Presentation level, you could get engraving on the outer rim, engraving on the shell in the peghead, and/or engraving on the shell in the fingerboard. And maybe some silver or gold plating of the rim and hardware.
So, it was easy for folks to just use #4 if the banjo had any of those latter mentioned features.
If you are reasonably knowledgeable about Stewart banjos, you are probably not going to be confused by the term.
But I suppose if you are not in the knowledgeable group and just want a fancy Stewart, you might be thinking you got a real high grade model. And you did. Just not one that Stewart called a #4.
I own quite a few Stewart banjos, and over the last 40 some years I have seen a whole lot more with an incredible array and range of features. I believe it’s simply gotten easier for folks to stick the #4 on banjos that land in the range between the basic #3 and Presentation levels.
Is it correct? Not really. But it is a fairly convenient term.
I guess it all goes back to: read the description, look at any available photos, ask questions if you need to, and let the buyer beware. If you just spent a pile of money without knowing what you are doing, well, who is at fault?

Feb 26, 2024 - 11:28:30 AM

esmic

Canada

319 posts since 6/27/2011

The No. 4 misnomer goes back in print to at least 1984, where it is used to describe Stewart banjeaurines on pp. 96 & 97 of "Banjos The Tsumura Book". By 1993 the same author determined he had acquired several more examples of this impossibly rare grade. They are proudly presented on on pp. 186, 220 and 221 of his "1,001 Banjos".

While the No. 4 mislabeling is both erroneous and unfortunate, it is also well-entrenched, given that both publications have been foundational to banjo enthusiasts for decades.

Making this right again would probably require publishing "1,001 Stewart Banjos" to do it. Anyone here up to the challenge?






 

Edited by - esmic on 02/26/2024 11:30:42

Feb 26, 2024 - 2:08:38 PM
Players Union Member

rmcdow

USA

1395 posts since 11/8/2014

quote:
Originally posted by esmic

The No. 4 misnomer goes back in print to at least 1984, where it is used to describe Stewart banjeaurines on pp. 96 & 97 of "Banjos The Tsumura Book". By 1993 the same author determined he had acquired several more examples of this impossibly rare grade. They are proudly presented on on pp. 186, 220 and 221 of his "1,001 Banjos".

While the No. 4 mislabeling is both erroneous and unfortunate, it is also well-entrenched, given that both publications have been foundational to banjo enthusiasts for decades.

Making this right again would probably require publishing "1,001 Stewart Banjos" to do it. Anyone here up to the challenge?
 

Well, the database I have is up to 428 entries, with photos of quite a few of those.  Maybe when it reaches 1001, maybe I could put together a PDF book of them as a collaborative effort of all us who are interested in the Stewart banjos.  It would be interesting to have an accurate reference. Printing and marketing that book in physical form would be the main challenge if it is going to pay for itself.  I am still sorting out all the discrepancies and lack of information from the Stewart material I have now.  

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