Ca. 1890 S. S. Stewart Imperial Banjeaurine

The banjo was the most popular stringed instrument in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was light enough to be portable but loud enough to accompany a singer, and in those days of open backs, skin heads and gut strings, it had a round and pleasant sound far removed from the bluegrass canons of today. A number of changes gradually overtook the instrument in the decades after the Civil War: fretted necks replaced fretless ones, rim diameters increased, and ornamentation became fancier on expensive models.

Samuel Swaim Stewart was regarded, and still is, as one of the top banjo manufacturers of the 1880s and 1890s. His instruments featured few fundamental innovations, but they represent refinements of existing designs. Stewart was an early adaptor of a metal outer rim, which stiffened the body so that it could be made thinner without sacrificing structural integrity. Such rims existed before Stewart, but he popularized them enormously. He also devised two neck-fastening systems intended to help adjust the angle of the neck. Stewart’s reputation for quality was such that the brand survived his death in 1898; it was eventually purchased by distributors Buegeleisen and Jacobson, who sourced banjos (and other instruments) under the Stewart name from a variety of builders.

One of Stewart’s major accomplishments was the development of the banjo orchestra. As Gibson would do with mandolins a few decades later, Stewart created an entire family of banjos and wrote music for them in ensemble. The conventional banjo provided the baritone voice, while the bass or cello banjo supported the low end. The alto voice was provided by the piccolo banjo, tuned an octave above a conventional 5-string, while the soprano voice came from the banjeaurine.

Stewart built the first banjeaurine in 1885, and by the end of the decade it seems like his instrument was being copied by every banjo builder in America. The original design married a short 19” neck to an unusually large 12” (or larger) head. Since he intended it to be one of the melodic centers of a banjo orchestra, Stewart gave it a substantial fingerboard extension to maximize the instrument’s range. The intended tuning was similar to a conventional 5-string but raised up five frets, which allowed 5-string players to double on the banjeaurine without learning a whole new fretboard.

This is an example of Stewart’s most common banjeaurine model, the Imperial #1. There were several higher numbers in the Imperial line which were structurally similar but featured fancier ornamentation, with prices ranging from $30 to $50. This one sports a replacement head, bridge and no-knot tailpiece, but the rest of the hardware appears to be original. It is generally in clean condition, with no damage or repairs to note. The overall build quality is excellent, and the massive steel neck-adjustment brace is still functioning as intended. Of particular note is the thick ebony fretboard, which was designed to cantilever its end over the head without warping and creating a buzz. The thick ebony is extended to the peghead, where the “veneer” comprises nearly half the thickness of the headstock.

The sound of this banjo is exceptionally deep and warm thanks to the 12.5” rim, but not to the extent that it gets muddy. This tone is an excellent accompaniment to the instrument’s high range, and it’s easy to understand why the banjeaurine is considered one of Stewart’s most important contributions to the banjo.