Ca. 1927 S. S. Stewart Wondertone Tenor Banjo Ukulele 1029

Instruments ordered through catalogs have a reputation for being very cheap. This is not entirely undeserved, as the large majority of such instruments were sold at prices at which Martin and Gibson did not bother to compete. However, most catalogs did carry a small number of models that stood head and shoulders above the surrounding merchandise in terms of both quality and price. Sometimes these were actually built by Martin or Gibson, such as a few Wurlitzer-branded guitars and S.S. Stewart banjos.

Indeed, during the period when the S.S. Stewart brand was owned by Buegeleisen & Jacobson, a number of factories were commissioned to provide banjos, mandolins, guitars and ukuleles under Stewart’s moniker. For a while in the late 1920s, B&J even sourced their top-end Stewart banjos – the Wondertone line – from the relatively small workshop of Gaetano Puntolillo. This was somewhat unusual, as Puntolillo is best remembered for his highly customized Majestic banjos and it is surprising that his shop was able to turn out enough instruments to fill the orders of a big catalog. However, he did fulfill orders for other outside brands such as Bell and Globe, so his shop must have been fairly prolific at the time. Puntolillo’s S.S. Stewart banjos are notable, in part, as his only creations for which there is a surviving price list. They were not cheap ($80-280 for a tenor in 1927), but priced to compete with the best-known brands of the day.

Somewhat more obscure than these tenors is a range of Stewart banjo ukuleles also built by Puntoilllo. The cheapest ones were unadorned, open-back creations; there were also three fancier models dubbed Wondertones in the catalog, though this name does not appear on the instruments themselves. The three Wondertone banjo ukes were identical except for cosmetics. They were described as “tenor” ukes in the catalog, but their 15.5” scale marks them as concert-sized instruments. They featured two-piece maple necks with a dyed center stripe, a full resonator and flange, an archtop tone ring and nickel hardware. The three models were differentiated by their veneers: no. 1026 ($48) was plain maple, while nos. 1028 and 1029 ($50 each) had blue and green finishes, respectively. Oddly, most surviving examples have a mix of green and blue, possibly due to selective yellowing or fading but probably due to the whims of the factory. This example is relatively unusual in that can be positively identified as no. 1029.

The 1920s was the golden age of the banjo ukulele, but this was arguably due to the popularity of the tenor and plectrum banjo. When sales of other 4-string banjos suddenly plummeted at the end of the decade, players largely abandoned the banjo uke in favor of its more conventional antecedent. Thus, by 1930, B&J had completely abandoned these high-end banjo ukes (along with all other Puntolillo-built models). They were priced close to high-end models from other brands, such as the Gibson UB-5 ($55), the Bacon 2A ($55), and even higher than top-of-the-line offerings from Washburn ($45) and Ludwig ($32); it seems that players weren’t interested in shelling out such astronomical sums for such a small instrument.