Identifying S. S. Stewart Banjos

Copyright © 1997 & 2011 by Michael I. Holmes. All rights reserved, not for reproduction.

Click on the underlined text to see various Stewart images.

Samuel S. Stewart first made banjos in 1878. His adoption of the "silver wrapped rim" (for which, in a speech and later in a self-publsihed booklet titled The Banjo Philosophically he credited the devlopment to two Troy, NY banjo makers, William Farham and Albert Wilson) set him apart in the early years before such rims became most common. He developed the short-necked banjeaurine with a 12" or 13" head around 1885 but never applied for a patent. Over the years he used several different name stamps to identify his instruments. In 1888 he began using his peg-head shaped trademark. In 1893 he contracted with Sears to produce Acme banjos. The patented heavy metal neck fastener was introduced in 1887. In 1894 or 1895 the adjustable neck fastener replaced the earlier, non-adjustable one, on all banjos listed at $20 and above, although in the 1896 catalog, both are shown, as is the trade mark for the Thoroughbred banjos which was probably in use for at least 10 years before it was registered. In January 1898 Stewart joined with George Bauer, who had been in business himself manufacturing guitars and mandolins from circa 1894.

Stewart's Common Sense tailpiece was delivered both with and without the ivory Rosette. Higher grade instruments had the rosette, lower grade and later instruments did not. In the photo, note that the metal parts are slightly different, with one being a little larger and the points somewhat elongated. The head tightening wrench with the "SSS" logo is another interesting piece of Stewart ephemera.

Circa 1889, better grade banjos marked with serial numbers in the 5000 and 6000 range have been found with a different logo plaque. Instead of grained ivoroid these are metal, and shaped with fancier ends than the others, which were square. Only about a dozen of these have been seen on otherwise stock SS Stewart banjos.

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In addition to the banjeaurine, other unusual banjos that Stewart offered were a 5 string bass or cello banjo, a 6 string banjo which had 5 long strings and a short drone, and a piccolo banjo, all intended for use in banjo ensembles and a novelty instrument called a banjorett, which had a very small rim and a regular neck. He even published a chart comparing the tunings of the various popular instruments of the day.

Among the many model variations made were the Lady Stewart with a 9" rim and 16" neck, American Princess with a 10" rim and 17" neck, Orchestra Banjo offered with a 12 or 13 inch head, the Specialty Banjo with a 10" head for tuning in the key of "D" and the Pony Banjo with an 8 inch head and 12 inch neck. All Stewart's banjos could be ordered in a variety of inlay patterns which ranged from simple dots to highly elaborate works of art. Stewart also offered heel designs that ranged from plain to floral designs; Presentation Banjos were offered with human or animal carvings. The Universal Favorite, a mid-priced model, had an 11" head and 19" neck, and was very successfully offered with a wide variety of ornamention (See below for an example of post-S.S. Stewart Universal Favorite markings & models). The Student, Amateur, and the 2nd Grade were all aimed at the entry level player.

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As the 19th Century drew to a close, many manufacturers used that fact to promote instruments that were noted more for their hype than value. S.S. Stewart, never one to miss a promotional oportunity, offered his 20th Century model beginning circa 1896. At $30 it was only $10 less than his Thoroughbred, but was considerably plainer, if still well made. Generally, the peghead was inlaid with a fluer-de-lis, and if there was any carving on the heel, it was lightly incised swirls, not the heavy floral or figural carving of earlier, higher grade models. 20th Century models continued to be manufactured for a short while, even after Stewart's death.

Click for pictures inside Stewart's factory.

There were probably around 25,000 S.S. Stewart banjos manufactured with serial numbers from around 1000 through 71,000 with an unexplained gap from 20,000 through 49,999. Serial numbers 1,000 or lower are late 1870s or early 1880s, 4000-5000 are 1888-1889, 14000 to 15000 are 1894, 15000 to 20,000 are 1895-1898, then the gap between 20,000 and 49,999. Those numbered above 50,000 may be after his partnership in 1898 or after Stewart's death, later that year. All "4S" banjos date from after 1901. You must extrapolate any numbers in between those printed here; an approximation is the best we can do, anyway. No manufacturing records exist, but sometimes banjos are found with original sales slips, and some correspondence has been seen in which the serial number of a particular instrument is listed, allowing for a reasonable estimate of the date of manufacture. Receipt of instruments was frequently acknowledged in Stewart's Journal and sometimes the serial number is mentioned there.

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Stewart died in April 1898. He had joined with Bauer due to serious health issues, to protect his then young children and the company. Bauer joined with Stewart's sons until 1901 and together seem to have completed the Acme contract. After they split, Bauer produced the S.S. Stewart banjo until at least 1910. The Monogram model is a student grade instrument that post-dates the Stewart & Bauer partnership. Most of them have the S&B logo, but some just had the name Stewart. It is a turn of the century instrument, but Stewart almost assuredly had nothing to do with its manufacture. The quality is not up to his standards, and probably, it is entirely a Bauer creation. The sons produced the "4S" banjo in New York until about 1904. The banjo pictured above is a high grade Rettberg & Lange product, made under contract to the sons, in the period after R&L acquired the Buckbee operation and before they introduced their own Orpheum line.

Other banjos, with distinctly S.S. Stewart characteristics turn up from time to time. One, marked Weymann, has a Stewart-like peghead shape, heel carving, internal rim marquetry, neck attachment hardware, and nuts. Other banjos, marked simply New York, appear with similar refinements. One theory suggests that Weymann purchased much of the remaining SSS stock. Another is that some of Stewart's workers moved to other companies -- in Philadelphia and New York City -- after his death. Both scenarios are possible. Given the "4S" connection, a move to NYC by at least some seems likely.

The decal above is found on lesser, student and amateur grade banjos, made after Stewart's death. Later, after Bauer, the S.S. Stewart name went through many hands. The Keenophone Company, a Philadelphia, PA manufacturer of "talking machines" and phonographs, acquired the Bauer Company in 1911 and continued to manufacture the S.S. Stewart musical instruments. In 1915 Keenophone sold the Stewart name to Buegeleisen & Jacobson (B&J), a New York City distributor. The B&J instruments were probably made by Slingerland and have stamped markings like the following.

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Other styles of banjo were sold bearing the S.S. Stewart name. The Wm. Lange Company produced a line of heavy, resonated instruments. In the 1930s, The Gibson Company made some banjos marked S.S. Stewart which were Gibson's Style 11 instruments with a custom shaped peghead and the name S.S. Stewart stencilled on the peghead. Another, unknown, maker used this gold-colored decal.

Some ukuleles marked Stewart were actually made by Martin but sold by someone else, probably B&J. One of Turturro's Peanut Ukes has been seen with an "SS Stewart, New York" plaque. Still later, the Stewart name had other owners and some very cheap, plywood, arch-top guitars were made by Harmony in the 30s.

1878First made banjos
1878-1885Banjos numbered 1000 and below
1885Banjeaurine introduced
1885-1888Banjos numbered between 1000 & 4000
1887Patented heavy neck brace introduced
1888Peghead shaped trademark introduced
1888-1889Banjos numbered between 4000 & 5000
1890-1894Banjos numbered between 5000 & 14000
1893Sears contract, Acme banjo line introduced
1894Banjos numbered between 14000 & 15000
1894Adjustable neck brace
1895-1898Banjos numbered between 15000 & 20000
1896Thoroughbred trademark registered - probably in use for 10 years.
c189620th Century Model introduced
1898Partnership with George Bauer
4/1898Stewart died
1898Unexplained gap between 20000 & 50000
1898Partnership between George Bauer & Stewart's family
1899Banjos numbered above 50000 may be after death of SSS
1901Stewart's Sons end partnership, start own line
1901-19044s banjos - "SS Stewart's Sons" made in NYC under contract
1901-1910Bauer continued making banjos marked "S.S.Stewart"
1911The Keenophone Company acquired the Bauer Company
1915SS Stewart name sold to Buegeleisen & Jacobson

Elias Kaufman's history of S.S. Stewart was first published as a four part series in Mugwumps Volume 2, numbers 3 - 6. We will publish an edited and updated version of that history. In the meantime, I hope this helps.

This brief article is the product of years of accumulated research, much of it done by Eli & Madeline Kaufman, editors of the "Fivestringer", the publication of the American Banjo Fraternity, and by Jim Bollman & Stu Cohen, proprietors of The Music Emporium, Lexington, MA; Alberto Vazquez, owner and operator of Minalco, Free Union, VA, supplying banjo parts and ephemera, has also collected serial numbers and instrument details used here. They have all kept records of every Stewart instrument seen or reported to them. But I put this article together and continue to update it, so any errors are mine. If you have anything to add, please email it to me and I'll see that it gets to them. MIH

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