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Recent Acquisition: An Early American Banjo

Jayson Dobney, Associate Curator and Administrator, Department of Musical Instruments

Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2014

William Esperance Boucher, Jr. (American, 1822–1899). Banjo, ca. 1845 (2013.639)

William Esperance Boucher, Jr. (American, 1822–1899). Banjo, ca. 1845. Hardwood body, calfskin belly, iron brackets and rim, gut strings; L. 34 1/2 in. (87.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Peter Szego, 2013 (2013.639)

«A recent acquisition that has been installed in gallery 684 is an early American banjo. This antebellum instrument was made by William Esperance Boucher, Jr., the earliest professional maker of the instrument and an innovative craftsman. Born in Germany, Boucher immigrated to Baltimore, where he sold a wide assortment of musical items and was known as a maker of both drums and banjos. Boucher helped to standardize many features of the banjo, and is credited as the first to use metal rods that allowed the player to adjust the tension on the skin head—a feature that he likely borrowed from some drum makers who were beginning to tension drums in this manner.»

The Museum's example features this metal tension-rod system and a cleverly designed scalloped-wood rim, which recesses the metal pieces so that they will not snag the player's clothes. The wooden rim, neck, and scroll are all painted to look like rosewood. The distinctive headstock is a feature of many Boucher instruments and is reminiscent of the profile view of a violin scroll.

The banjo is often thought of as a distinctly American instrument, originally developed from West African stringed instruments that were brought by slaves to the New World. The instrument in some form was found in the Caribbean as early as the seventeenth century and on plantations in North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It gained widespread popularity in the middle of the nineteenth century, in large part because of its indispensable role in the new genre of minstrel music.

Follow Jayson on Twitter: @JayKerrDobney

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About the Author

Jayson Dobney is an associate curator and administrator in the Department of Musical Instruments.

About this Blog

The Museum's collection of musical instruments includes approximately five thousand examples from six continents and the Pacific Islands, dating from about 300 B.C. to the present. It illustrates the development of musical instruments from all cultures and eras. On this blog, curators and guests will share information about this extraordinary collection, its storied history, the department's public activities, and some of the audio and video recordings from our archives.