« All News

Philadelphia-made banjo plays into Pennsylvania history

September 22, 2014

Filed under Collections, Community and Domestic Life

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,



This “Special Thoroughbred” banjo was awarded a gold medal at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and was bought by William E. Stevenson of Frackville, Pa.


From plantations to coal mines, from Broadway to Victorian parlors, in churches and taverns, the banjo has been a part of the American landscape since the 18th century.  The stringed instrument has shaped all kinds of musical styles and crossed racial, cultural and social boundaries.

This week’s feature is a S.S. Stewart, five-string “Special Thoroughbred” banjo. Samuel Swain Stewart was an ardent supporter of the banjo and produced some of the most sought after and highly regarded instruments from his Philadelphia factory.

The “Special Thoroughbred” banjo was awarded a gold medal at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and was bought by a young man named William E. Stevenson from Frackville, Pa.,  who wrote,  “I purchased this instrument from Mr. Stewart after the close of the fair” and had been “playing the Banjo since 1882.”   In the 1894 S. S. Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal, Stevenson wrote, “A few years ago I thought I was getting (telegraph) OPERATORS’ PARALYSIS and by constant practice on my banjo, I have overcome this affliction.”

Collections Advancement Project Curator Paris Tennenhouse notes there is a mystery within the history of this banjo. The serial number stamped on the inside neck places the instrument around 1896, which is three years later than the World’s Fair. However, upon closer examination of the inside rim, there is evidence that Stevenson upgraded an earlier non-adjustable banjo neck to a “newer” adjustable neck introduced in 1895.

What do you think?


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.