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Banjo Ukuleles and Tenor Banjos - A Brief History

Note: The following summary of chronology of events is what I have been able to glean from studying the catalog pages of dated printed matter that I have presented here, as well as other sources.


Around 1885 when Stewart perfected his piccolo five string banjo, the Little Wonder - long before Vega stole the name - it was 7 inch rim with 10 inch neck, or fingerboard length.

Within the next decade, the other banjo manufacturers built there own versions of Stewart's Piccolo, initially with similar dimensions, as the identically dimensioned 1892 George Washburn Piccolo pictured to the right of the larger and longer piccolo advertised in a 1887 Bruno catalog.

By 1900, five string banjos were already on the decline. In fact, a new banjo was emerging based on the mandolin, which had been around for many years.

The new banjo was a mandolin neck on a banjo rim, or a banjo mandolin. One of the earliest designs found in these catalogue pages are 6.25 inch rims and curious little creatures with a metal flanged back that the brackets attached to. They also had a wooden neck braces, similar to the Stewart design to stiffen up the structural integrity.

They were called Manjorettes and I believe based on my own collection seen here that these flangeback banjo rims also had ukulele necks on them occasionally. None of mine have neck braces as they are banjo ukes, however.

Next up were the seven inch banjo mandolins, as pictured on the right, no doubt left over and in the flow of pre 1900 banjo makers who had geared up for small rim construction. These didn't seem to last long either as bigger was better even then.

The rim diameter grew several inches and halves continually for several years into the 1910's, eventually levelling out at 10 inches, as in this 1915 catalogue of the later Stewart banjos on the left.These banjo mandolins, , were quite popular and took over the already weak five string market and variations begin to appear.

In my research, it was in 1912 that a longer necked four string banjo appeared for the first time..

An early attempt in this 10.5 inch rimmed 1912 Stewart on the right advertises it as a "Banjorine Mandolin" and:

"ideal for mandolin players who do concert playing, and cannot be detected from a Banjo by the general public."

Cool. Anything to fool the public even then.

By 1915, we haved morphed into a 'Cello Tango Banjo-Mandolin, as in this 1915 ad on the left for the No. 140 Stewart, which is identical to the advertised Banjorine Mandolin of three years prior, as above.

Notice there is also a regular Tango Banjo Mandolin as well as a regular Banjo Mandolin offered on the same page in the 1915 ad on the right. Once could either 4 or 8 string varieties labeled tango apparently.


The following year in 1916, the same damn tenor banjo as we know it, is now referred to as a Tango Banjo , as on the left. But oh no!! In the next year of 1917, in this Orpheum ad on the right,we have the usual Banjo Mandolins but now our four stringer is labeled "Banjorine-Mandolin or Tango-Banjo"!

Just about when the public had it sorted out, in 1917 a new banjo appeared, also with four strings, but not a mandolin or tenor or piccolo.

It was the Ukulele Banjo, and man did it sell. Forget the five stringers for good, and keep the new tango(tenor) and the mando banjo around if you want to make sales.

Naturally, the nomenclature got messy again, as is evidenced if one studies the vintage catalogue ads here.

Initially introduced as Ukulele Banjos in 1917, the name morphed several times as is apparent once again from the original catalogue ads. We have Banjo Ukuleles, Banjo-Ukuleles, Ukulele-Banjos, Banjo Ukes, Banjo-Ukes, Banjukes, and Banjoleles, amongst others!

During the 1920's, these Ukulele Banjos were mass produced by the thousands and the public swallowed them up as fast as they could be built. They were cheap, cute, available and did not make much noise(what happened to banjos since???).

Additionally, these banjukes were available in a large variety of shapes and designs, as well as pastel colors which reportedly sold well.

Of course, there will always be the high brow folks in any circle and it wasn't long before Wm. Lange in 1926 announced that they were finally building a banjo ukulele that was a real musical instrument!

By the 1930's, the catalogues were still offering a nice selection of banjukes, but the demand for these little jos had been replaced by other musical instruments that had caught the public's fancy.

And that's where I get off.