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S.S. STEWART PHILADELPHIA BANJO MAKER EXTRAORDINAIRE [USA]

This remarkable illustrated cover has 2 x 1d plus ½d Tasmanian stamps with Hobart, Tasmania duplex cancels with a printed drawing of a washerwoman standing on a rug, holding a large letter and a mop and bucket. The letter is addressed to Mr. S.S. Stewart, Banjo Manufactory, Church Street, Philadelphia, U.S.A. The reverse is backstamped Philadelphia 1897 (Figure 1).

The sender is not identified but the addressee is of considerable importance. Samuel Swaim (not a typo error!) Stewart was born in Philadelphia, Pa. on January 8, 1855. Heoriginally studied the violin but in 1872 he took lessons on the banjo from George C. Dobson. Six years later he opened a studio for teaching the banjo in his native city, which laid the foundations for his vast publishing and manufacturing business. He was dissatisfied with the banjos then available, so that he studied their construction. He opened a factory at 221-223 Church Street in 1879 with improved designs of Clark, Dobson, Schall models.

By 1896 his factory was turning out first class banjos by the hundreds, priced from $10 to as high as $200. He was said to have an agency in every town in America, as well as selling to agents all over the world. At different times he ran a full-page advert in “The New York Clipper” and he was largely responsible for making Americans banjo conscious. At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the Exposition catalogue proclaimed that his Church Street Manufactory was “the only establishment of its kind in the world - the largest and most complete banjo manufactory in existence” which produced only banjos.

He was the first maker to strengthen the banjo neck with inlays of hardwood set on the cross grain to prevent warping. He had no patents on his banjos, and he only claimed an improved and perfected banjo, secured by new processes of manufacture. He published the first banjo catalogues, along with journals and sheet music. A n 1890's banjo (Special Thoroughbred Style 4) in especially fine condition in a soft case was priced at $4,000 (Figure 2).

His firm was taken over by a mandolin and guitar maker, Bauer and the firm of Stewart & Bauer opened in Philadelphia with Stewart’s son Frederick S. working in the office. Stewart died of a stroke in 1898, and his picture is seen in  Figure 3.


 
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