Ca. 1927 S. S. Stewart Wondertone B

 

The SS Stewart brand name appeared on a wide variety of instruments across the better part of a century. Samuel Swain Stewart began building banjos in 1878, and by the 1890s his company’s banjos were widely regarded as some of the finest on the market. Stewart died in 1898, and the brand he created underwent several changes of ownership over the next two decades while the quality of the instruments swiftly declined. New York-based instrument distributors Buegeleisen and Jacobson purchased the S. S. Stewart brand in 1914; as they did not actually manufacture banjos, B&J sourced their instruments from a variety of builders. They also expanded the line to include guitars and mandolins, and the brand would survive (in one form or another) in the B&J catalog into the 1960s.

During the 1920s and 1930s, S. S. Stewart instruments encompassed a range of prices and quality but generally represented the upper echelons of products sold by B&J. The Wondertone series of tenor banjos were introduced in the 1920s and were locally sourced from New York City builder Gaetano Puntolillo. Known also for his own brand of Majestic banjos, Puntolillo created a range of high-end instruments that could compete with the big-name brands of the banjo world. The 1927 B&J catalog showed four models, A through D, which shared the same methods of construction but employed a range of cosmetic features. The prices ranged from $80 to $280, which set them in direct competition with upper-grade Gibson and Epiphone models.

This Wondertone B sold for $170. It features a maple rim and resonator with figured mahogany veneers all around and a 3-piece mahogany neck. (Curiously, the Wondertone C featured rosewood in place of mahogany but at the same price). The B was the lowest Wondertone model fitted with gold hardware, though all models in the series featured geared tuners and fancy inlays in the fretboard and headstock. There is considerable variation between examples of each Wondertone model; my banjo is the only one I have seen with an “S” inlayed in the resonator. There are also many Wondertones featuring deluxe appointments but nickel-plated hardware. I have to assume that the specifications changed frequently, particularly during the 1930s when economics would have driven B&J to make their instruments as affordable as possible.

 

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