Smithsonian Collections

Boucher Five-String Fretless Banjo

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Smithsonian Museum
National Museum of American History
This banjo was made by William Boucher, Jr. in Baltimore, Maryland in 1847. Boucher was a drum maker and musical instrument dealer. He became the first commercial maker of banjos, perhaps through his association with the celebrated minstrel banjoist Joel Walker Sweeney.

Boucher's instruments were important in standardizing the form of the banjo in its transition from a home-made rural instrument to urban commercial manufacture. The basic shape and string arrangement has changed little up to the present day. Boucher’s design copied important features of earlier home-made African American instruments: the skin head, short thumb string and fretless neck. He added a scrolled peghead similar to those used by guitar makers W. Stauffer and C.F. Martin, and replaced the traditional gourd body with a thin, bentwood rim construction with screw-tightening brackets similar to that used for drum heads. Boucher’s innovations were well-adapted to commercial mass-production and urban musical tastes, and played a large part in the subsequent worldwide enthusiasm for the banjo.

These commercial “improvements’ were never adopted by many traditional rural musicians, who continued to make good sounding instruments that were entirely adequate for their musical needs from locally available materials, at little or no expense.
Currently not on view
Boucher, Jr., William
Date Made
Credit Line
Gift of William Boucher, Jr.
overall: 38 1/2 in x 14 in x 3 1/4 in; 97.79 cm x 35.56 cm x 8.255 cm
Object Type