Walking into the Guras’ house is like walking into a musical museum. Black-and-white photos of musicians and their instruments adorn the entryway. Cases containing mandolins, violins, and guitars line the walls. An antique piano rests in the parlor. Farther back, in a nook off the kitchen, is the main attraction: a room dedicated to the banjo.

Banjos dating back as far as the 1840s hang every couple of feet around the walls. One is made of rosewood, another has eagle brackets. Others have brass tailpieces, silver stars, scalloped necks, or fancy frets.

But these instruments aren’t just for show. They’re meant to be played.

Philip Gura surveys the room, then takes a banjo off the wall and begins picking. Clawhammer style. Not the way bluegrass music is played today, but the old-time way—stroking down with the forefinger and hooking the thumb on the short string—that was popular in the 19th century.

Hearing the familiar strum of the banjo, Gura’s children drift in and select instruments. His 11-year-old twins, Daniel and Katherine, are shy at first, but soon become absorbed in the music. One plays banjo along with her father; the other plays fiddle with his 14-year-old brother, David.

The four play together often, going to weekend gatherings of musicians and competing in contests. “There are still many pockets of survival where music is played in what is essentially the nineteenth century manner,” says Gura, professor of English and American studies. “When most people think of the banjo, they think of bluegrass and Nashville. But the story of the banjo goes back much farther than Nashville.”

Gura has spent the last several years not only playing the banjo, but piecing together its history. In September, The University of North Carolina Press will publish Gura’s book America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century, which is the first comprehensive history of the banjo—the story of how a simple instrument used by slaves became an American icon.

Gura’s research for the book began as a hobby. He collected banjo paraphernalia here and there. Then he started seeking out banjos. Not just any banjos, but fine vintage ones. While looking for one in particular—a Cole banjo from the 1890s—Gura met up with James Bollman, who not only helped Gura find the instrument he was looking for, but also happened to have a wider collection of banjos and banjo accessories than any library or museum.

Bollman, who owns a music store near Boston, has been collecting for years, buying pieces at antique shows and estate auctions. He’s collected over 300 instruments made between the 1840s and the 1920s, and he’s picked up lots of items libraries didn’t see any use for: manufacturers’ account books, old city directories, banjo trade magazines.

But these items do have significance—enough to piece together the history of the 19th-century banjo, Gura says. After getting to know Bollman and his collection, Gura decided it was important to get the story of the American banjo out, so he asked Bollman to co-author the book with him.

The two spent about four years going through the collection. Gura would borrow pieces from the collection and fly them to his home in Chapel Hill. He’d study them, have them photographed, and go back for more. After organizing a chapter, he’d send his draft to Bollman for review, to make sure all his facts were straight.

Some of the pre-Civil War items Gura borrowed were slave narratives and memoirs by minstrels and other musicians who wrote about listening to and playing the banjo. Gura and other scholars agree that the banjo was probably first developed in Africa and brought to America by slaves, where it was adapted by whites in the early 19th century.

The banjos played by slaves were made out of a gourd, with calf skin pulled across a cut-out opening and strings made of catgut. Slaves would play these folk instruments to accompany songs and for their dances.

Overhearing this music, traveling white musicians or those who had grown up on plantations around the 1830s and ’40s began to design similar instruments to their own liking. The great early stage banjoist, Joel Sweeney, was one such musician. He grew up on a plantation near Appomattox, Virginia, and would listen to the slaves play and sing to their gourd banjos.

Sweeney adapted the gourd banjo into a wooden instrument that he played in minstrel shows. As a minstrel, Sweeney dressed up in black face and performed songs and comic routines in an entertainment that was popular throughout the 19th century.

During the 1840s, the banjo was still a novelty. You simply couldn’t buy one on the street. So there was a lot of mystery surrounding the banjo in its early stages, Gura says. After every performance, Sweeney, for instance, would have a stagehand wait for him with a case, so he could quickly hide his instrument from public view. He obviously didn’t want anyone to copy it, Gura says.

Part of the reason musicians may have been so protective of the banjo, Gura says, was because everyone wanted to cash in on a new idea for improving the instrument. The gourd banjo, for example, with calf skin stretched over its opening and tacked to the edges, was unreliable because on damp or rainy days the skin would absorb moisture and sink, making the instrument sound dull.

What Sweeney may have come up with, Gura says, was a special system of hooks and tensioning devices around the sides of the banjo that could be tightened, much like a snare drum. “It sounds simple,” Gura says, “but you have to remember that this was a new instrument, something people hadn’t seen before.”

To find out more about how early banjos were made, Gura studied manufacturers’ advertisements, reports of concerts, city directories, and catalogs from mechanics fairs—places where people brought their inventions to be judged in big cities. These catalogs contained names of early banjo makers he could track down to get more information on the production of the banjo.

Occasionally, Gura came across early engravings or sketches detailing the banjo-making process in a particular factory. Later, he found some photographs taken after the Civil War of men working on machines in the same factory. “These drawings and photographs really give us a detailed look into the business and technology of how these things were produced,” Gura says.

Unlike the classical guitar and the violin, which remained virtually unchanged after the turn of the 19th century, the banjo underwent much tinkering. “This is partly because musicians and manufacturers didn’t know what final form they wanted,” Gura says.

Consequently there were over 150 different patents relating to the banjo in the 19th century. Many of those were for variations of the same hooks Sweeney may have tried to conceal. These hooks were important because banjo manufacturers were constantly trying to make their instruments better—easier to tighten or less likely to catch on clothing. Minstrels often wore clown outfits on stage, for example, and would take the banjo and juggle it, so they needed some way to prevent the hooks from catching on their clothing. Banjos were also popular among women, who, at the time, wore Victorian dresses with poofy skirts.

Most of the first banjos, similar to today’s, had five strings with four long ones and one short one. But unlike today’s models, these early banjos had an open back without the disk-shaped resonator found on contemporary instruments. They also were played differently, Gura says. Early players used a rapping, or clawhammer style.

It wasn’t until the 1860s that banjo players switched to a finger-picking style, like a classical guitarist style, which was considered to be more sophisticated. That’s also when the banjo shifted from a stage or folk instrument to more of a parlor instrument.

The banjo actually went through several cycles, Gura says. When banjos were introduced, few people could get their hands on them. Musicians had to find a woodworker, a furniture manufacturer, for example, who could put together a banjo based solely on a description. It took a lot of guesswork. But when banjos became more popular in the 1860s, manufacturers started mass producing them as a new and lucrative trade.

Most of these manufacturers could be found in the industrialized North—in such cities as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. During this time, banjo makers played with several variations. Some closed the backs on banjos; others developed different types of metal tone rings to enhance the instrument’s “brightness” or tonal quality.

Samuel Swaim Stewart, one of the country’s first banjo manufacturers, produced banjos in all shapes and sizes. He was also one of the first to promote his banjos through national advertising. Stewart produced catalogs, brochures, treatises on banjo construction, and a bimonthly publication devoted to the banjo. Called S.S. Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal, this journal included new pieces of music with each issue, essays on the banjo and its construction, and most abundantly, letters of endorsement for his own banjos and music. In one, he even advertised a contest, offering $100 to any maker who could display a banjo “equal in tone” to his concert instrument.

This contest set off an on-going rivalry between Stewart’s company and the Boston firm of Fairbanks and Cole, who accepted Stewart’s challenge. However, there was much debate between the two firms over how the contest would be judged, Gura says, so there was never an actual contest, merely two months worth of back-and-forth insults in The New York Clipper, a newspaper for musical and theatrical trades.

Albert C. Fairbanks and William A. Cole were partners during the 1890s. Unlike Stewart’s company, which produced banjos for the mass market, Fairbanks and Cole concentrated on the banjo’s design. Preferring small mechanized workshops, the team made many improvements to the banjo, both acoustically and aesthetically.

So while banjo makers tinkered with different hook designs and such, they also began to treat the banjo as an aesthetic object. “There were lots of little things that changed about the banjo over the course of the nineteenth century,” Gura says. “But the most fascinating thing is its physical transformation from simply an instrument to an art form.”

Banjos became cultural icons. Handmade with detailed designs and inlaid with mother of pearl, they were elegant works of art, costing as much as $150 in the 1890s.

It was at this time that the banjo reached its peak. Soon after, 20th-century musicians would turn to ragtime and jazz. Old-time music continued to survive, though, particularly in Appalachia and other parts of the rural south. That’s because there will always be people, like Gura, who prefer to play in the traditional manner. But it wouldn’t be until the 1940s, when bluegrass and country broke through, that America would again appreciate the sound of the five-string banjo.

The story of the banjo is a crazy one with all of its twists and turns,” Gura says. “But because of the way that its physical form was continually transformed, it’s also the story of what has come to be known as America’s instrument. Its evolution is a contribution not only to America’s cultural history, but also to the history of technology.”

Catherine House was formerly a staff contributor for Endeavors.