This small left-handed banjo was made by Gilbert O. Kibbe in Hartford, Connecticut, around 1885. Kibbe was active between 1883 and 1891, and was actually one of two banjo makers working in Hartford during that time. The work of a New-England banjo maker like Kibbe embodies the complexity of the banjo’s place in American history, which represents a musical journey stretching from the African continent to the European colonies of the Caribbean, South America, and North America. Eventually, the banjo is further disseminated from the American South to Appalachia and New England. As an instrument that originated within African and African-American cultures, the banjo initially played a role in asserting resistance and maintaining cultural ties in a time of enslavement and severe racial discrimination. Appropriated by white Americans in the early nineteenth century, the banjo became closely associated with minstrelsy and Appalachia. By the end of the century, the breadth of the banjo underwent yet another shift as it became an instrument popular among wealthy white Americans.
This particular instrument represents the latter stage of the banjo’s trajectory. Rather petite in size, suggesting its use as a “parlor” banjo, instruments like this one were specifically marketed towards elite women & men during the late nineteenth century, played in the banjo clubs and ensembles that were flourishing across New England. With an ebony fingerboard, featuring inlaid mother of pearl dots, and a decoratively carved peghead, the instrument exemplifies the boom of banjo-making in late 19th century Northern states.