STORY AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE SUMMER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
One rather frustrating aspect of identifying vintage ukuleles is that instrument companies sometimes produced the same ukes under different model and brand names. This was often because musical instrument wholesalers, who purchased ukuleles from various manufacturers and distributed them to music stores, sold the exact same ukes with their own brand labels. To make things even more confusing, over a period of years, ukes with the exact same features and brand or model names may have been produced by two or more different manufacturers. Such is the case with the instrument you see here: the S.S. Stewart “marquetry” ukulele.
This soprano-sized instrument has a body made from beautiful fiddleback-grained mahogany and a neck carved from a single piece of plain mahogany. True to the model’s name, the front and back of the body are trimmed with black celluloid binding and rope-style multi-colored wood purfling. This purfling also runs around the entire perimeter of the uke’s bent sides, and the same colored wood marquetry, rendered in a herringbone style, surrounds the soundhole and runs as a center stripe down both the fretboard and headstock. The headstock and fingerboard are bound with thin black-white-black binding. The fingerboard features a stylish curved extension that runs over the top of the body and has three partial frets. The tuning pegs are “chessmen” style friction tuners with black Bakelite knobs.
The label inside says “S.S. Stewart, Established 1875, Philadelphia, PA and New York.” It also states that “This instrument is guaranteed to be perfect in construction and tone quality.”
Samuel Swain was the man behind the S.S. Stewart company, which made banjos from around 1878 to 1910. In 1915, the S.S. Stewart brand name was purchased by Buegeleisen & Jacobson (B&J), a musical instrument distributor based in New York City.
B&J used this brand name for their better-quality banjos and banjoleles as well as ukuleles, guitars, and mandolins. S.S. Stewart became B&J’s premium brand for instruments that were actually made by other instrument manufacturers, including Oscar Schmidt, Harmony, and Regal.
In the case of this marquetry uke, Regal is more than likely the actual manufacturer. Regal produced two different versions of the instrument: The fancier Style Number 10 matches the features of the uke shown here; the plainer Style Number 6 has the same construction and basic appointments as the Style 10, but lacks the headstock and fingerboard binding and fingerboard extension (some Style 6 ukes have the marquetry center stripe, while others do not).
Both Style 10 and Style 6 marquetry ukes appear in the late 1920s catalogs of the Progressive Musical Instrument Corporation (also known as “P’MICo”), a large musical instrument distributor in New York City. But P’MICo wasn’t the only one to sell these marquetry ukes: The Tonk Brothers, a large Chicago-based musical instrument wholesaler, also sold them under their own Sterling brand name.
Sterling brand ukes have a stamp inside the body that reads: “Hawaiian Ukulele Made by T.B. Co,” an interesting claim, since Tonk Brothers didn’t actually manufacture any instruments themselves.