J. Howard Foote Parlor guitar

Parlor guitar

P.T. Barnum probably didn’t coin the classic modern truism “There’s a sucker born every minute,” even though it does fit well with the Barnum legacy! Most of us know Barnum because of his traveling circus, The Greatest Show on Earth, later the Barnum & Bailey Circus, but that was really almost an afterthought from the end of his life. Far fewer of us know that he was perhaps the greatest promotion man who ever lived, and that he arguably had more impact on the development of popular American culture as it emerged in the 19th century than any other single person. But what has he got to do with this guitar?

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel (now Fairfield), Connecticut. His father died when he was very young and he set about making his fortune variously as a grocer, lottery agent, newspaperman, and exhibitor of “curiosities,” early famous examples being Joyce Heth, the “161-year-old slave,” and the “Fiji Mermaid,” a clever fusion of a fish with the head and torso of a female orangutan! By 1841, he was prosperous enough to purchase New York’s American Museum, in Lower Manhattan, which would become his life’s great work.

American museums had begun in Philadelphia with Peale’s Museum (Barnum later purchased the collection), a combination of Linnaean classification of natural history, paintings, artifacts, and amusing oddities to entertain the public. Barnum’s American Museum expanded on these themes, interspersing scientific wonders (he was a major supporter of the excavation of dinosaurs!) with miniature models of cities, mummies, live animals (like giraffes), America’s first aquarium (including whales!), and exotic people, including fat ladies, giants, trapeze artists, Eng and Chang (the first “Siamese” twins), and General Tom Thumb. Various exhibits and members of his museum family regularly toured America and Europe.

The American Museum also had a theater, and Barnum employed a company with some of the best actors in America. At a low point in American thespianism, he invented the first “family” oriented theater, barring liquor and whores and only presenting plays suitable for the little lady and the kids.

P.T. Barnum was also one of the early American music promoters, his most stunning achievement being to convince the most famous female singer of the century, the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, to tour America in 1850. She swept the nation off its feet, a la The Beatles 113 years later! Perhaps you see where we’re heading…

Rewind to the late 18th century, when the practice of white folks performing skits in burnt cork “blackface” began to appear, mainly a highly racist art form that ridiculed slaves. In the late 1820s comedian Thomas Dartmouth Rice observed a comical black man doing a dance routine and enshrined it in the song “Jump Jim Crow,” performing it in blackface with great success on New York stages for years, including at Barnum’s American Museum. American Minstrelsy was born.
Circa 1840, a musical group called the Tyrolese Minstrel Family toured America singing middle European folk songs. This gave unemployed actors Dan Emmett (composer of “Dixie”), Frank Bower, Frank Pelham, and Billy Whitlock the idea to do an American version. They formed the Virginia Minstrels, performing in blackface with banjos at Barnum’s museum in New York in 1843. Barnum put them under contract and they had a successful run, after which he sent them on a European tour. In the spring of 1846, among the musicians taking Barnum’s stage was a young man called Bini “the Amazing Guitarist.”

Little is known of Joseph E. Bini’s origins or career. By the 1830s, at the height of Mauro Giuliani’s popularity in England, it was not uncommon for European guitar “virtuosi” to visit and settle in the New World. We do know that, in addition to performing, he built guitars, including the one shown here made for J. Howard Foote. He lived in Mount Vernon, New York, north of the city. In 1867, Bini was granted a patent for a novel bracing system that was basically a hybrid X- and fan-bracing pattern. According to the patent, it was intended to distribute the treble frequencies more evenly over the guitar. According to Michael Holmes’ list of American manufacturers (see mugwumps.com), Bini may have built guitars until 1901 or later.

John Howard Foote is equally mysterious. He apparently was a musical instrument importer and retailer with shops in New York and Chicago. He was known for selling violins (made in Mittenwald, Germany), horns, Matchless banjos (made in New York by Buckbee), and guitars, including this one made by Bini. Again according to Holmes, Foote’s business was around from 1835 to 1904.

This Foote/Bini guitar is a handsome little beast that features “Bini’s Improvement,” his elaborate bracing system. Like most 19th-century guitars, it has a solid spruce top with colored wood marquetry. The body is solid Brazilian rosewood, the nice V boat-neck is mahogany. The fingerboard is ebony with pearl diamond and snowflake inlays. The tuners are modern replacements, the original soft brass having warped irreparably (replacement nut, saddle, and pins, too). This is currently strung with a set of gut strings (nylon basses). It’s not certain when this guitar was made, but it was probably after Bini’s patent, so probably 1870 or later.

So, does Bini’s Improvement work? Well, it is a nice idea, very ahead of its time, but with gut strings, it’s no better than a ladder-braced guitar, and indeed, many are better-sounding. It’s possible that silk and steels, which became popular after 1880, might sing nicely, but using them could be risky for the top and neck.

Still, this is a nice example of a 19th-century guitar that serves to bring two more names of that era – Joseph Bini and Howard Foote – to our attention. Or perhaps three, because without P.T. Barnum’s active promotion of American music in general and Bini the Amazing Guitarist, in particular, who knows if these creations would ever have been born for suckers like us to enjoy?

Ca. 1875 J. Howard Foote Parlor guitar, SN 654.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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