Freak of the Week: 1903 "Little Joe" Novelty Banjo

Updated: Jan 10


Welcome to our very first Freak of the Week. No, this isn't a cigar box guitar. I've recently started collecting beautifully strange and wonderfully unusual instruments of America's past. Many of these were sold door-to-door by snake oil type salesmen or in catalogs as new, wonder instruments that anybody could play! (Most were virtually unplayable!)


This example is The Little Joe, a novelty instrument by the Harp-O-Chord Company of Columbus, OH. It originally had a harmonica affixed to the headstock, enabling the player to become a one-man-band.

This rare newspaper clipping nearly promises fame and fortune for any player of the Little Joe. Apparently, this magical device mixed "the sharp twang of the banjo, the sweet chords of the German zither, as well as overtures and heavy marches." Indeed! (From the James Stepp archives.)


The Little Joe is a 4-string instrument with a 15.5" scale length. It has only two frets, allowing the player to strum I-IV-V chords as accompaniment to the harmonica that was attached. The I chord would be played open. The IV chord would be on the first available fret and the V chord on the second.


Shane's note: When I post these strange, non-DIY instruments, I do so to inspire modern builders with wild concepts. You could easily take the concept of the Little Joe and create new instruments with the same layout. Build a one-piece body & neck (let's call it "the core") then attach thin wood for the soundboard & back. The core could be made from maple or oak. The thin would could be a thin birch plywood. You could even add a partial fretboard if you want it to be just as wacky.

To get an idea of what the Little Joe is all about, check out this quick video by James Stepp as he plays on his own Little Joe that he restored:

A search in Google Patents pulls up the device only known as "Stringed Musical Instrument Body" by Carl E. Brown of Columbus, OH. It would appear Mr. Brown had a love affair with the French curve ruler. I think this body is just fantastic!


Let's dig even deeper...

The wildest detail is the chasm that exists between the headstock and first fret. There is a nut missing that would have been placed on the headstock, near the zither tuning pins. Perhaps this design is genius because beginner players are denied any access to wrong notes!


The body construction has a lot in common with other zithers and autoharps sold during this period. The top and back are a thin solid birch piece. The sides and neck are cut from one piece of unknown wood. (Poplar would be my guess.)

Here's a shot of the back, showing the thin birch back ending at the base of the neck area.

The tailpiece on this model is slowly lifting away from the body. It has a stamp that says PAT'D OCT 26 '86, which may indicate that somebody replaced the original with an older mandolin tailpiece.

Here is a closeup of the Florentine decal that graced the front. These decals are also found on zithers and acoustic guitars of the time period. This instrument was played a lot.


After selling these instruments direct, Harp-O-Chord may have sold their remaining stock to Sears Roebuck, because the instrument appeared in catalogs as late as 1923. (Catalog clipping above from the archives of James Stepp.)


Here are the specs of the Little Joe:

Scale Length: 15.5"

Materials:

  • Wood (birch and ?)

  • Fretwire

  • Zither pins

  • Guitar or banjo strings

  • Mandolin tailpiece

  • Waterslide decal

Dimensions: 20 x 9.75 x 1" (51 x 24.5 x 2.5cm)

Built in 1903 by the Harp-O-Chord Co. of Columbus, OH.

Cigar Box Guitar Museum catalog # AZT.2021.001

Acquired by Shane Speal in 2021.

Currently in curation and slated to be shown at the Cigar Box Guitar Museum in New Alexandria PA at a future date.


To learn more about Carl Brown and his many inventions, check out his bio on the FretlessZithers website here. The Little Joe is one of two instruments by the Harp-O-Chord Co. that are in the Cigar Box Guitar Museum Collection. Look for a future post about its predecessor, The Hill Country Harp.



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