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J. Howard Foote Parlor guitar


By Michael Wright

P.T. Barnum probably didnt coin the classic modern truism Theres a sucker born every
minute, even though it does t 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 Fair eld), 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 sh with the
head and torso of a female orangutan! By 1841, he was prosperous enough to purchase New
Yorks American Museum, in Lower Manhattan, which would become his lifes great work.
American museums had begun in Philadelphia with Peales Museum (Barnum later
purchased the collection), a combination of Linnaean classi cation of natural history,
paintings, artifacts, and amusing oddities to entertain the public. Barnums American
Museum expanded on these themes, interspersing scienti c wonders (he was a major
supporter of the excavation of dinosaurs!) with miniature models of cities, mummies, live
animals (like giraffes), Americas rst aquarium (including whales!), and exotic people,
including fat ladies, giants, trapeze artists, Eng and Chang (the rst Siamese twins), and

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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 rst
family oriented theater, barring liquor and whores and only presenting plays suitable for
Ca. 1875 J. Howard Foote Parlor guitar, SN
654. Photo: Michael Wright.

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
were 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 Barnums 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 Barnums 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 Barnums stage
was a young man called Bini the Amazing Guitarist.
Little is known of Joseph E. Binis origins or career. By the 1830s, at the height of Mauro Giulianis 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,

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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, Footes business was around from 1835 to 1904.
This Foote/Bini guitar is a handsome little beast that features Binis 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
ngerboard is ebony with pearl diamond and snow ake 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). Its not certain when
this guitar was made, but it was probably after Binis patent, so probably 1870 or later.
So, does Binis Improvement work? Well, it is a nice idea, very ahead of its time, but with gut strings, its no better than a ladder-braced
guitar, and indeed, many are better-sounding. Its 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. Barnums 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?
This article originally appeared in VGs Dec. 05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized
replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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