During the last decades of the nineteenth century, women figured prominently in a marketing campaign by banjo manufacturers who sought to make the banjo a respectable instrument for ladies. Their overarching aim was to "elevate" the banjo's status from its African-American and minstrel-show associations, thereby making the instrument acceptable in white bourgeois society. At the same time, stereoview cards, three-dimensional photographs produced by the millions, were a popular parlor entertainment featuring a variety of contemporary images, including women playing the banjo. Yet, instead of depicting a genteel lady in the parlor playing her beribboned banjo, the stereoviews presented humorous and sometimes risque scenes of banjo-playing women. Further, virtually no stereoviews exist that show the banjo played by a lady in a parlor setting. Through a study of stereoscopic depictions of women in a variety of scenes, I place these unexpected images of women's music-making in a context that explains their significance. In particular I examine the way stereoviews provide insights about the tensions regarding the position and status of women in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American culture as revealed in the figure of the New Woman.
Typical of constructions of this threatening figure, stereographic images picture the New Woman wearing bloomers, riding bicycles, attending college, smoking, neglecting her wifely duties and children, and even indulging in lesbian eroticism. Yet, stereoviews are distinctive in that they also show the New Woman playing the banjo, and I argue that the link between the banjo and the New Woman had a decisive and negative impact on the effectiveness of the banjo elevation project. Through an examination of these three-dimensional views, and drawing on late-nineteenth-century writing and poetry about the banjo, I show how the banjo in the hands of the New Woman became a cautionary cultural icon for middle- and upper-class women, subverting the respectable image of the parlor banjo and the bourgeois women who played it. I place this new evidence in the context of Karen Linn's paradigm describing the banjo elevation project as one that sought to shift the banjo from the realm of sentimental values to official values. The figure of the New Woman does not fit within Linn's dichotomy; rather, she falls outside both sets of values. Often viewed as a third sex herself, in a sense mirroring the gender tensions surrounding the banjo, the New Woman helped to shift the banjo into a third realm, that of revolutionary and perhaps even decadent values. This study enhances what we know about the way musical instruments have been used to reconfigure attitudes toward gender roles in the popular imagination and furthers our understanding of the complex role women have played in the history of the banjo. Moreover, this evidence demonstrates how gender and sexuality can affect the reception of music, and musical instruments, through powerful iconographic images.
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