Fredrick J. Bacon was born and raised in Vermont. He showed interest in music at a young age and the 5-string banjo was his instrument of choice. He must have been quite good as he quickly developed a reputation as a master player. (To hear a sample of his playing: Massa’s in The Cold, Cold, Ground, in 1916 – click here.) His talents were in demand for concerts, teaching and instrument endorsements. His name was associated with banjos from the Vega Company in the early years.
Bacon fancied himself a designer and imagined many improvements to the banjo available at the time. He had amassed some money and chose to invest it in his own talents. In 1906 he established the Bacon Banjo Company. The original partners were Fred and Cassie Bacon (his wife) and Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Winship. His intention was to design the banjos and have them manufactured by other builders like Vega and Rettburg & Lange. Most of these earlier instruments were 5-strings inlaid with “Bacon” on the headstock. Their design featured unusual tone chambers with open backs and f-holes on the bottom of the rims. He then marketed them by demonstration, teaching and concerts.
He apparently had some success but became frustrated with the limitations created by accepting the work of other manufacturers and living with their compromises and quality level. In 1920 Bacon determined to open his own manufacturing facility and assume control over all aspects of banjo construction. He reincorporated as the Fred Bacon Banjo Company and relocated to Groton Connecticut. In 1921 he opened the doors of his new 60,000 square foot manufacturing plant at 169 Thames Street.
In 1922 he was joined by veteran banjo designer David L. Day. This requires a brief discussion of the background of David L. Day (See also: A.C. Fairbanks and Vega):
David L. day was born in New Hampshire in 1865. By 1880 his family had relocated to Boston and, at age 18, he joined the Fairbanks and Cole Company as an office boy. He quickly demonstrated skill at design and manufacturing and must have been remarkably talented, motivated and well endowed with people-skills as he had achieved the role the General Manager within a very few years. He is responsible for many advancements in banjo design that define the modern banjo.
In 1904 the A.C. Fairbanks and Company building caught fire and burned to the ground. The company was not properly insured and was financially devastated. With no other options, A.C. Fairbanks Company accepted an offer to be purchased for $925 by the Vega Company plus $1 for the rights to 4 patents. In the terms of the sale, David L. Day became the General Manager of the Vega Company.
In 1908 Day redesigned the venerable Whyte-Laydie (See the accompanying story: A.C. Fairbanks) with a scalloped tone ring and in 1909 Vega introduced the Tub-a-phone tone ring (also designed by Day). The Vega Tu-ba-Phone featured a perforated metal tone ring – a ring-shaped, square-sectioned metal tube that sat between the instrument’s wooden rim and calfskin head – that gave the banjo a volume and tone still admired by many players.
Day also had a hand in guitar and mandolin design for Vega. In the push to develop louder instruments with richer tone, he introduced the cylinder-back as a style of mandolin, mandola, mandocello, mando-base and guitar built between 1913 and roughly 1925. The design patent (US patent number D44838) was issued on November 4, 1913 to David L. Day. The unique design (originally called mando-lutes by Vega) is a cylindrical bulge running longitudinally along the back plate from the tailpiece to the neck heel. This body shape was inherently structurally stable and created a larger internal resonating volume. The instruments performed as designed. Vega also produced a guitar that had a longitudinal bulge along its back, like the company’s cylinder-back mandolins, and a similar longitudinal bulge along its top. The top bulge is reminiscent of the design used on Howe-Orme instruments, also built by the Boston firm: the Elias Howe Company.
When David L. Day joined Fred Bacon in 1922 he was 57 years old. He had spent his entire life blazing new trails for instruments he clearly loved but none of them carried his name. It is reasonable to assume that Fred Bacon offered David Day a chance to design instruments that would carry his name. Ironically, the company name would not change: The Fred Bacon Banjo Company would remain the business entity but the instruments would become known as ‘Bacon and Day’ or ‘B&D’. David L. Day became the company Vice President and General Manager.
The 1920s experienced a banjo craze and many musicians considered Bacon & Day to be the finest banjo maker of the time. Their instruments were prized for their exceptional volume and cutting power as well as for their beautiful craftsmanship. The majority of banjos produced during the 1920s and 1930s were 4 string tenors and plectrums. These were well suited to the Dixieland music of the time. Fred Bacon, however, was a 5 string classical player and there are a few 5-string Bacon & Day banjos out there.
The Bacon & Day Silver Bell line of banjos was introduced in 1923. To this day, many tenor and plectrum players consider Bacon & Day instruments to be the finest ever made.
The late 1920s B&D instruments began receiving the phrase “Ne Plus Ultra” in their model names. In Latin “ne plus ultra” means “the ultimate.” These instruments were some of the most heavily ornamented banjos ever produced.
The style 6 featured heavily engraved, gold-plated metal parts, elephant ivory inlay with extensive engraving and carving on the back of the headstock. It also featured a lion’s head carved into the heel of the neck. The Ne Plus Ultra styles 6, 8, and 9 featured a neck, resonator, and shell made from ebony. In the mid 1920s the style 6 cost $450.00, while the top-of-the-line style 9 was $900.00. The Ne Plus Ultras were some of the most expensive instruments on the market at the time. A Gibson style 3 Mastertone sold for $100.00 and the Gibson Florentine model was $450.00.
The #6 Ne Plus Ultra is more common than the higher-priced models but sought by collectors.
The style #6 featured ebony, ivory and gold fittings.
The style #7 is constructed of white holly and slightly less desirable.
The style #8 does not appear in catalogues and were custom-made with many variations.
The style #9 features ebony construction, an elephant’s head carved at the heel of the neck, a solid ivory fretboard with extensive engraving and multicolored rhinestones inlaid into the neck, metal parts and even into the mother-of-pearl tuning buttons.
The crash of 1929 hit the musical instrument industry hard. B&D spent several years trying to find some way to cope with the depressed marketplace. The banjo market appeared to be dead as musical tastes changed so B&D refocused on guitars and mandolins. Unfortunately the mandolin market had also fallen apart. B&D were never geared up to build guitars as they had always subcontracted that work to other manufacturers like Regal. Gibson and Epiphone were carving new markets for archtop guitars and Martin had defined a new flattop guitar market with its OM and dreadnaught models. B&D was behind the curve and business was in steep decline.
In September of 1938 the Groton plant was devastated by a hurricane. The facility and business were not adequately insured and could not recover. David L. Day was 73 years old and not interested in trying to start over. The business was sold to the Gretsch Company in 1939.
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ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth