Christmas Eve with Uncle Enos - the 1884 Cigar Box Banjo Plans & Story

Edited and expanded: Dec 22, 2015 by Shane Speal

See the 'plans only' version of the Uncle Enos Banjo here.

This short story first appeared newspapers across the US in the early 1800's and was eventually published in The Book Buyer 1884-1885. It was written by Daniel Carter Beard, who also founded the Boy Scouts of America.

It tells the story of a Christmas Eve where the boys Tom, Dick and Harry discover that their beloved Uncle Enos has built himself a banjo out of a cigar box and broomstick.  In our research we have discovered that Uncle Enos was an actual man and a former slave of the Beard family. 

This is not just a story though, but a set of plans for how to build a 5-string fretless banjo using a cigar box. These plans, minus the folksy story, would later be incorporated into Beard’s American Boy’s Handy Book.

PLEASE NOTE:  Due to the time period in which it was written, some of the language and terms used in it may be offensive. We present the original short-story publication here in its full, unedited form, as a historical curiosity and for educational purposes, as one of the earliest printed references to making instruments out of cigar boxes. We hope you enjoy it.




Tom, Dick, and Harry were sitting around a big, blazing wood fire in a log farmhouse one  Christmas morning, when their attention was attracted by the shuffling of feet and the thumping of a banjo. "I thought Uncle Enos had broken his banjo," said one of the boys, after all three had listened for some time to the jollity going on among the colored people.

"That he did," answered another; "or, rather, it all went to pieces, like the onehorse chaise."

"You know," he continued, "the instrument was made of a big bottle-gourd, and the dry weather last summer cracked it all apart."

"Harry," exclaimed Tom,

"Listen!  That’s no gourd instrument; no sir-ree! It has much too fine a tone. I tell you, fellers, I'm going out to take a look."

As Tom arose and opened the door a blast of cold air and a rush of driving snow entered the room. "Shut that door !" shouted the other two boys, as they drew closer to the crackling fire.

Tom closed the door all but a crack ; then, placing his mouth to the opening, he shouted, "Oh, Uncle Enos!"

There was no answer.

"Hew-alo ! Hew-alo !" cried Tom, giving a call peculiar to the boys in that section of the country. " Hew-alo-h-h ! Uncle E-e-e-nos !" he again shouted.

The music ceased, then the door to the building used as a kitchen opened, and a gray woolly head peered out.

"Dat you, Massa Tom?'' queried the old man.

"Yes, you old rascal ; come over here and bring your banjo," answered the boy.

A moment later the old darkey shuffled in, his dark, home-spun clothes dusted over with the wintry snow, matching the gray woolly head that Father Time had frosted with the snows of years.

"Bress my soul, honeys, it am a right smart snow-storm, shure 'nough," said the old man,  closing the door behind him and shaking the glistening crystals of ice from his back. "I reck'n I looks like a black Santy Claus,'' he chuckled, as he removed an object from beneath his coat.

"He'a my banjo, Massa Tom," said the old man, displaying the musical instrument.

"Give us a tune, uncle, please," cried all the boys together, "and we will look at the banjo afterward.''

Modestly seating himself upon the end of a log of wood in the chimney-comer, after many preliminary touches and tuning, during which process he would strike the string, then hold the instrument up to his ear, Uncle Enos at last began to play. 

First, he threw his head back and rolled up his eyes in an ecstatic manner; next, his foot commenced to move in time with the swaying of his body.

Gently the black fingers picked the strings, producing notes hardly audible at first, but gradually swelling to the well-known irresistibly contagious negro melody, and the three boys were all unconsciously patting with their hands and keeping time with their feet to an original American Christmas carol. As the song ended, Dick arose, and with a wink at Tom and Harry, quietly left the room.

"Dar now, honeys, how's dat for a banjo?" exclaimed the dusky musician, after the music had ceased, as he held out the quaintlooking object for the boys to examine.

"Well, I do declare !" cried Harry, "if uncle has not made it of a cigar-box, a broomstick, a bit of an old shoe, and a piece of clapboard!''

While Tom and Harry were examining into the mechanism of his home-made banjo, Uncle Enos was peering curiously around. "Mars Tom, I don't see Miss Toe wid your log and de plum-pudding nowhar," broke in Uncle Enos, after he had surveyed the room and made  sure that no mysterious lady with a log under one arm and a plumpudding under the other was concealed in any of the corners.

" Who is Miss Toe ?" asked Harry.

"Why, de lady you dun tole us 'bout," replied uncle, with an injured air.

"Oh, I see! You refer to the yule log, the mistletoe, and the Christmas plum-pudding,"  laughed the boy.

"To be suah I dos ! Dal's what I sed," was the indignant retort.

Here Dick entered, and after muttering to the boys in a low voice that "things were about ready," he turned to their aged friend with, " Uncle, please present our compliments to the rest of the colored people, wish them a Merry Christmas, and invite them up to the house."

"Dat I will, Mars Tom;" and stowing his banjo under his coat, the petted old servant disappeared in the snow storm.

It was not long before the colored people came trooping in. There was George Washington Haze, Snowball Haze, his sister, Cassius, Aunt Annie, Andrew Jackson, Rose, and Black Kitty.

They ranged themselves against the wall, and gazed at the white-covered table and the Christmas greens. An immense hickory yule log blazed and spluttered in the ample fireplace. There was a toot on the dinnerhorn without, the door flew open, and in came Tom and Dick, staggering under the weight of a plum-pudding. And such a pudding!

It was larger round than a wash-tub. A regular young Christmas tree grew from its top, while the combined wafts of spices and sweets that floated from its smoking sides caused · a  perceptible stir along the row of black faces, bright eyes, and shining teeth.

Andrew Jackson took one long look, as the object was carefully placed upon the table ; then, turning his back to every one, he gave vent to his feelings by doing a double shuffle in the comer.

Suddenly appeared from the middle of the fire, but really from behind a quilt, a curious little old man all dressed in fur, a coon-skin cap on his head, a jolly red nose, and a long gray beard.

"De dev- ! De Lor' ! De Lor' !" cried Uncle Enos and Aunt Annie.

"Jimminy!" said Andrew Jackson.

"Golly !" cried Miss Snowball.

"Voodoo!" exclaimed Black Kitty, covering her head with her apron ; when she ventured to  put down her apron it was just in time to see Santa Claus flourish a big knife over the monster plum-pudding and cut out a slice, and sing out, in a jolly voice:

Fee, fi, fo, fum,

Cut the pudding, cut the plum;

Unclc Enos, come and see

What the pudding has for thee.

Uncle Enos came grinning up, for the sharp old darkey had detected something very familiar about the funny little Santa Claus, and he" wa'n't 'fraid of Mars Harry nohow."

"Put your hand inside the pudding, uncle, and pull out the first thing you touch," said Tom. In went the hand; the arm followed, and disappeared inside that wondrous pastry. Slowly it was withdrawn: something was in the hand-something that took a great deal of pulling and tugging to bring forth.  At last it came-a pair of gum shoes, all lined with red wool, and a cold-baked opossum, whose ears and tail were gayly decked with ribbons and rosettes. What a shout there was! for Uncle Enos had a far-famed appetite for baked 'possum, and constantly complained that " rumactiz" made " misery" in his feet.

Aunt Annie came next, and drew out a mince-pie, smoking hot, and a bundle containing a brilliant bandana handkerchief and a pair of great hoop earrings, which pleased her greatly.  One by one each of the company thrust their black hands into the cavernous depths of the monstrous pudding, and each was greeted with a shout as he or she displayed the prize secured. After the famous Christmas plum-pudding was emptied of its last present, the colored folks gathered together, each carefully holding their Christmas gift, and before departing gave three hearty cheers for Tom, Dick and Harry.

After these festive performances, the boys called Uncle Enos again to examine the wonderful banjo. Harry was right: there was not only a sweet tone to the instrument, but real melody when the hard fingers of the good old "darkey" picked the strings.




Editor's notes:

A.  On the original design:  Daniel Carter Beard’s original plans call for a cigar-box, a broomstick, a bit of an old shoe, and a piece of clapboard.  Clapboard (pictured to the right) is a long, thin, flat piece of wood with edges horizontally overlapping in series, used to cover the outer walls of buildings.  One possible substitute is spruce pine furring strips sold at major hardware stores.  Another is simply 1x4 poplar or maple planks.

B.  Merlin Miller from Alabama has build a faithful version of the Uncle Enos Banjo.  See the full story here.

C.  The original plans call for carved tuners.  I have made notations that suggest modern geared tuners would work on this build.  However, the period-correct version should have carved tuners if it is your goal to make an authentic 1800's cigar box banjo.  Further reading: How to Make Tuning Pegs from Scrap Wood




Fig. No. 1 shows the cigar-box, with holes bored through the ends for the stick, that supports the neck, to pass through. The bottom of the box is used for the top to the banjo. The lid of the box may be left on, so that it can be closed or opened, as the taste or ear of the banjoist may direct.

Fig. No. 2 represents a pine board with a plan of the neck drawn upon it, ready to be sawed out.

2. DRILL TUNING PEG HOLES:  Mark the spots where holes are to be bored through for the key to turn in.

Note:  The original plans call for hand-carved tuning pegs.  Simple modern guitar or banjo tuning pegs and work as well and won’t need the time-consuming whittling and proper slotting that goes with traditional pegs.

3. CUT THE NUT SLOT:  The place for the low bridge that separates the strings before they enter the keys is marked by the dotted lines at a ; a rectangular slot should be cut here to fit the bridge (Fig. 5) into, as shown by the side-view of the neck (Fig. 9) ; b

4. DRILL FOR THE BANJO 5th STRING TUNER:  (Fig. 2) is a key hole in the side of the neck for the short string. See side-view below (Fig. 9).

5. SHORT BRIDGE FOR 5TH STRING [Note: you could easily just place a flat head screw at this position so that the string follows the slot.]  The slot for a small bridge for the short string of the banjo is marked by the dotted lines at c (Fig. 2). This little bridge is fitted in the slot, as shown in the side view (Fig. 9).


6. FIT THE BROOMSTICK THROUGH THE BOX Fig. 3 shows the broomstick, whittled down at one end, so as to fit the holes bored in the cigar-box, through which it must pass and protrude about one-half inch at the butt. The top to the upper part of the broomstick is smoothed off flat, so that the neck (Fig. 2) may be securely screwed on to it, as is more clearly shown by the side-view (Fig. 9).

7. CARVE THE TUNING PEGS Fig. 4 shows what shape to make the keys. The latter must have holes (just large enough for the banjo strings to pass through) bored near the ends, as shown by the diagram. The keys may be made of any kind of wood-hard wood is the best.  [Or as mentioned above, just use store-bought tuners]

8. FIT THE NUT INTO THE NUT SLOT  Fig. 5 shows the bridge that fits into the SLOT A (Fig. 2) already described.

9. MAKE A SMALL METAL CORNER FOR STRINGS TO PASS OVER AT THE BUTT.  THIS WILL PROTECT THE BOX.  Fig. 6 is simply a piece of tin bent into the shape shown in the diagram, and made to fit over the butt-end of the banjo for the wires of Fig. 7 to pass over when the latter is put in place (sec Fig. 10).

10.  TAILPIECE: Fig. 7 is a piece of hard wood (Uncle Enos used leather), with five small holes bored through it for the attachment of the banjo strings, and a wire loop at the end that passes over the piece of tin (Fig. 6) and is held in place by the tension of the strings and the protruding end of the broomstick at the butt of the banjo (Fig. 10).

11.  CARVE A BANJO BRIDGE OUT OF SOFT PINE.  The bridge proper is shown by Fig. 8. It may be cut from a piece of soft pine in a few moments with a pocket-knife. Its place is in front of Fig. 7, where it spreads the five strings before they pass over the head and neck of the instrument.

12.  FIT THE BROOMSTICK INTO THE NECK.  ATTACH WITH TWO SCREWS.  FIT THROUGH BOX.  Fig. 9 shows the neck finished and all ready to be fitted to the box. The neck is fastened to its broomstick support by two screws, as may be seen in the diagram.

13.  FINISHED VIEW  Fig. 10 shows the finished instrument, all strung and ready for use.

14.  STRING IT UP.  [You can simply use a standard pack of banjo strings.  We recommend using old fashioned nylon or gut banjo strings because they have less tension on the instrument and they deliver period-correct tone.]  Fig. 11 shows the arrangement of the banjo strings. The shortest string on a banjo is the 5th. And now we have reached the part where the boy who wants to make an Uncle Enos banjo will have to expend a few cents. Go to a dealer, and for the 1st and 5th ask for E strings. Let the first be a little heavier than the 5th. The second should also be an E string, but much heavier than the 1st. For the third, ask for a guitar B string.  The fourth, or bass string, is manufactured especially for the now popular banjo, and care must be taken not to purchase the guitar D for the banjo A. or bass; both strings arc silver, wound on silk, but the latter is much finer wound than the guitar D.

Harry, who is said by Tom and Dick to have a musical ear, made a banjo under the direction of his old friend Uncle Enos, and he says the whole thing cost him but half a day's labor and forty cents for strings.

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Thanks for posting this. I'm going to try my hand at one of these. Great story rich with culture.

Thanks for posting , what a wonderful story. Unfortunately I was slightly offended with the language. For crying out loud , everyone knows you don't spell it like that . It's coloured . Flippin' Yanks LOL ;-)

That spelling may just have been do to a lack of education. Please don't hate the ignorant.(otherwise you'd have to hate us all...LOL)

Only kidding Mr.Frog ! I don't hate anyone . In Britain you sometimes hear the phrase "Ignorance is bliss" Doh ! I think I just unwittingly called myself a dumb ass LOL  ! :-)

I love reading old books filled with the history of those times. Thanks for posting it as it was written. Nice work with the plans.......... and...............I'm not a Flippin' Yank..............Red Socks LOL

That's a great little banjo that Merlin built. Are there any vids posted? I would love to hear it!

Terrible.   I was really excited for the contest, but having to read that story sucked.   I think it's a bit culturally insensitive.  Maybe it is assumed that there are no subscribers of color.    

Rich culture, my ass. 

Such concerns are valid and respected ,  I think  the noted disclaimer above  offers that respect  , and goes a long way in explaining  the reasoning of the post  being presented as it's original form.

"PLEASE NOTE:  Due to the time period in which it was written, some of the language and terms used in it may be offensive. We present the original short-story publication here in its full, unedited form, as a historical curiosity and for educational purposes, as one of the earliest printed references to making instruments out of cigar boxes. We hope you enjoy it" .

Surly Shane meant no disrespect to any members here . or anyone for that matter .

Education and exposure of historical events , helps  us not repeat them. 

I hope you can  see it as it was intended , and feel welcome here no matter what Jess.

Happy holidays . 

Maybe just change the disclaimer a little?

PLEASE NOTE:  Due to the time period in which it was written, some of the language and terms used in it are absolutely offensive. If you do not find this language and these terms offensive then see a doctor, priest, or minister immediately because there's something very wrong with you Man! We present the original short-story publication here in its full, unedited form, as a historical curiosity and for educational purposes, as one of the earliest printed references to making instruments out of cigar boxes. We hope you enjoy it"

See? Easy peasy!

'Surly Shane' is a funny typo nez pas?     Nez Pierce? I don't speak French...

*Surely ,

 Honest typo  mistake . 


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