Gibson TB-Florentine Mastertone #9090-2, the "Kalamazoo Lady"
The Florentine was introduced in 1927 and was one of the most ornate banjos ever produced by Gibson. It featured a pearloid peghead overlay inlaid with rhinestones in what was meant to be a bouquet of flowers but is commonly referred to by collectors as an "ice cream cone"; the fingerboard was also pearloid and was decorated with hand-painted scenes not of Florence, as one would expect, but Venice. The neck heel, peghead back, and resonator were elaborately painted and featured what Gibson literature described as "carving" but which was actually, in the case of the resonator back and sidewalls, a pressed design. All hardware was gold-plated and heavily engraved.
The Florentine was available in the curly maple seen here, burl walnut, curly maple, rosewood, or "white holly" (actually painted maple); customers could select from a variety of binding options and the type seen on this example is the "checkerboard" binding also used on Gibson's style 6 Mastertone. The tailpiece seen here is a Grover two-hump clamshell; the tuners are Grovers with large Catalin "gumdrop" buttons.
#9090-2 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers) is an extremely rare example of the Florentine featuring a "double-cut" peghead shape and one-piece flange as opposed to the model's typical fiddle-shaped peghead and tube-and-plate flange. Adding to the strangeness is the fact that the one-piece flange is made of brass rather than die-cast "pot metal", a constructional feature observed to date only in this one lot of TB-Florentines. Prewar Gibson scholar Joe Spann believes that these banjos were produced between July and November 1928; Spann's current chronology of Gibson factory order numbers indicates that lot #9090 would have been reached in early July 1928, while the earliest date on the surviving blueprint of the die-cast one-piece flange is November 15, 1928. In any case, this lot of Florentine tenors would seem to represent the earliest appearance of two of the most iconic elements of Gibson banjo design.
Like many of Gibson's "fancy banjos", TB-Florentine #9090-2 remained in inventory at the factory into the 1930s and was shipped multiple times. The first documented occasion on which this banjo left the factory was on July 2, 1937 when it was taken out as a sample by salesman Robert Anderson along with such other notable banjos as an All American, a five-string flathead Granada, and a flathead PB-4. Anderson obviously brought #9090-2 back unsold and it was shipped on August 16, 1937 to E.I. DuPont de Nemours (misidentified by the shipping clerk as a TB-4) along with other high-end instruments such as an L-5 guitar, a Super 400 guitar, an L-C "Century of Progress" guitar, and an F-4 mandolin. The banjo was shipped again three months later, going to Gibson dealer A.B. Sauer of Lorain, Ohio on November 23, 1937. Sauer obviously returned the Florentine to Gibson where it remained until it was hand-delivered to an M. Van Arman, presumably of Kalamazoo, on April 12, 1939, by which time it was designated by Gibson's shipping clerk as a used instrument.
#9090-2 surfaced circa 1975 when a lady in Kalamazoo contacted the Great Lakes Banjo Company of Ann Arbor, Michigan stating that she had a "crown banjo" for sale which had been in her family since new.
Photos courtesy of Norbert Hausmann.