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I've been reading the BMGs (thanks again!). In the past when I have read "Tropical Strings" I figured they were silk. After diving in I have read several times that they were not silk... but what were they?
I hate to see this hang without a reply, so here's my understanding.
When I started playing the banjo, particularly the tenor banjo, you had to make sure you wiped down and dried off your strings after each session to avoid rust spots appearing on them. There may have been other string makers who dealt with this, but Cathedral were the ones I knew of who actually marketed 'Tropical' strings, with the promise that they would not develop rust spots. By and large, they kept the promise. I have a letter from Cathedral dated 1962 in response to my request for more information about Tropical banjo strings. It seems they sent me their catalog with their range of Tropical strings, so I assume they were available for all steel-stringed instruments.
As a marketing decision, they must have decided that 'Strings for Sweaty Hands' would sell better if the climate could be blamed. And that was how the Tropical string was born.
Hope this helps.
From memory, I think that the Clifford Essex 'Tropical' banjo strings were introduced during the 1st World War when gut strings were becoming difficult to obtain in Britain as Germany was the main source of gut strings. The 'Tropical' strings were made from Rayon and had a tendency to become 'sticky' in use (this might have been due to a coating of some sort which was applied to the strings to make them smooth) so may not have been a great long term success. Nylon became available tin he 1930s so I suppose that the 'Tropical' strings were just superseded but the superior qualities of nylon. I have found some of these strings in old banjo cases over the years and they seem to have been be an off-white in colour but this might have been due to age. I would guess that Essex used the term 'Tropical' to denote that the strings could be used in all climates - an important factor in the days of the British Empire and the World war. Cammeyer also used the term 'Tropical' to describe the specially termite proofed and strengthened zither banjo which he produced for customers in foreign climes
Thanks Richard. I figured it was some sort of synthetic yarn that was processed like silk had been. The stickiness likely came from the gelatin based varnish that was used to glue them together (basically hide glue).
In the US, nylon strings have a pretty clear story (as was relayed to me). It begin during WW2 when Paul Cadwell was asked to play a radio show. The strings (gut and silk) he had were drying out and were not reliable and he was afraid they would break. So a guy he knew asked him to try a piece of nylon filament for his first.. The problem was that every time he got close to pitch it would snap.
Fast forward to after the war. Cadwell's wife worked on Wall Street in NYC and one day passed by Abercrombie and Fitch (they still sold sporting goods at the time) and saw nylon fishing line for sale in the window. She bought some (they had been waiting for it to come out on the market) and gave it to Paul. After trying it, Paul sent a piece to Bill Bowen with a note to dust off his 5 string and by the time he broke this first he would be back in good practice for fingerstyle (remember strings were non existent during and after the war-- sutures/gut and the whole Japan siding with the Nazis thing).
Bowen called Paul up and asked him what that stuff was because he could not break it if he tried!
After that nylon spread through the remaining classic banjo community.
I did some research on the history of nylon for the book I wrote on tying knots with parachute cord. My publisher only used a small part of what I wrote due to limited space. By the time nylon really took off all the production was used for parachutes, webbing and shroud lines (aka parachute cord). No banjoists would have had nylon strings until after the war ended.