Okay sports fans. Yesterday an eBay auction closed on a terrific relic - an Eli Brown drum, ca. 1810-1820 (dating based on comparison of the label remnants with an intact label dated 1809, shown below).
COMMENTS FROM SUSAN CIFALDI (BROWN DRUM HISTORIAN AND EXPERT):
Hi, this is gorgeous.
I would leave this just the way it is. What remains is early if not original, and sure, you can make it prettier, but would it then tell such a powerful story? I see some square-head nails on some of the views, the cutout for the gut is perfect, and the vernacular vent hole "repair" is precious! The shield design is quite early and probably done very shortly after purchase, and even though a careful restorer could keep the original shellac, (s)he could not keep the original finish (it could be re-distributed over the drum via a French-polish technique, but you would lose the cracking and crazing and parts if not all of what lay underneath). I would worry about the risk of losing that early shield. . . besides, the crazing and alligatoring alone betray the age of this drum beautifully and in a way nothing else can.
I would not be adverse to a gentle cleaning. Shellac likes to collect dust, which darkens things beneath it, but I would consult a fine furniture museum to see how that might be done without disturbing what remains of the finish. Lucky you living so close to New York City and having access to all the great museums there!
I think there are many more Brown drums to come, and maybe one that is not quite this early might be the one to restore to playing condition. We really have so few early Browns (the first partnership seemed to work around farming chores, coopering, and other occupations and was short-lived besides), so it's probably important to keep what we can find from this period. What turns up more frequently are the Eli and Son drums, ca. 1835 and later. These are larger and more durable than the early-period ones and thus are more likely to withstand refurbishing into a playable instruments.
Whatever you decide to do, I hope you take clear pictures (with lots of closeups) that document any changes you make. Also, save and label anything that comes off the drum.
FURTHER COMMENTS FROM SUSAN CIFALDI:
The size of this drum (the shell is 15" OD x 13.5 H), in my opinion, places it within the early period of construction. This ran from c. 1809 until 1815, when the drums were made by Benjamin (a cooper by trade), his son, Moses, and nephew Eli. They used a preprinted label, assigning a number and date in manuscript, like [the above drum label dated 1809 on drum no. 26 and] this one on a drum dated 1810, number 108:
[Note: The seller of the 1809 Brown drum no. 26 described that drum as being 16"x16" but that could include the counterhoops and might not be the dimensions of the shell. I have left a message for Leo Brennan, purchaser of Brown drum no. 26, asking that he measure the shell and inform me of the shell's dimensions.]
I think what's left of the label on your drum once looked like this one.
The labels did change, but it took a while. After Moses went out west, Benjamin and Eli continued making drums, sometimes individually and sometimes in partnership. They also took in a new partner, Moses' younger brother William. They used the same label, probably until the stock ran out, and simply crossed out (and on one example, cut out) the "B. E. & M." and wrote in the correct identification of the makers. In any event, by the late '20s/early 30s and definitely by 1835, a "new" Brown label was designed, identifying Eli and then Eli and Son as the manufacturers. They were much more prolific and produced the larger "square" drums that we are so used to seeing.
Regarding the painted shield on your drum. I would doubt that it originated within the drum shop. Decorative paintings on these drums are rare, and the ones I've seen, save yours, the 1810 drum, and one other dated 1809, tend to postdate the drums by at least a decade, if not more. Yours, though, along with the other two I mentioned, looks like it was done very close to the date of origin and as such warrants protection as a historical document.
Oh, I love this drum! ;-) especially the vernacular "repair" on the vent hole! [Meaning the use of locally available resources and traditions to address local needs and circumstances.]