He was famous for comic monologues in which he spoke as Uncle Josh Weathersby, resident of an imaginary New England village called Pumpkin Center, sometimes spelled Punkin Center (the letterhead on Stewart's personal correspondence states "Cal Stewart and his Punkin Center Folks )", others times Pun'kin. This was also home to the fictitious characters Jim Lawson (a ne'er-do-welI with a peg leg and red whiskers), Ezra Hoskins (owner of the Pumpkin Center Grocery and General Store), Deacon Witherspoon, Lige Willet, Hiram Wood, Hank Weaver, Si Pettingill, and a "widderwoman" called Aunt Nancy Smith who married Josh in the popular "Wedding of Uncle Josh and Aunt Nancy Smith" (Victor 5071; Columbia Al 71 7).
Uncle Josh's most distinctive mannerism is a laugh given after he speaks a few lines. Most monologues open with, "Well, sir..." and hereafter many sentences begin, "Well,..." -or "Wall,..." In the late 1890s Stewart's recordings were characterized as "Yankee dialect stories" and "laughing stories". Later, some Victor labels used the terms "Yankee Talk" and "Rural Comedy".
Jim Walsh writes in a preface to Ronald Dethlefson's Edison Blue Amberol Recordings 1915-1929 that Calvin Edward Stewart "was born in 1856 on a worn-out farm near Charlotte Court House, Virginia" and notes the irony of this Virginia native impersonating a New England character so successfully during a long career.
His death certificate reports that his parents were William and Helen (Douglas) Stewart, both from Scotland. According to Cal Stewart himself in a small book published in 1903 by the Charles C. Thompson Company of Chicago and titled Punkin Centre Stories, his early life was spent working on trains and in circuses, medicine shows, and vaudeville. Columbia's December 1919 supplement states that he had been "a stage-coach driver, a locomotive engineer and an actor".
In its April 5,1904 edition, The Portland Daily published comments made by Stewart following a performance in Portland, Maine. He claimed that at age seven he performed in Baltimore as a pickaninny in a play titled The Hidden Hand. He stated to his newspaper interviewer, "I left Virginia in 1872 and in 1875 began my...professional career with B.F. McCauley who was playing Uncle Daniel in The Messenger from Jarvis Section. I was the village boy but understudied Mr. McCauley for several years. I have since devoted my time to old age characters and liked them the best".
Later Stewart worked as an understudy for Denman Thompson (1833-1910), who played Uncle Josh Whitcomb in an extremely popular play titled The Old Homestead, which opened in Boston in 1886. The Boston Theatre program for April 5, 1886 announces that The Old Homestead, written by Thompson and George W. Ryer, was a sequel to the play Joshua Whitcomb. That first play, which first opened in 1876, was supposedly based on a real person, Joshua Holbrook, of Swansea, New Hampshire. Though he wrote other plays, Thompson never duplicated the success of this one, and he was in productions of The Old Homestead for decades. The play-with characters named Cy and Reuben, among others-inspired a vogue towards the end of the nineteenth century for plays that celebrate rural America, and Uncle Josh Whitcomb was clearly the model for Stewart's Uncle Josh Weathersby.
Stewart had reached the age of 40 by the time he began recording, probably in 1897. His earliest Berliner appears to be "A Talk By Happy Cal Stewart, the Yankee Comedian" (690), cut in New York City on July 9, 1897. He made 20 Berliners in the next few years. He made brown wax Edison cylinders in 1897, with "Uncle Josh's Arrival in New York" (3875) having the lowest catalog number. He also made brown wax Columbia cylinders around this time, such as "Uncle Josh at Coney Island" (14003) and "Uncle Josh at a Baseball Game" (14005). They were recorded too late in the year to be included in Columbia's June 1897 catalog but 10 selections are included in the company's 1898 catalog, listed under a section titled "Uncle Josh Weathersby Series-Laughing Stories by Cal Stewart".
The January 1899 issue of The Phonoscope includes this paragraph about how Stewart promoted his Uncle Josh character: " Uncle Josh Weathersby' (Cal Stewart) is certainly to be congratulated for the manner in which he is introducing himself to the public. He has spared no expense in getting up his printed matter. His latest venture is a card 11 X 14 inches upon which is an elegant half-tone of himself in Yankee costume, as he appears before an audience, together with a half-tone bust picture, which is a very true likeness. This work is from the press of Imandt Bros. Mr. Cal Stewart will be pleased to furnish these cards upon request. It may be said of his stories that they are strictly refined and full of the quaint humor peculiar to the New England character and are especially adapted to the family circle".
In early recordings the role of Uncle Josh's wife, Nancy, was played by Stewart's own wife. Labels give credit to "Mr. and Mrs. Cal Stewart". Later, Ada Jones performed as Aunt Nancy. Especially popular was "Uncle Josh and Aunt Nancy Putting Up The Kitchen Stove", recorded by Stewart and Jones for several companies. When posthumously reissued on Radiex 4082 and Grey Gull 4082 it was oddly renamed "Uncle Josh and Aunt Mandy Put Up The Kitchen Stove". Since the original performance was taken from an earlier Emerson master, the actual performance on Radiex and Grey Gull speaks of Nancy, not Mandy. On Radiex and Grey Gull, Stewart is identified as "Duncan Jones", perhaps the only pseudonym used for Stewart aside from "Uncle Josh".
With Byron G. Harlan assuming the role of Jim Lawson, he recorded "The Village Gossips" (Victor 17854), identified on the label as a "rural specialty". It ends with Stewart singing about a trip to "New York Town" and then some laughter. Stewart recorded "Village Gossips" with Steve Porter for Edison Blue Amberol 1594 and Diamond Disc 50249.
Nearly all Stewart recordings feature the character Uncle Josh, but there are exceptions. In the late 1890s he recorded "Uncle Sam To George" for Edison brown wax cylinder 7252, which Allen Koenigsberg's Edison Cylinder Records, 1889-1912 indicates was deleted from the Edison catalog on September 30, 1899. For Edison on a large size ("Concert" ) cylinder he recorded the comic song "Three Little Owls and the Naughty Little Mice" (481). He also sings it on seven inch and ten inch Victor discs.
The April 1909 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly indicates that "A Possum Supper at the Darktown Church", issued on wax Amberol 142 in June, is not an Uncle Josh skit:
"This descriptive coon sketch, written by Cal Stewart, demonstrates that his ability is not confined to writing Yankee drollery and reproducing it on Records...The story on this Record is very realistic of darkey life in the South". It is performed by the Cal Stewart Company.
He recorded songs that include hearty laughing, and some of these make no direct reference to the Uncle Josh character. On March 30, 1899, he cut "Laughing Song" for Berliner 046. The song "Ticklish Reuben", written by Stewart himself, was popular on Victor 1637. Other "laughing songs" recorded by Stewart include "And Then I Laughed" (Victor 5101) and "I Laughed At The Wrong Time" (Columbia A2923).
The popular "I'm Old But I'm Awfully Tough", issued by several companies, is both an Uncle Josh number and a laughing song: "The belles they do say/'Uncle Josh-u-waaay [Joshua]/You're old but you're awfully tough". The character's age is given as "near 73".
Records made between 1897 and 1903 include "Uncle Josh on the Spanish Question" (Berliner 6005, 1898), "Uncle Josh's Arrival in New York" (Columbia 14000, 1898), "Uncle Josh At A Base Ball Game" (Columbia 14005, 1898), "Jim Lawson's Horse Trade With Deacon Witherspoon" (Edison 7847, 1901), "Uncle Josh's Huskin' Bee Dance" (Edison 7861, 1901), and "Uncle Josh on an Automobile" (Columbia 1518, 1903).
Stewart's "Fire Department", issued in February 1902 as Edison Standard 8003, was perhaps the first commercially available goldmoulded black wax Edison cylinder (no new titles were issued on Edison brown wax cylinders after January 1902-the first black wax moulded cylinders did not have the white titles on the rim which were added in 1904). For a long time it was the only gold-moulded cylinder by Stewart, who would not record again for Edison for a few years. In this monologue Uncle Josh recalls mistaking a fire-alarm box for a mailbox during a visit to New York City. He recorded it as "Uncle Josh and the Fire Department" for Victor 16931.
He made Victor recordings as late as October 20, 1903 and then became exclusive to Columbia for a few years. Companies were eager to have Stewart as an exclusive artist since this left rival companies with mere imitators. Len Spencer (helped by George F. Schweinfest on fiddle) recorded "Uncle Josh's Huskin' Bee" for Columbia disc 19, an early example of another artist cutting an Uncle Josh monologue, the result of Spencer being unavailable. His exclusive status with Columbia ended by December 13, 1906 since he was in a Victor studio on that day cutting several titles. He recorded often for Victor for the next few years.
In 1905 Edison executives were eager to have popular Uncle Josh material re-recorded, presumably because masters had worn out. Since Stewart was exclusive to Columbia, Andrew Keefe was hired to record Uncle josh material, beginning with the song "I'm Old But I'm Awfully Tough" (9152), which Stewart had recorded for companies as early as 1898. Keefe's debut record was issued in December 1905, followed by Keefe's versions of "Uncle Josh In A Chinese Laundry" (9466) and "Uncle Josh In A Department Store" (9221).
Keefe's recording career was over before Stewart returned to Edison's National Phonograph Company in 1908. That return, announced in the September 1908 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly, coincided with the introduction of a new Edison product, the four-minute wax Amberol cylinder. "Uncle Josh and the Sailor" (11) and "A Busy Week At Pumpkin Center" (43) were issued on October 1 in the first batch of Amberol releases. They were followed in December by "The Country Fair at Pumpkin Center" on Amberol 59, and the trade publication announced that this monologue consists of 650 words. In December, performances were also issued in the old two- minute format: "Uncle Josh's Arrival in New York City" (Standard 10016) and "Last Day Of School At Pumpkin Center" (Standard 10021).
Within a few years Stewart was exclusive to the Edison company. Announcing the release of "I Laughed at the Wrong Time" on wax Amberol 830, the September 1911 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "From now on, Cal Stewart ('Uncle Josh Weathersby') will make Records for the Edison Company exclusively. His friends, who are legion, will be glad to learn that he is to be with us regularly". He was exclusive to Edison for five years.
A census in 1910 recorded that Stewart resided on West 95th Street in New York City. In 1916 Stewart and his young violin-playing wife, Rossini, made a home on Daniels Street in her hometown of Tipton, Indiana. Performing on vaudeville stages, the couple entertained audiences. Rossini Waugh Stewart died in New York City on November 25, 1943. The couple had no children.
Because Stewart cut some of the same monologues for various companies, studying different takes for variations in delivery is easy- however, the variations made by Stewart are rarely significant. One noteworthy exception was a change made to "Uncle Josh in Society". A take that was cut on November 9, 1908 was on double- sided Victor 16145. He cut a new take of the monologue for Victor on July 31, 1919, and the new take was issued on discs bearing the old catalog number. In the 1919 version he states, "One lady asked me if I danced the jazz, and I told her, no, I danced with my feet". Some listeners have concluded that this use of "jazz" on Victor 16145-a record number first used in 1909-is the earliest known use of the word. They fail to take into account that Victor sometimes reused old record numbers when issuing new takes.
Stewart's last recording session may have been for Columbia on September 9, 1919 or for Emerson around that time. The October 1919 issue of Talking Machine World announced that Stewart joined the Emerson Phonograph Company, and he probably cut material for the company in September (no Emerson recording logs have survived).
At an earlier Victor session for "Train Time at Punkin Center", Stewart suffered what seemed to be a seizure, as Billy Murray later reported to Walsh. Prior to that attack he recorded "Uncle Josh Buys a Victrola", issued posthumously in February 1921. The monologue begins: "Well, while I was down in New York I wanted to bring Nancy something for a wedding present. Every time I go anywhere I bring Nancy something for a peace offering-at least that's what the neighbors call it. So I got her all the good music there was in the world. Yes, I got her a Victor Victrolly. Well, sir, I wish you could have seen Nancy when I brought it home. We got it up in the living room. We would have got it up in the parlor only Nancy said all the neighbors would be coming in to hear it and she warn't goin' to have them trackin' mud all over her new ingrained carpet..."
In early October 1919 Stewart fell ill while traveling to his home in Indiana after a tour. On October 14 he was taken to Chicago's American Hospital and on November 4 was transferred to Cook County Hospital, where he died on December 7. Walsh quotes in the April 1951 issue of Hobbies a letter from a records librarian at Chicago's American Hospital: "He came to the hospital suffering from an incurable brain disease [a brain tumor], and was operated on by Dr. Max Thorek to alleviate his suffering, but this was only temporarily successful ...There is nothing to indicate whether or not he has any relatives or where he was born. This, I feel sure, was because he was very critically ill and for the most part delirious". His cremated remains were buried in the Fairview Cemetery in Tipton, Indiana.
Noting his death, the January 1920 issue of Talking Machine World states, "As 'Uncle Josh,' Cal Stewart made records for all the leading companies, and although his death will be sorrowful news to dealers everywhere, it is a slight satisfaction to know that his rare art and kindly humor will live forever through the medium of his records". Uncle Josh material as recorded by Stewart continued to be issued into the 1920s, even on Columbia's budget Harmony, Diva, and Velvet Tone labels.
Probably the last Cal Stewart disc issued in the 78 rpm era was "Uncle Josh Buys an Automobile" on Montgomery Ward 4365, the label of which cites only the title, not the artist. Featuring a performance that had been issued two decades earlier on Victor 17854, it remained available until 1936.
One artist to make Uncle Josh recordings after Stewart's death was Billy Golden, whose "Uncle Josh's Birthday" was issued on Emerson 10291 in September 1922. During a period in which partner Arthur Collins was recovering from an injury, Byron G. Harlan was another to cut Josh monologues, including "Uncle Josh Buys An Automobile" and "Uncle Josh At The Circus", issued on Okeh 4517 in March 1922. He performed "Uncle Josh On The Radio" (writing credit is given to Cal Stewart and Fred Hager) and "Uncle Josh Patents a Rat Trap" (credit is given to Jack Baxley) on Okeh 4686, issued in December 1922. He also recorded Josh skits for the Brunswick label in the early 1920s. In July 1923, Brunswick issued Harlan performing "Uncle Josh at the Circus and "Uncle Josh Buys An Automobile" (2431).
In 1903 Uncle Josh monologues were gathered in the book Uncle Josh Weathersby's "Pun kin Centre" Stories, and a second collection, Uncle Josh Stories, was published posthumously in 1924.