This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Mr. & Mrs. X from Meriden CT

06 August 2010

It was a special occasion. Something that needed a commemoration. Something worthy of making the effort to walk down to Main St. in your best dress and suit and have one of the town photographers take a photograph. They were not very expensive - a cart de visite like this might cost a dollar for 4 copies. But the casual snapshot hadn't been invented yet. To make a proper photograph, one that would go into the family album, this required a studio, a photographer and a large wooden camera mounted on a sturdy tripod.

There were several fashionable backgrounds that one could chose. Perhaps madame would prefer the look of an interior salon. And given the difference in heights, the most balanced pose should have the gentleman seated. And yes hold the trombone just so, but please refrain from emptying the spit valve on the carpet.

This small photo is from Meriden, Connecticut. Mr. X holds a piston valve trombone. Note his button top shoes. It is wonderfully preserved with no wear to the gold edges, as if it had been in a family album until recently. Perhaps those other photos would identify this loving couple. But there is always another story behind every picture.

The back shows the photographers logo - Marshall of Meriden, CT. The town of Meriden is just north of New Haven. Research was challenging without knowing a first name but when the city directories came up on Ancestry.Com it became easier. William Marshall, 43, listed his birthplace as England in the 1880 US Census and must have been a recent immigrant as his wife Mary and two children, Flora and Frank, were all born in England too. His occupation in 1880 was chandelier maker, but an investment of time and money led to a new career in 1882 as a photographer on 6 East Main St. He was one of around 8 photographers listed in the Meriden City Directory. Then in 1889 his son Frank, age 23, takes over as poor William must have died in the previous year as the directory lists Mary, widow William at his home address. The business must have been too much for Frank, and in the 1890 directory there is an ad for F.S. Egirt (formerly Marshall's) Instantaneous Process Used Exclusively - 6 East Main.

This dates the photo to 1882 - 1889, but a city directory can reveal much more about a community than just names. By 1890 Meriden had a population of 25,423 which was quite a jump from just 18,340 in 1880. Searching census records for "photographers" also showed quite a large number of skilled workers: machinists, joiners, burnishers, engravers, organ tuners. Wait a minute. Organ tuners? It turns out that Meriden, in addition for being known for cutlery, silverware, and metalwork, also produced pump action reed organs. The Wilcox & White Organ Co. established in 1877 designed and crafted these popular keyboard instruments for shipment all across the country. White & Wilcox Organ Co. History

And then in 1887 the famous Aeolian Organ & Music Company established its factory in Meridan.

They were famous for a very popular invention: The Pianola. This was an amazing device that used perforated paper rolls and a pneumatic mechanism to actuate reeds and play programed music. Automatic music, easily achieved by anyone, needing no real musical skill, only strong ankles! More on this incredible technology here. Pianola History

There was an astonishing number of highly skilled people needed to build these complicated musical instruments, which were really the precursors to modern computers. Woodworkers, turners, machinists, and organ tuners too, made an educated workforce that clearly knew music.

The 1890 directory lists the Meriden bands:
  • Crowley Orchestra
  • Korn's Orchestra
  • Meriden City Band, Walter Hirschfeld, leader
  • Meriden Fife & Drum Corps, Robert Hall, leader
  • Meriden Military Band
  • State Reform School Band, John Lyons, leader
Could Mr. X be a band leader? There were over a dozen music teachers in Meriden. Perhaps he was employed at one of the organ factories. Perhaps there was an Aeolian Company Band. Who can know now? But I would bet anything that on most Sundays, there was the wonderful sound of pump organ and trombone duets coming from the parlor of Mr. & Mrs. X of Meriden, CT.

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