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 }

The Wheeler & Wilson Factory Band

30 March 2012

One hundred years ago, village bands, town bands, city bands, army bands, navy bands, boys bands, ladies bands, circus bands, theater bands, and even prison bands posed for a camera. But another type of community band shows up less often in photographs - the company band. This postcard shows an rare example of such a factory ensemble, the Famous Wheeler and Wilson Band of Bridgeport, Connecticut. When not playing music, these men  made the machines that kept America in stitches, they worked for the  Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machine Company.

Wheeler & Wilson number 9 machine
Wheeler & Wilson manufactured some of the most successful sewing machine designs of the 19th century. Allen B. Wilson started in 1850 with several inventions that could make a lockstitch in cloth. In 1853 he attracted the interest of Nathaniel Wheeler who had the capital to  start a manufacturing plant. Together they made machines for all kinds of sewing operations and at one time had factories in Bridgeport employing thousands of workers. In 1907 the company was taken over by the Singer Corporation but the factories continued to make machines until after WWI. The band seems to have continued too, but it is possible that this postcard is a copy of an earlier photo.

This 26 piece wind band has mostly brass instruments with one flute, 4 clarinets, and 3 drummers. It includes 3 horn players in the back row and a second tuba player on the right who holds a German style instrument which has a more conical bell. Their uniforms are more conservative than the embroidered style of some regimental or town bands of this period. 

Many factories, railroad companies, and trade unions maintained bands. Company bands like this played not only for the factory employees but were also part of the local musical culture performing for many civic events. The musicians were usually ordinary employees, but some were professional musicians brought in as soloists. Band leaders especially might be music teachers or noted players engaged to improve the quality of an ensemble.  All work and no play was not always a company rule. Last year I wrote about a similar band from another great center of American industry, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Kempsmith Band.

In a 1919 edition of The Music Trades. a journal for workers in the music industry offered this report: 
The sixtieth anniversary of the Wheeler & Wilson band Bridgeport Conn was celebrated recently George Sanger a member of the band for fifty five years related the history of the band as he recalled it Mr Sanger is the oldest living member of the band.

The cornet player seated second from right has a G.A.R. medal on his coat, a union army veteran's badge of the Grand Army of the Republic. I think he may be George Sanger.   

The back is postmarked Bridgeport, Conn August 23, 1910 and addressed to A Usinger Middle-field Ohio.

             Dear Brother,
I re-ceived the receipt  for the back and round of chairs thanking you for same. do you remember any of the faces on other side of card. best of love to each and every one
                    Sister Rickie

Brother Usinger is Andrew Usinger born in Connecticut in 1853. His father was a cabinet maker from Prussia who worked in Bridgeport. In 1870 at age 17, Andrew was the oldest of 5 children and worked in a brass factory.  One of his younger sisters was Frederica, undoubtedly the Sister Rickie writing here.

In the 1880 census, Andrew was in Ohio with occupation: Regular Army. The great black hole of genealogy - the 1890 census records that were destroyed by fire, leaves the usual 20 year gap until 1900. Now Andrew is living in Middlefield, Ohio, married with 2 children and working as an Undertaker and Merchant Hardware. At the next census, the year of this postcard, he is still in Middlefield but is a Merchant of Furniture.  I bet he got his sister a great deal on those chairs for a wholesale price. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you can find more skilled labor by following the link.


Alan Burnett said...

Another fascinating read and fine contribution to Sepia Saturday. We have, of course, a great tradition of factory and mill brass bands over in this country, and one of the most famous - the Black Dyke Mills Band - was (is) situated just a few miles up the road from where I live. The mill has long closed down, but the band lives on.

Little Nell said...

You've covered two of my favourite topics Mike; music and sewing. I love old sewing machines like the one in your picture.

Alan beat me to it with his mention of the brass band tradition; have you seen the film, 'Brassed Off" which is about miners pulling together through their music when the mine is threatened with closure?

Mike Brubaker said...

Yes I have seen "Brassed Off" and have it in my Netflix queue right now. The first time I saw it was in South Carolina where the difference in dialect made it a very foreign film.

The British Brass band tradition and the American band movement share similar roots, and the company/factory band is one of them. But the instruments and music played are different. Probably the strength of British trade unions helped sustain the popularity of the brass band. It's now mostly gone in the US.

barbara and nancy said...

I wonder how all these men in just one factory all knew how to play an instrument. Do you think modern work places could put together a band?

Postcardy said...

I have a postcard of the Bridgeport factory that I posted 4 years ago. I had forgotten about the Wheeler & Wilson name.

Singer Sewing Machine Factory

Wendy said...

I'm with Nancy -- I'm surprised so many people in one place knew how to play an instrument. Today businesses can put together a softball team pretty easily, but I imagine they'd be hard-pressed to form a company band.

Kristin said...

I wonder if my 19th century seamstresses had sewing machines like this.

Bob Scotney said...

Factory brass bands used to be the norm; it's a shame that so many have not survived. Wheeler & Wilson is a name I had not come across before - Singer is all I know about when it comes to sewing machines.

Christine H. said...

It seems to me that company bands would also benefit the company, as it's a way to retain employees (I'd love to quit my job, but then I'd have to quit the band too...)
I think this is a tradition that should be revived. Fat chance, I suppose.

Tattered and Lost said...

That image is so wonderful. How do you find these? You are now the go-to-source for all these fine old musical images. I love what I learn from you each week.


Once more, you managed to mix your passion with the theme and come up with a great post. Pity companies don't invest anymore in such a thing nowadays...

Gill Edwards said...

You can find such fascinating messages on the back of postcards cant you. I enjoy researching them myself. Nice post


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