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 }

A Parlor Quartet

10 August 2012

click to enlarge

Two men and two women in an unusual musical quartet of flute, cornet, violin and piano, pose for the camera in someone's home parlor. For countless generations this kind of house music was how most music was heard, played by amateur and professional musicians alike, and yet early photos of this domestic music are hard to find. In part this was because before the advent of small hand held cameras, most photographs had to be taken in a photographer's studio, so this photo of a parlor quartet is a rare exception.

My scanner can't quite do justice to the fine quality of the original, as this large glossy albumen print is remarkably clear. The engraved cornet and the blackwood flute with its ivory head joint are very well focused. But the smaller details of carpeting, wallpaper, and knick-knacks are what bring this turn of the century group to life.

Two musicians have names, as on the back is written:
2nd left  Winnie Stevens
seated at Piano  Hattie Wilson

The cornet player's name Winnie is usually short for a feminine name, Winnifred, but the masculine versions, Winfred or Windfred were also known as Winnie, as were Edwin and Irwin. Hattie Wilson the pianist has a very common name 19th century name.

But what makes this an exceptional photo is seeing the sheet music. In so many photographs of musicians, we can never know what music they played. But for this quartet we can, as a copy of My Old New Hampshire Home is placed on the piano desk.

The music was written in 1898 and sold to a publisher for $15 by Aaron Gumbinsky, better known to music history as Harry Von Tilzer, (1872-1946). His song, with words by Andrew B. Sterling, proved to be a fantastic hit selling over 2 million copies, which suggests that the population of New Hampshire in 1900 was a lot larger than it is today. 

Though he didn't make much from his first effort at popular song, Harry Von Tilzer went on to write many more big hits for the early vaudeville and Broadway shows in New York City. They include A Bird in a Gilded Cage,  All Alone,  Wait 'Til The Sun Shines Nellie,  I Love My Wife, But Oh You Kid!,  They Always Pick On Me, and  I Want A Girl (Just Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad).

Supposedly it was Harry Von Tilzer's habit of placing paper strips in the strings of his piano that led to the name Tin Pan Alley. These tinny sounds coming from his music office studio were so strident in that area in New York that the name stuck in the public's mind for a whole genre and period of popular music.

For a special treat we can hear the music by listening to the tenor and baritone duet of Byron G. Harlan and A. D. Madeira singing My Old New Hampshire Home from an Edison recording of around 1900.

And for contrast here is a version with 4 voices , sung in the same key by the Consolidated Quartette.  It is also from an early Edison cylinder recording from 1900. Consolidated was also the name of the music publisher.

The early music publishers produced an astonishing number of songs. Many of the covers were used to promote other performers or songs in their catalog. This small compilation that I made shows 9 other versions of My Old New Hampshire Home with different artists and publishers in the lower vignette. I found four more, though none were exactly like the one on the parlor piano which seems to show two women in the photo circle.

The second piece of music is more challenging and adds an ugly twist to the story. There on the music stand to the right is a copy of Come Back My Honey, I'se Been Waitin' .  A song with words by Fred N. Statia and music by Lew H. Newcomb, it is subtitled A Coon Sensation.

Such offensive titles are part of a music history that has been understandably neglected but for reasons that are part of America's troubled cultural past of racism. 

Composed in 1897, Come Back My Honey is contemporary with Harry Von Tilzer's music, but comes from another branch of older popular music - the minstrel shows. Though the music is really no different from other sentimental songs of this period, the lyrics and sentiments come from the legacy of slavery and depiction of African-American people in broad degrading stereotypes. The minstrel shows began in the 1830s before the Civil War but reached their height in the 1890's. These almost formulaic variety shows combined "coon" songs and dances with comic skits and other vaudeville acts, all performed by people wearing blackface makeup. Though abhorrent to our modern sense of decency, these shows were incredibly popular with hundreds of companies touring the country.

Recently I finished a wonderful biography of the great black musician and blues composer W.C. Handy by David Robertson. In it he describes Handy's early career working as a minstrel show band leader run by African-American performers who dressed in blackface.  Black musicians imitating white musicians imitating black musicians. A truly bizarre notion but one that was universally accepted in 1900 as mainstream humor and entertainment.

If we could turn the music over on the music stand this is the page we would find. The publisher's list of Coon Songs That are all the Rage in the Rage of Coon Songs, with titles like  My Coal Black Lady,  Mammy's Little Picanninny boy,  De Darkey Cavaliers. and  All Coons Look Alike to Me.

Despite the use of demeaning stereotypes and denigrating humor, the minstrel shows were the first truly American theatrical art form. They introduced many of the musical styles and fashions that would evolve into ragtime music and then into jazz. They were also by no means just for white audiences and performers, as many black entertainers like W. C. Handy got their start in these traveling minstrel shows. One of the composers listed on this page was Bert Williams (1874-1922) a black singer and comedian who became one of the most highly paid entertainers of this era and helped to overturn many of the racial barriers that existed at this time.

So we can say with some confidence that the parlor quartet dates no earlier than the 1898 copyright of Tilzer's music. And since who would want to be identified with an old stale piece of music, the latest date is probably no more that 1900.  Yet despite having names for the cornet player and pianist, I could not come up with a confirmed match as their names are too common to quickly pop up on So we don't know where they are. But my suspicion is that the choice of My Old New Hampshire Home means they are likely not sitting in a Nebraska farmhouse.

I found one small town in the 1900 New Hampshire Census - Bennington in Hillsboro County where a Mrs. Hattie Wilson, age 26 and husband Henry Wilson, age 37 lived with a daughter Ruth, age 2. Henry was an assistant foreman, cutlery factory. Just next door was a boarder, Charles Stevens, age 22 who worked as a cutlery grinder. And in the same town was another boarder, Edwin G. Stevens, age 32 whose occupation was woodturner. All this is true speculation as these musicians could just as well live in Vermont and pine for the woods of New Hampshire. Winnie's tanned complexion suggests regular outdoor activity and both Hattie and the young violinist wear rings. Wedding bands perhaps? 

Uncovering the music that this parlor quartet played, changes our understanding of this photograph. Learning that these pleasant looking men and women enjoyed songs with such overt racist language is like discovering that grandpa never changed his underwear and grandma drank a pint of whiskey everyday. But that is part of American history too and part of the reality beyond the frame of the photo.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you might find more quartets on bicycles. 

The bicycle was another popular 1890s fashion and I can't resist including this image of the sheet music for Daisy Bell, (Bicycle Built for Two) which was published in 1892 by Harry Dacre.  The song was a big favorite of many early computers too.

Two's company but a bicycle built for four would definitely be a crowd.


Food Smarts said...

Very interesting. I read recently that in polite society in the late 1800's in the U.S. a woman wouldn't dare say the word "blouse". It would be indecent and outrageous. "Coon" on the other hand was apparently acceptable, even in print. Amazing how time changes the way we see things. A very excellent and provocative read.

Susan said...

The perfect song to feature.

Peter said...

I like the twist you have given to this weeks Sepia Saturday theme. And to me it was very informative, thank you.

Susan D. said...

A very interesting take on the thtme. Loved the old photographs and the old sheet music covers.

Bob Scotney said...

A thought provoking post again, Mike. I had a video of Daisy Bell lined up but didn't use it as I took a different line to follow.

Wendy said...

I was unaware that the minstrel show redeemed itself by contributing to the growth of jazz and ragtime. A bit of a silver lining, I guess. Thanks for your work on this enlightening post.

Karen S. said...

Ah yes, I'se been enjoying myself with your post again! I am having fun seeing the various twists that we have this week...I do enjoy that, especially with yours!

Kathy said...

Very interesting! Thanks for educating me today.

Postcardy said...

Great post. They were wise to include the music. And it appears that they wanted to show off the knickknacks on top of the piano too.

Little Nell said...

A really interesting post once again Mike. When I was a child in England we had a TV programme called 'The Black and White Minstrel Show' which was as you describe, the men all blacked up in the most awful Al Jolson way and sang and danced with lovely white ladies - it makes me shudder just to think of it now, but this was part of British culture in the 50s-70s.

Alan Burnett said...

I feel like appending another song to the end of your post. It would be "Nobody Does it Better". Nobody does this kind of post better than you Mike.

Wibbo said...

A beautiful photograph and an interesting, informative post.


Everything you managed to get out of a single picture!! Great post!!

Brett Payne said...

Just thought I'd add that Hattie is very often, but not necessarily always, short for Harriet.


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