This is a story about such a gift, a postcard photo of a young lady standing with her trombone. Her name is Georgia Rymer and she is a character in a mystery story.
Georgia posed for a photographer's camera sometime around 1910. She is dressed in a white blouse and a long skirt with a broad stripe on the hem. Perched atop her head, no doubt fastened with a hat pin, is a band cap, which for its time has a rather modern style. Georgia is from Bethany, Nebraska which was once a village on the northeast side of Lincoln, Nebraska's state capital.
(And for my Sepia Saturday readers, a place about as far from the ocean as one can get in America.)
Three Kansas City Vaudeville Musicians. Her real name is unfortunately still unknown but since I now know she is not Georgia, I have named her Florida.
Florida's photo is unusual because she is playing the horn at a time when few women played such an instrument. And when I purchased her photograph, which is a proper studio photo and not a postcard, it came with some extra ephemera that is not typical of photo sales. It included a musician's union card from 1910 and a musicians union rules book from 1907.
The name written on the card was Georgia Rymer.
But Florida's photo had no inscription, no mark to identify her as Georgia, and the photographer's studio was in Kansas City, Missouri. The dealer had no clues except that he thought it was a lot picked up in Pennsylvania. Was this young woman a union musician from Lincoln, Nebraska of 1910? Her dress certainly looked professional, even theatrical, but there was a bit more ankle showing than one would expect from 1910. How could I answer this question? This started a challenging search for the musical clues and forgotten genealogy that might solve this riddle.
In order to connect the name to the photograph, I had to learn more about the Rymer family, about Lincoln, and about those first years of the new century. I built a detailed family history. I learned that Georgia was born in Nebraska in 1887, the daughter of James and Ella Rymer. She had three sisters, Alice, Nellie, and Hattie and two brothers, Charles the oldest, and Atlee. Her father was a gardener at the state asylum, one brother a policeman, the other a farm laborer. In 1910 Georgia was 23 years old and the census listed her as an office clerk at a newspaper. She had a full but unremarkable family but I found nothing in her background that might connect her to a musical instrument much less the career of a professional musician.
The card is from the 3rd quarter of 1910 and certifies that Miss Georgia Rymer is a member of the M.P.U. (Musicians Protective Union) of Lincoln, Local No. 463 American Federation of Musicians.
It's signed by G.F. Thornburg, Secretary at 406 So. 17th.
The small booklet entitled Constitution and By-Laws of Local 463, American Federation of Musicians is complete and reads pretty much like the union rules I became intimately familiar with when I was once a musicians union officer. The only difference is that this book dates from 1907, and the A.F.M. had only been organized in 1896.
With over 34 pages, this booklet would come with a musician's first membership and then be squirreled away in a desk drawer to be forgotten. Robert's rules can be pretty dull stuff.
But having the name of a young woman on a 1910 union card makes this unique ephemera. In this era the trade union movement was just getting started, and the role of the musicians union in the entertainment industry was still being negotiated. There were only a few locals and most were in the big cities. In some ways the entertainment world was bigger in this decade than ours today, with countless musicians providing live music for restaurants, casinos, riverboats, passenger liners, concert halls, vaudeville theaters, and many other venues that have long ago disappeared from our cultural life. And for nearly all of this music making, women musicians were prohibited or played only a very minor role.
In 1910, American women were still excluded from the political and financial world. They had none of the protections of civil rights that contemporary women have today. In the music industry, women would not break into the major symphony orchestras until the 1960s. It was an era of discrimination and segregation for not only race but also gender.
How did Miss Georgia Rymer get a musicians union card in 1910?
The answer would be in the three letters on her hat. HMB.
But I'm getting ahead of myself and have not untangled the knot for you yet. After many hours searching in vain on the internet, I came across a very good clue. Someone on a genealogy forum had posted an offer under the Rymer family sub-group. This person had a photo of Georgia Rymer. Was anyone interested? The posting was a few years old, and the writer left no address or contact except for an outdated email address. So the hunt took me to a new trail and a new name to uncover.
By amazing chance, I made contact with the writer, Helen Costigan. No one had ever asked her about the photo, so she sent me a scan. It was then that I recognized that the photo of the horn player and the name on the union card photo were not connected. I had a photo, or a union card, of the wrong woman.
This is where the treasured gift comes in. Without my asking, Helen generously sent me this postcard of Georgia Rymer with an explanation of how she came to have this photo.
On the back of her card, Georgia had written a note.
Are you needing any trombones this season? I am not doing any thing at present, and would go with you this season for same as I wrote in letter. Please let me know at once. Georgia. Rymer
|Helen May Butler (1867 - 1957)|
Georgia's friend was the most celebrated woman in American band music in 1910, Helen May Butler, and Helen Young Costigan was her grand-daughter.
Born in New Hampshire in 1867 and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Helen May Butler developed an early musical gift and went on to study music in Boston, where she became a noted performer on violin and cornet. In 1891 she tried conducting and organized the Talma Ladies Orchestra. By 1898 it had become the U.S. Talma Ladies Military Band. Over the next 15 years she would produce several professional bands that would give concerts all across America. All with women musicians.
The quality of her bands was considered exceptional and she was favorably compared to the great bandleaders Patrick Gilmore and John Philip Sousa. Her band played for President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 and 1904. The band's motto was: "Music for the American people, by American composers, played by American girls."
Though she was from New England, in 1910 her home was in Beatrice, Nebraska, a small town of 9,300 and only 40 miles south of Lincoln. Surely any American girl who played the trombone and lived so close would know all about Helen May Butler. Georgia wears a uniform with an HMB cap badge, but could I find any other proof that she really played in Helen May Butler's Ladies Band?
Just this month I found another piece of the puzzle.
At the turn into the 20th century, one of the greatest cultural phenomena in America was the popular Chautauqua movement. These week-long events were usually held in rural communities and combined lectures, sermons, and music into a non-denominational quasi-educational festival. They were not carnivals or fairs, but a kind of stage performance not unlike the TED conferences that are now part of our 21st century culture. Just like the motto of the TED talks, it was a way to disseminate "ideas worth spreading." By 1900 there were enough of these Chautauquas to make a circuit for the many itinerant speakers and touring groups. One musical group that was regularly engaged was Helen May Butler's Ladies Band.
Here she is with her band at the Chautauqua in Sabetha, Kansas in 1909. Arranged outside of an immense tent, the girls in the band wear uniforms identical to Georgia's. Only a few have their instruments out, but the girl standing at left has a trombone case. Helen May Butler stands on the right wearing an impressive black feathered hat.
On the back of the card there are two names penciled:
Mr. Peter McQueen
Miss Georgia Rymer
The photos help identify some of the other people in my photo. The man with the cornet on right is not identified, but the woman on his left is Marion Ballou Fisk, a performing lecturer and cartoonist. And the man in the bush hat is Reverend Dr. Peter McQueen, a Protestant missionary who went to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, and then joined the Chautauqua circuit to give a travelogue of his adventures using a lantern slide show.
Why would a lecturer from Boston send a postcard of a ladies band to a young woman in Nebraska? Is that Georgia standing at the back of the band? It's hard to say with certainty as the likeness is not exact in this grainy souvenir postcard. But one thing seems clear, Georgia must have been, even if only for a month of two, a professional union musician in Helen May Butler's Ladies Band.
This could have been just another trivial mystery. It is no great error if a faded photo of a young lady and her French horn is inadvertently given an incorrect name from an old union card. But the generous gift from Helen Costigan enabled me to find the true story of the real Georgia Rymer, a 23 year old aspiring musician who hoped to rejoin the most famous women's musical ensemble in America. Her experience is just a paragraph in an extraordinary history that has surprisingly very little documentation. It was the struggle of women musicians in America to gain equality on the musical stage. It was not easy then and would continue to be difficult for women musicians for many more decades, but Georgia and Florida were both part of that labor struggle along with the bandleader Helen May Butler.
Constructing someone's biography involves far more details than I need to relate here, but I feel the need for a brief coda. In 1913 Georgia married Joseph Weinberg, a clothing merchant and then insurance agent. He died of apoplexy in 1922. His obituary said only "survived by a wife and a brother." In December 1930, Mrs. Georgia Weinberg appeared in newspaper reports when she made bail for her policeman brother Charles Rymer, accused of shooting a young man at a gas station. That fragment allowed me to research her married name but as far as I can determine after 1910 she never again played trombone with any Lincoln community bands. She had no children and died in Lincoln on January 4, 1982 at age 94.
Sadly, Helen Costigan died in January 2011 and I wish I could have presented her with Georgia's story. But her generosity did not end with the gift of this young lady's postcard to her grandmother. For more of the story of Helen May Butler, you will have to wait until next weekend for Part 2.
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you might find more sand and seaside than ever found in Nebraska.