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
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Helen May Butler and her All-American Girls

18 January 2013

In the 1900s, owning shares in a South African ostrich farm should have paid a very nice dividend to judge by this feathered ensemble of ladies, all musicians with Helen May Butler and her Ladies Brass Band. Despite the name this 24 piece concert band had an additional woodwind section of flutes, clarinets, and saxophones. Helen May Butler (1867-1957), the band's directress as she was sometimes called, stands in front holding her baton and dressed in a fabulous white uniform. She is surrounded by her girls - young ladies from all across America, each wearing a white blouse and uniform skirt that resembles the attire of Georgia Rymer, whom I introduced last week. But unlike her cap, these young ladies have tri-corner hats with splendid ostrich plumes. If you shake your monitor screen you might produce the same effect you would see when the band performed on stage.

The image is a reproduction photo from a Smithsonian Museum postcard which I acquired because it is hard to find many photos of Ms. Butler and her band. The card gives no date or place, but their popular tours began in 1901 and continued until 1912, when Helen May retired  to Cincinnati with her two children and 2nd husband.

This postcard of a lady with a tenor saxophone, shows a member of the Butler Ladies Band and if I am not mistaken, she is standing to the right of Helen May in the band photo. Unfortunately there is no identification on the card.

Her pose is not unlike the postcard of the trombonist Georgia Rymer, which was a gift I received from Helen Costigan, the grand daughter of Helen May Butler. Not long after that gift, she sent me a second envelope with several more postcards of her grandmother's girls, and I would like to present them for your favor today.

These young musicians performed with the Butler Ladies Band at festivals, expositions, world fairs, chautauquas, and vaudeville shows from California to New York to South Carolina and Colorado. This women's band was acclaimed the equal of any men's ensemble, and in its time, became the most renowned musical group of women musicians in America.

Today we see only a band of elaborately costumed young women, but in this era when music was a very masculine occupation, this was THE premier band of professional female musicians anywhere. They may have been a novelty to some people, a distraction or even irritation to others, but in that first decade of 1900 they were part of a cultural revolution that would introduce the American public to the very best talent and artistry that women could achieve. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec. 22, 1901
According to a display ad for New York City's Orpheum TheaterHelen May Butler's Ladies' Military Band headlined the vaudeville stage for the first time in December 1901. First organized in 1898 by Helen May as the U.S. Talma Ladies Military Band in Providence, Rhode Island, the emphasis on military was to avoid any association with tawdry burlesque troupes and to compete directly with the hundreds of professional bands, all ensembles of men of course, which were often named as Marine Band or Regimental Band.

The Billboard, Oct. 25, 1902

Around 1901 Helen May Butler met John Leslie Spahn who became her business manager and then her husband. Together they had two children. His letters to magazines suggest Spahn was a glib talker. Perhaps too smooth, as their marriage did not last the decade.

At the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, he changed the name of the band to promote her as the foremost female band leader. As the band's agent he was responsible for making the bookings around the complex entertainment circuits. In April 1902 there was this report in Billboard magazine.

J. Leslie Spahn has just closed contracts for 118 one-night stands over the Texas Independent Opera House Circuit. At the end of that time Helen May Butler and her Ladles Military Band will have put in 304 consecutive day's work. Mr. Spahn is now considering an offer for 200 days on the Lyceum Circuit at the close of the Texas season. The band has played The Billboard March over 1000 times. 

This lady trombonist likely memorized The Billboard March as did the saxophonist and had her photo taken in the same studio. Most brass bands typically had two and usually three tenor trombones. Though there's no certainty, she may be the middle trombonist, 2nd from right on the 3rd row of the band photo.

One thing I am certain is that she is not Georgia Rymer, who is a bit shorter, measured by using the length of a trombone for reference.

As the band became more successful, Helen May Butler arranged to endorse Conn Band Instruments and in return had her band equipped by Conn with silver instruments. At the time,  C.G. Conn of Elkhart, Indiana was the world's largest manufacturer of musical instruments and a major influence in promoting bands in American culture.

The Billboard, March 16, 1906

Artists of the entertainment world of 1900 were constantly on the move, traveling from theater to theater on the vast 19th century network of trains and ships. They and their agents kept appraised of the latest showbiz news through the pages of entertainment weeklies like The Billboard, The New York Clipper, and The New York Dramatic Mirror. The advertisements targeted the theater owners and agents rather than the public. This 1906 ad for Helen May Butler's Military Band ran in the The Billboard and it's interesting that it includes a very pro-union statement that the band would "not contract with parties that have a Union Strike or any thing unfair to the Musical Unions."  Like Georgia Rymer's union card, this is more evidence that Helen May and her girls were union members of the American Federation of Musicians. You don't have to read many pages of these magazines to recognize that the working life of performers in vaudeville and traveling shows was very difficult. In between reports of successful shows and profitable ventures, there were stories of failed theatrical companies and disreputable managers which produced miserable conditions and wages for the countless people drawn to a career on the stage.

This young cornet player looks to be hardly more than age 12 or 13. Her postcard has a novel soft focus halo, but you can just about see the HMB badge on her cap. Her skirt is shorter to show off white stockings and shoes and she wears a cadet-style jacket.

Many of the girls probably responded to ads like this one from the August 11, 1906, edition of the New York Clipper:
Lady Musicians
Good readers. Salaries reasonable, and R.R. fares paid after joining. Kickers and cranks stay away. 
Claysons. wire.


New York Dramatic Mirror, Sept 1901
The New York Dramatic Mirror published a list of the members of the Butler's Ladies' Military Band in September 1901. Helen May was always listed as proprietor as well as musical director. In the early years, many of the band's musicians were girls from Providence, Rhode Island where Helen May lived in 1900. Several girls have the same last name and were undoubtedly sisters. As the band became better known, female musicians from across the country applied to join the band. I found names of girls from Colorado, Kansas, New York, and Minnesota who were praised in their hometown papers for winning a spot in the band.

Though she was most familiar with New England, growing up in Providence and studying music in Boston, for some reason in the mid-1900s, perhaps because of J. Leslie Spahn, Helen May made her home in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska just south of Lincoln, Georgia Rymer's home. During the winter off-season, Helen  May took work there teaching music lessons and conducting church and theater orchestras, but to succeed in the super competitive world of music meant a band leader had to stay on the road and tour.

In 1904, Helen May Butler was reported to have plans to add a saxophone quartet to her band. Though the saxophone, in it's various sizes - soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, had been around since the 1850s, it was not then a common instrument in the established American bands. However it was fast becoming a popular instrument with women and already several small ensembles included women saxophonists. No doubt Helen May decided to capitalize on this novelty factor and add female sax players to augment the usual band instrumentalists.

This lady has a tenor saxophone and clearly posed at the same studio as the cornet player. One magazine report mentioned that there were two uniforms for the ladies, one for street and one for stage, and another report described the uniform colors as purple and white.


The Billboard, April 18, 1908

By 1908 the Ladies Band was competing not only with bands but all manner of vaudeville acts, including Prof. Welch's Whippets, Capt. Mattery's Airships, Schepp's Dog and Pony Circus, and Mlle. Loubet's Loop of Death _ THE BEST OF ALL THRILLERS_ The only "Loop" act in which the lady is not strapped in the car.

This photo is my favorite of the collection I received from Helen Costigan. It is a very skillful portrait of a flutist and shows the HMB band uniform in better detail. She has that same modern military cap, affixed with a strategic hat pin, and a beautifully embroidered blouse under her jacket. Her instruments, a flute and piccolo, are both in African blackwood, the traditional material for this oldest of the woodwinds, and which is now used only for clarinets and oboes.

She looks older than the other band girls, not in her teens but perhaps in her twenties. All the girls were unmarried and carefully chaperoned. They were strongly discouraged from interacting with the public, especially the boys and men. This report was in the Iola, Kansas Daily Register, June 4, 1906:

The ladies in the band are not permitted to flirt or carry on conversation with strangers. The first violation of this rule means a $5 fine and the second one dismissal. This hardhearted rule has called forth a good deal of lamentation from the ever gallant southern newspapers in towns in that section which the band has visited. All save three of the ladies who were with the band in its initial year eight seasons ago have since married. All of them married their old sweethearts back home and for this the strict rules that hedge the organization may be thankful.


Minnesota Journal, Sept. 1905
The original band was small with between 16 and 20 musicians, mostly brass with maybe two drummers. Later the band expanded to 24 adding two or three clarinets to the brass sound. But success brings competition and the band needed to demonstrate its superior talent, so the personnel went to 40 and even 60 musicians when performing for a large audience.

In 1904, Helen May took her band to Missouri to play at a musical extravaganza that was part of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also called the St. Louis World's Fair. The concerts they played there established Helen May Butler as a great bandleader and demonstrated that women were very much the artistic equal of men.  This promotional piece from the Minnesota Journal in 1905 shows Helen May Butler preparing for the downbeat and mentions three soloists in her 40 piece band, Florence Hamilton, trombone; Petite Vashti, horn; and Ora Sneary,  who played several brass instruments.


This flutist had her photo taken in Minnesota at the studio of Charles H. Collins of St. Paul. Her instrument is also made of African blackwood, but she is not wearing the same uniform as the other women. With fringe on the sleeves and skirt it might be a costume of another band, perhaps from one of the many wild west shows.

But this young lady took a business-like approach with Helen May Butler and added her name and address on the back -  
Emma Thome,
214 Dakota St.,
St. Paul, Minn.

Unfortunately I was unable to locate her in the 1900 or 1910 censuses. But the 1914 St. Paul city directory listed a hotel owner named Frank Thome with daughter Viola Thome, occupation - musician. In 1915 she was at the same address, though not on Dakota St., and now working as a clerk. But this time it was Viola E. Thome. What flutist with the name Viola wouldn't prefer to use a middle name when writing to a band director?

This last postcard has a woman posed with two different woodwind instruments, an alto saxophone and a flute, this time in silver. Doubling on several instruments is a common skill for woodwind musicians as once the finger work skill is mastered, learning another woodwind is relatively easy. It also means a versatile doubler is paid more under union rules.

This lady also added her name on the back:
Jeanne A. Graybill
Saxophone Soloist
1317 Napolean Ave.
New Orleans, La.


Jeanne was the daughter of Dr. Jacob B. Graybill, a physician in private practice. In the 1910 census at age 19, she was living with only her father and no mother, and listed no work. By 1920 she had a job as bookkeeper for an export company and was still single. And sadly, by 1930 her father now deceased, she was still unmarried and without occupation.

Too many mysteries, and too little time to solve them all.

These seven musicians were just a fraction of the hundreds of young women who played in Helen May Butler's bands. They were all pioneers in music, but more importantly they helped transform a culture to accept women as equals in art, business, and society.

The pressures of a failed marriage, two small children to raise, and the fatigue of constantly being on the road, caused Helen May Butler to retire from show business in 1912 and break up her band. She probably also recognized that the great age of band music was now in decline and about to be disrupted by the looming conflict in Europe. Recovered from divorce with J. Leslie Spahn, she married a Scotsman named James H. Young, and they moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to run a hotel. It was also the city of The Billboard magazine which ran this small classified ad in the May 17, 1917 edition.

LADIES BAND UNIFORMS — Like new, 8 blue,
   8 red; either set a bargain at $100.00 cash.
   HELEN MAY BUTLER,  Burlington Hotel, Cinclnnati, O.

Helen Costigan's first gift helped solve a challenging photo mystery for me, but her second gift was the key to a much larger door of cultural history. One that I am immensely thrilled to have opened and in some small part preserve the neglected musical history of Helen May Butler and her Ladies Brass Bands.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is just standing around gawping at something.

There is much much more to this story,
as Helen Costigan's gift included even more photos!
So my faithful and too kind readers can expect
at least two more sequels in the near future.


Wendy said...

After contracting for 118 one-night stands, no wonder their marriage failed. (Sorry -- couldn't resist. And I want to beat Ticklebear and Peter to the punch!) The ad for those uniforms brought this story to a really sad close. I have to admire the strength it took to persevere in a man's world. Helen May's warning against "kickers and cranks" gives us some insight into what a tough cookie she must have been.

Brett Payne said...

That is a poignant final note, but I prefer to have, "Take me to the Orpheum, Georgia" lingering on my mind after that excellent double feature, thank you Mike.

Boobook said...

Helen May must have been a really strong woman. A great collection of photos Mike.

Peter said...

@Wendy, you won!

And what an impressive story, Mike! I was really amazed by the uninterrupted number of concerts the band was doing. Do you have any idea about the salary of an average member of the band?
And that last ad, there is so much drama between the lines.
Magnificent post!

Mike Brubaker said...

@Wendy - Sepians are so good at picking out the implied clues. Every family has secrets and hidden difficulties that we can only guess at. So I leave it to the clever readers.

@Peter - I don't know what wages these musicians made. It was probably higher than most women would make at ordinary work, but maybe less than male musicians. When I write the book, I'll put in more details for you :-)

Bob Scotney said...

As you have enough material for at least two more sequels, I wondered whether you have considered making all the posts into an e-book for Smashwords, Nook or Kindle. What you are producing is well worth collecting in 'one volume.'

anyjazz said...

Excellent collection, research and presentation. Good work!

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

That was so nice of her to send you all of those pictures! What an informative and interesting post. Some of the band members were very beautiful.

Thanks for sharing this with us, Mike.

Kathy M.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

I agree with Bob - I see a book in the Helen May Butler story. What an inspiration for women everywhere. I wonder what kickers and cranks were?

21 Wits said...

First I have to laugh at Wendy's comment- she did win- and I agree with her as well. Also gee whiz what a wonderful display for women!!! For all those folks that haven't gotten enough lady posts- this one is 100% women-central. Amazing story, and how cool that sounds "her ladies!" I'm always delighted with your photo collection! Bravo!

Postcardy said...

If you ever write a book, that would make a good chapter.

Alan Burnett said...

Impeccably researched, as always Mike. The great delight of your posts, I always find, is the many layers of information they contain. I always read them a couple of times at least and get more from each read. Today I even went wondering around the old playbills and newspaper announcements you used (looking for what was in the background, of course)

Little Nell said...

That was quite a post Mike! I do like to read of these pioneering women, making themselves heard musically in a male dominated world. Those plumed hats were enormous and I do prefer the military style in your favourite picture.

Unknown said...

I found newspaper articles about my grandmother touring in 1908 with this band. I am excited to see the photos that have been preserved. Thank you for your part in this.


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