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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The Novelty Act

09 August 2013

Today we live in the so-called Information Age, but a better title might be The Age of Novelty as the Internet provides us with an endless parade of wonders. From the singular and fascinating, to the inane and stupid, we will look at anything. But it's hardly a modern concept, as the Novelty Act has been an entertainment since ancient times. Here are three  German novelty acts from a century ago.

In this first postcard from 1904, we see an odd musical contraption with its proud inventor standing beside it. This freezer-sized assembly appears to have only percussion instruments - bass drum, snare, bells, cymbals. Perhaps there are more instruments hidden in the lower box because the caption makes a grandiose claim.

Hub. Dünnwald mit seinem Wunder Orchester 
eine vollständige Kapelle in einer Person

Hub. Dünnwald with his Wonder Orchestra
a full band in one person

This could be a mechanical music box that uses a perforated paper roll like those on player pianos. A pneumatic system would activate various levers and linkages which then strike the musical rhythms on the drums or keyboards. Or it may be an elaborate one-man band machine with Herr Dünnwald playing several instruments linked together. Though he keeps his standing address in Düsseldorf, the flags on his Wunder-Orchester appear to be those of the Kingdom of Prussia, which would explain his mustache. He wears the uniform of a military bandsman., so perhaps he was seeking favor from the Kaiser's royal court in Berlin.

The back shows it was sent from Spich, which is a small town only a short distance east of Düsseldorf, to Fraulein Maria Creischen (?) in Eilendorf.

Percussion instrumentalists have always been a popular choice for novelty acts, and this duo has a full stage of them. There are various jingles, bells, glasses, and sauce pans tuned in different sizes. The two musicians hold a mandolin and a guitar and displayed on the floor are other string instruments, including a violin and some odd folk type instruments. The rhomboid shaped table on the right is a cimbalom, a type of hammered dulcimer played in Hungary and Eastern Europe. The caption tells us who they are.

Gisela u. Hugo Hostowsky, Original Topfschläger

Gisela and Hugo Hostowsky - Original Pot Beater

Were Hugo and Gisela, husband and wife or brother and sister? They do not have any wind instruments, so it's likely they also sang while they played their bells and pots.

The postcard was sent from Hannover to Fraulein Mathilde Rossig in Delligsen, Lower Saxony on 20th February 1911.

This last novelty musician has an elaborate display that includes handbells, wine glasses, and bottles. On the floor are a snare drum and a kind of foot pedal with a small pair of cymbals. There is also a long necked string instrument with a bow that looks like it's made from a cigar box. On the table to the right are two unusual horn shaped instruments. Can you guess what they are?

The caption reads:

O. Joston, Spez. Instrumentalist u. Musik-Clown
auf 12 Phantasie Instrumenten
O. Joston, Special Instrumentalist and Music Clown
on 12 Fantasy instruments

Herr Josten lived in Dresden, but he also sports a fine mustache of the German Empire style. The flags that decorate his bottle and bell rack look similar to the Prussian state flag but lack the Imperial Eagle symbol.

The instruments on the table? They are Mundharmonika - harmonicas with added megaphones for amplification. The box next to them looks like an accordion type instrument powered by Herr Joston's breath.  I would bet he also made his own custom traveling trunks for all his fantasy instruments. What kind of clowning or jokes did he add to his performance?

The handwriting on this card defeats me, but it was postmarked on 18 April 1911 from Züllchow which is now in Poland, but during the German Empire before WW1 it was in the Pommern or Pomerania district of Germany.

Judging from the numerous promotional postcards for one-man bands and musical duos using unusual instruments, novelty musical groups were very popular during the 1900s in the German and the Austrian-Hungarian empires. Undoubtedly many emigrated to Britain and America before the war years, and continued their show business careers on the vaudeville stage.

Let us imagine Herr Joston, Herr Dünnwald, and the Howstowsky Duo meeting up one day, perhaps at a Bahnhof cafe. They would compare notes and programs. Certainly they would complain about the struggle of managing their equipment through stage doors and rail platforms. I'm sure they would have exchanged a few glasses too. 

As a demonstration of this Age of Novelty that we live in today, YouTube presents some Australian humour with their version of an expanded Wonder Orchestra from Melbourne.

WARNING: Some good beer was sacrificed in the making of this video.

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more novel inventions.


Joan said...

Now that was fun! I remember seeing similar acts in traveling circuses when I was a child --- took a while for "culture" or "novelty" to get to rural southern Oregon.

Wendy said...

Love the beer bottle orchestra.

Nothing is at once as fascinating AND pathetic as the one-man-band. I don't know why, but I always feel embarrassed by such performances. That's why we passed on the chance to go to a nearby winery that hosts Saturday night entertainment through the summer. The performer was billed as "The Swiss Army Musician." I'm sure it meant he could play a guitar, a banjo, a mandolin, a harmonica, a keyboard, a violin, etc. But I had visions of all the instruments strapped to his back and feet. We had to drink wine at home.

Brett Payne said...

The drawback with the 2nd and 3rd outfits is that one would appear to need half a dozen hands to play them. Your posts are as entertaining as the acts obviously were.

Boobook said...

I've never seen a large one-man-band. They must have been a %#@ to transport from gig to gig.

Alex Daw said...

For some reason all this reminds me of Rolf de Heer's film Dr Plonk. It wasn't wildly successful at the box office. A silent film made in 2007 it was about a scientist and inventor - very Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin-esque. I enjoyed it.

tony said...

Yes the sheer size of these enterprises must have caused all sorts of practical problems.But I bet the visuals were as much fun as the sounds made .

tony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Postcardy said...

What a wonderful collection of novelty musical contraptions!

anyjazz said...

A fine collection of post cards showing odd assemblies for making music. And all on post cards!

Little Nell said...

This was entertaining - I loved the one man band contraptions especially, but that beer bottle orchestra was especially amusing. Clever advertising.

Alan Burnett said...

A perfect theme for you Mike and you do it proud. You are indeed the music box of the Sepia Saturday machine. If you want anyone to volunteer to drain any future beer bottles you know where I live.

Rosie said...

I didn't realize "one man" bands go back so far. There are still some today, all electronic. We have one very popular man in New Brunswick, he hails from Moncton, his name is Ti-Blanc. He is hired all over the province and abroad to sing with his "back up band".....he certainly draws a crowd.

Tattered and Lost said...

These are all so grand! I would love to hear them all playing at once.

It makes me think of something I've wondered about for a long time. The Ed Sullivan Show used to feature so many unusual acts that I have to wonder where those type of performers go today. Well, of course they can set up a YouTube site, but there was something wonderful about being exposed to these things each week as a family. The odder the better. I'll admit I was very fond of the plate spinners who always spun to the same music.

Bob Scotney said...

I enjoyed the beer bottle orchestra but would have loved to have seen and heard the one-man bands.


A finely tuned post,
with a Grande Finale!!!

Sharon said...

You always amaze me how you can follow topic but also keep to the music theme.


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