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 Sister Act

09 May 2014

Four young musicians gaze at the camera lens. A young girl sits with a guitar, while two older girls in matching dress and hair styles hold mandolins. A small boy with long curly hair gives a salute with his violin. Behind them stand three large military band glockenspiels. They are the Soeurs Emilia, which is French for the Sisters Emilia, a typical traveling family band that played the theaters and music halls in Europe at the turn of the 19th century. The postcard was printed on pink card paper and slightly askew in Düsseldorf, Germany, but it was never mailed and has no annotation. 

One of the characteristics of images of family bands from this era is that several different photos were usually created over the career of the group since growing children are always changing. We can date this promotional postcard to about 1900 because of the postmark on another postcard of the same group.  

This image of the Sœurs Emilia shows the same four young musicians, though slightly younger I think, holding the same instruments - guitar, violin, and mandolins. However instead of glockenspiels there is a rack of tubular chimes and three tables of hand bells in various sizes. In the message space under Gruss Aus: - Greetings from:  is an enthusiastic note written in German. Any help with a translation is always appreciated.

Clearly these children were a talented bunch. Many European musical groups from the 1900s often show similar impressive arrays of instruments. The postcard was produced in Germany by the same printer - Ed. Lintz, Düsseldorf, but the children's name implies that they are French musicians. They may have come from the French Alsace-Lorraine region which was annexed by Germany after the war with France in 1871. 

What makes this postcard interesting is the postmark on the back – 19.9.99 or 19 September 1899, which makes it one of the oldest postcards in my collection. 

The postcard was sent from Crefeld, Germany, or Krefeld as it is now spelt, to Herrn Ulrich Keigen in the village of Söflingen, now part of the city of Ulm in Baden-Württemberg.

The first postcards in Germany with printed advertisements and illustrations were made in 1874. The German printing industry quickly became the dominant leader for picture postcards and produced millions for many other countries. Therefore the family home of the Sisters Emilia may have been anywhere in Europe.

A search for Sœurs Emilia did not turn up any citations, but a search for Sisters Emilia did bring one brief mention in a theater review published in the Birmingham Daily Mail, on January 17, 1905.

Birmingham Daily Mail
January 17, 1905

THE GAIETY - "The Mysterious Lilith", who supplies one of the best "turns" on the Gaiety programme this week, certainly does not belie her description. While in a hypnotic trance this lady ascends from the stage into mid-air, where without any apparent aid, she gives an exhibition of skipping. The performance is a remarkable one, and last night considerably mystified a large audience. Other attractive items include the Five Sisters Emilias, who are responsible for a really smart musical entertainment, while Rose Elliott, a favourite with Gaiety audiences, scores well with several new songs. Professor Harcourt further puzzles "the house" by a series of clever feats of magic; and the Rayfords and Harry Lynn and Co. give a couple of amusing sketches, which are well appreciated. Among others who merit commendation for their share in the programme are Miss Lilian Warren in her illustrated songs, the Sisters Oswald, song and dance artistes, and Hamilton Hill, the Australian baritone.

It would seem that there was another sister! Or maybe a brother. In any case, this report of a family musical group with an English version of the Emilia name could be a coincidence. But the date of 1905 still makes the youngest musician from these two postcards - the violinist, only 12 to 16 years old, so I think it must be the same group. What music did they play in their 18th century courtier costumes? Did the boy imitate the violin solos of Mozart or Paganini?

What we can not see of course is Monsieur and/or Madame Emilia. Imagine being show business parents traveling with 4 or 5 young children in 1899. Every week, or even every day, there would be trunks to pack with their costumes, mandolins, guitars, hand bells, and glockenspiels. There were tickets to book for the coach, the train, or the ship; accommodation to arrange at hotels and inns; and countless postcards to send to theater agents. Though the children's variety act was maybe only 15 to 30 minutes long, there were  probably two or three performances every day during a run at some provincial music hall. Any entertainment has to keep fresh to be successful so there would always be new music to learn. And being on the road meant there was no formal school for the children. Did the Sisters Emilia have a tutor or did they limit their concert tours to only the summer months? Show dates in September in Crefeld and January in Birmingham suggests they likely played throughout the year. So many questions that will never have answers but at least we know that they were "a really smart musical entertainment."

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is invited to drop by for tea. 


La Nightingail said...

I wonder if the brother ever got tired of being the odd-man out, so to speak, when it came to the group's heading implying a 'sister act' when he was obviously just as important a part of the team?

Anonymous said...

I had no idea of these family musical groups before seeing them on your site. Your comments on the travelling and education were very interesting.


Most likely they were "home schooled".... I just hope their parents weren't as obnoxious as some parents we see nowadays...

Jo Featherston said...

I feel a bit sorry for the brother, as he didn't get any credit in the group's name. I wouldn't attempt to translate the message, but I have visited Crefeld back in 1970, when I lived for 3 months in the nearby town of Solingen, which is famous as a centre for knife and cutlery manufacture. For a minute I thought that was the address on the card, but no, it's Soflingen, which is near or part of Ulm, which I've also visited.

Postcardy said...

I wonder how many family musical groups there are now. There are probably a fair number of local groups that never get famous or travel.

Kristin said...

I would like to see that girl ascending into the air and skipping around with no visible means of support.

violet s said...

I'm curious as to what kind of music they played - a guitar and violin with mandolins seems an odd combination to me.

Alex Daw said...

I can't get over the size of the instruments that had to be carted around.

Jackie van Bergen said...

I'm a bit late this week as I've spent a few days with my musical niece (cello) and nephew (piano, bassoon and choir), and their father my brother (who plays the fool!). A musical family is always a lot of fun.

Susanna Rosalie said...

Are you sure the boy isn't a girl? Concerning the pants, it seems that the others are wearing them too, looking at the second postcard.

What an old postcard! I tried to transcribe and translate it. It was written by the son Robert to his parents. Mr. Ulrich Keigen being apparently the father and addressed as 'Fabrikant' meaning manufacturer or factory owner. The postcard is signed also by Friedr.[Friedrich] Kusel

Gruss aus: der
vom Variété!
Liebe Eltern!
Hoffe Euch im Besitze meiner
Briefe sowie Karten.
Sogar von der Fürberschule & [?] wird Walther das Nötige daraus erfahren haben. Bitte mir mitzuteilen, ob der Brief angekommen ist. Wie geht es zu Hause? Hoffentlich alles gut.
Wann kommt Walther? - Erwarte in bälde den Geldbriefträger, bin heute noch im Besitze von 105 deutschen Reichspfennigen. Inzwischen mit besten Grüßen, Robert
Herzl. Grüße! Friedr. Kusel

Greeting from:
the Oilmill! from the Vaudeville!
Dear parents!
Hope you are in posession of my letters and cards. Even from the Fürber-school and [?] Walther will have taken the necessary out of it. Please let me know if the letter has arrived.
How are you at home? Hopefully everything is alright. When is Walther coming? - Am expecting the monetary postman soon, today I am still in posession of 105 German Reichspfennigs.
In the meantime with best regards, Robert
Kind regards! Friedr. Kusel

Here is a link where you can see a picture postcard of the 'Öhlmühle' in Karlsruhe. Please scroll down to the second field of icons at the right and click on the one with the childs/puttos head.

The German text describes, that the real oil- and grainmill owned by Alexander König (1806-1882) had been operating until 1860 and was than transformed by him to an entertainment restaurant. It had function rooms of different sizes, an adjacent hall, a skittle alley, a music temple and a garden, more or less a park.
Play companies performed there, who used the it as a summer theatre. Concerts took place, fancy dress paties and entertainment events for children were held. Public holidays were celebrated there with 'living images', the garden would be illuminated and they had fireworks. The Öhlmühle became a central meeting place for the citizens of Krefeld.

On October, 25 1926 the Primus-Palast (palace) Film- and Stage-Show, opened up at the Öhlmühle.

I think most of the building was destroyed during the II. World War, remaining parts were then used by a movie theatre. And at one point, the square, where the building was located at, was named Alexanderplatz, after the owner of the Öhlmühle.

Mike Brubaker said...

Thank you once again, Susanna, for the translation and extra research. I did consider that the small violinist might be a girl dressed in pants. As we saw in my previous story, German theatrical costumes for women could be quite masculine. On the other hand, I have seen many photos from this era of boy violinists with long curly hair.

The translation is so typical of how postcards were used to respond to letters or to announce a forthcoming letter. Robert sounds just like every college student down to his last pfennig.

The postcard from Öhlmühle in Krefeld was wonderful to see the interior of the theater. If I can find enough postcards, someday I would like to present a similar tour of a small theater and the surrounding town.

Little Nell said...

The additional comments from your translator make this doubly interesting. I know Krefeld from the mid 1980s when we were stationed nearby with the RAF.

Tattered and Lost said...

Packing. Unpacking. Packing. Unpacking. You've made a good point that I hadn't even thought of. I have a client who right now is crossing Canada with a film, a new theater virtually every single night. Meet and greets, show the film, sell products, then pile in the van and move on. But that's on freeways with easy access to fuel, food, and places to stay. I can't imagine bundling a group of kids and instruments from place to place in the 1890s. I become dumfounded at the thought.


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