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 }

The Poet Photographer

08 November 2014

Some photographs are more than a two-dimensional image. Some have hidden meanings and clever twists that convert a picture into poetry. This modest carte de visite photo is one of them.

A bearded man stands in a typical 1860's photographer's studio blowing into a type of woodwind instrument. His plain hat and coat are not those of a bandsman or professional musician. Though his instrument might be mistaken for a clarinet or even an oboe, it is something very different which is seldom pictured in early photographs.

He is playing a gentleman's instrument, a flageolet.  

English Flageolet
Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection

The flageolet or flageolett is a type of recorder or fipple flute which produces a whistle sound when the player's breath is split over a sharp edged window that is carved into the wooden tube. It descends from the recorder or blockflöte which was an ancient wind instrument common throughout the medieval and baroque eras. But the recorder lacked the ability to play very loudly and as Baroque composers like Bach became old fashioned in the new Classical era of Mozart, many early wind instruments like the recorder were made obsolete. Its replacement was the keyed flute which was played in a transverse manner by blowing across a hole placed in the top part of the tube. It offered more notes and more dynamic contrast.

But the flageolet had a brief period of resurgence in the early Romantic era when English and French instrument makers made a new version with keys. The ivory beak-like top is hollow and makes no noise. The lower section has 6 or 7 finger holes in front and one thumb hole in the back. The additional keywork untangles the fingerings for different notes. On 19th century flageolets there are often ivory buttons between the tone holes which are mainly decorative but help in holding the instrument. Like the recorder it was incapable of loud and soft dynamics and therefore was not intended as an orchestral or band instrument. Mostly it was played as a solo instrument for private enjoyment or occasionally as an accompaniment for voices. 

YouTube provides a very good demonstration of a flageolet played by Rubens Küffer - his first try with an original French flageolet. This one is made of ebony while the example above is in boxwood. It's a short video so stick with it until his courteous bow when he doffs his cap.



This second cdv shows the same musician but this time seated and surrounded by three men who have placed their hands on his shoulders in an affectionate manner. The flageolet player has removed his hat and holds a piece of paper in his hand. They have the look of friends rather than family and initially I thought they might be a quartet of singers.

The floor cloth has the same pattern as the first and the only thing to suggest that the photographs were taken at different times is the color of his hat. Cream for summer and grey for fall?

What is on that paper and why does he want us to look at it?

 _ _

The unsophisticated poses of the men and the way the paper mount of these two cdvs has been trimmed at the corners so as to better fit the early photo albums, likely dates them from around 1865 to 1870. On the back of both small photographs is a large dramatic design of a young man holding a flag and heroically waving his hand forward. On the flag is the word EXCELSIOR.  The photographer is:

Traveling Artist

His full mellifluous name was Cyrus G. Blatt of Bernville, Pennsylvania, and he was a traveling artist, a common term then used for photographers who took up a itinerant trade with their camera and went town to town with all their equipment making photographs. In the 1860s this part of southeast Pennsylvania seems to have been the center of American photography to judge by the thousands of carte de visites and later cabinet photos preserved from this area.   

Excelsior is a word usually defined as Ever Higher!

It is also the term for fine wood shavings used as packing material, the 19th century bubble wrap.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)

The illustration of this flag man in the short kilt is actually a literary allusion which would have been instantly recognizable to anyone from the mid-19th century. He is the young standard-bearer in the poem Excelsior by  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882).

Poetical Works of H. W. Longfellow pub. 1856
Source: Google Books

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,

His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion* from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,

In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,

"Try not the Pass!" the old man said;
"Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!"
And loud that clarion voice replied,

"Oh stay," the maiden said, "and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast! "
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,

"Beware the pine-tree's withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!"
This was the peasant's last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,

At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,

A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell like a falling star,

* A falchion is a short sword with a curved blade.

Longfellow published this poem in a collection of his poetry in 1841 and it became one of his most well known short poems. Though he had traveled widely throughout Europe and spoke several languages, Longfellow reportedly took his inspiration for this poem from the motto Excelsior on the New York state seal. The poem was originally published without illustrations, but its popularity invited artists to render the words into art and even into song. This next image comes from a 4th grade school reader published in 1886 by a company using Excelsior as their trade name.

Sadlier's Excelsior 4th Reader: pub. 1886
Source: Google Books

The imagery in Longfellow's poem captured the sentiment of many aspiring adventurers, entrepreneurs, and artists of the second half of the 19th century. When you see a man with a banner held high on a mountaintop in a 19th century painting it undoubtedly is a reference to this poem. Composers also were captivated by the words. Franz Liszt used the idea of the ever upward youth for the prelude to an early secular oratorio entitled Die Glocken des Strassburger MünstersThe Bells of Strasbourg Cathedral. Richard Wagner like it so much he ‘borrowed’ Liszt’s Excelsior theme for the opening motif of his opera Parsifal. There were at least two popular song settings of Excelsior made by other composers, and even a ragtime piano piece published in 1909 by the composer Joseph Lamb entitled Excelsior - A Rag.

Title page: Excelsior - A Rag
by Joseph Lamb 1909

Walt Whitman
frontispiece to Leaves of Grass 1855

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was not the only poet who liked this wonderful exclamation. His contemporary Walt Whitman (1819-1892) also used it as a title of a poem that was published in 1855 in the collection Leaves of Grass, arguably the most influential literary work of the 19th century.

_ _

by Walt Whitman

Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther,
And who has been just? for I would be the most just
    person of the earth,

And who most cautious? for I would be more

And who has been happiest? O I think it is I !  I
        think no one was ever happier than I;

And who has lavish'd all? for I lavish constantly the
        best I have;
And who has been firmest? For I would be firmer;

And who proudest? for I think I have reason to be
        the proudest son alive — for I am the son of the
        brawny and tall-topt city;

And who has been bold and true? For I would be the boldest
        the boldest and truest being of the universe;
And who benevolent? For I would show more be-
         nevolence than all the rest;
And who has projected beautiful words through the
         longest time? By God! I will outvie him! I
         will say such words, they shall stretch through
         longer time!
And who has receiv'd the love of the most friends?
         For I know what it is to receive the passionate
         love of many friends;
And to whom has been given the sweetest from
         women, and paid them in kind? For I will
         take the like sweets and pay them in kind;
And who possesses a perfect and enamour'd body?
         For I do not believe any one possesses a more
         perfect or enamour'd body than mine;
And who thinks the amplest thoughts? For I will
         surround those thoughts;
And who has made hymns fit for the earth? For I
         am mad with devouring extacy to make joyous
         hymns for the whole earth!

U.S. Postal Stamps 1940

I will leave it to readers to decide which is the better poem, though it seems clear that Whitman has used Longfellow's thematic idea. What interests me is that both men cultivated an individual fashion style and frequently posed for photographs to enhance their celebrity status. And as you can see there is a resemblance between both poets and the musical gentleman from Pennsylvania. To be clear he is neither Whitman nor Longfellow, but I do think he might be a poet too.

This infant of undetermined gender is perched on a photographer's stool and has wiggled its foot just as the camera shutter blinked. The child seems unsupported but it's possible a hidden mother is holding on to it from behind the backdrop.

The style is typical of thousands of similar children's  photographs made by traveling artist photographers.

But the printing on the back is what makes it a unique photo.

C. G. Blatt's
Photographic Emporium,

Isn't this a good old treat,
Where the public fears no cheat,
They know his pictures have no beat,
In finish, excellence,–and cheap.

Sour faces made so sweet,
And the style so nice and neat:
Besides they are so very cheap,
That the poor man need not squeak.

And all this you will find,
If you only come in time,
To see C. G. Blatt, you see,
Who will still in Bernville be.

He knows that you must laugh
Fifteen pictures for one and a half,
Additional pictures he will
Give fifteen for one dollar bill.

 > <

Cyrus G. Blatt was a poet as well as a photographer with high aspirations. His promotional idea was one of the first jingles printed so that the public might remember his business. Born in 1841, the same year as Longfellow's poem, he was listed as a photographer in the Bernville census of 1870. There are no military records with his exact name, so he may not have served in the Civil War. At some point he quit the traveling artist work to takeover a studio in Bernville, PA. His home still remains as a historic landmark in this small town of 900 citizens. 

There are a few varieties of Cyrus's advertising rhymes. This next one has 5 verses and refers to a photographer's specialized techniques and mishaps. 

Source: American Museum of Photography
C. G. Blatt's
Photographic Emporium,
Bernville, Pa.

Only have your shadow secured by C. G. Blatt,
Will take better portraits than any you had;
I take them myself, as no other can,
I color them, too, as no other man.
I praise each production than goes from my shed;
The ears and the nose, the mouth, and the head.
'Tis true that an eye may be lost to the view,
Or an ear left uncolored and awfully blue.
A scratch on the plate, or a hand double size,
A bright pinky color close up to the eyes;
One side of the head in shadow, no doubt,
The other is lost and quite eaten out.
By the rays of the sun and open air light,
Is a fallacy settled by those who have sight,
No matter whatever I do is well done,
Influenced by moon or influenced by sun.
My portraits are second to none, and I say it
Or rather my language being different I pray it.
Then such are my pictures, such also am I,
I live to be laughed at by all passers by.

> <

 I like how the word Emporium has the same grand qualities as Excelsior!  A 1939 article in the Reading PA Times on past times of Bernville said that C. G. Blatt advertised "magic invisible photographs" and gave them this astonishing name: "aquamirabiliso-graphictrickography".

His output of photographs continued to about 1900 and he died in 1915 at age 77. His obituary noted that in his early career he traveled Berks county with a magic lantern show and that on his death the locality of Bernville loses one of its most useful citizens. 

As you may have guessed, I believe this bearded gentleman is Cyrus G. Blatt. In the second photo I think he is holding an advertising flyer for his photography Emporium and that the other men are his assistants and apprentices. A man who liked words would likely dress the part of the romantic poet, and the few clues to his evident good humor make me think that he would enjoy music and song too. The flageolet would be a perfect musical instrument to accompany a traveling artist like C. G. Blatt. What better way to let customers know that your wagon was approaching than to announce it with the ever higher trill of a flageolet. Perhaps there was even a melody that he played for his poems.

Of course I can't prove it beyond doubt, and instead this may be some unknown musical shop keeper from some other town in Pennsylvania. But sometimes poetry has hidden meanings that we can never learn unless we keep striving higher and higher.


>>> <<<

Sam Loyd's "Excelsior" 1858
White to play and mate in 5 moves
using the least likely chess piece.

One last interesting trivia connected to this poetry theme. The great puzzle maker and chessmaster Sam Loyd (1841 - 1911) created a special chess problem in 1858 to challenge a friend who claimed to be able to always find the one chess piece that would finish a game with checkmate.

Loyd bet his friend that he could not pick out the one chessman in this problem which could not possibly play for a checkmate of the black king. But actually would! Sam Loyd gave it the title Excelsior in honor of Longfellow's heroic boy who climbed ever higher to the top. 

{ see the answer below }

Did I ever mention that I like poetry and puzzles too?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone else has gone finshin'

Excelsior Solution
follow Pawn b2
to its promotion to Queen a8 - checkmate


Karen S. said...

Oh my gosh what a beard he is sporting! I don't think I've heard of a fren before, but no doubt have heard it play before this video. Very nice how you put the photos together with the instrument next to it, very nice.

Karen S. said...

I meant the name French flageolet is new to me. But I also wanted to mention I liked your title for this post! The Poet Photographer- fun!

Bob Scotney said...

Another brilliant post, this time combining photography, poetry and music.

Alex Daw said...

I'm hopeless at chess. I guessed the pawn out of ignorance but had no idea of the moves or that it could turn into a queen (which shows you how hopeless at chess I am). I love puzzles too but stick to crosswords. I do like the photographer's rhyming advertisements and have sat here trying to say graphictrickography several times until I get it right.

Anonymous said...

On top of everything else you are a chess player ! That's good. That's a most interesting little instrument with an interesting sound. Very handy for carrying around with you, Makes me think of the song I took my harp to the party but nobody asked me to play.

La Nightingail said...

A slightly different posting than usual, but interesting. The chess puzzle was an especial addition. I don't play chess myself. I tried to learn once, but it takes more 'thinking' than I'm willing to put into a game. Checkers is fun, though. :)

Wendy said...

Following your argument, I wonder if the first photo was a "selfie."

Little Nell said...

“Sour faces made so sweet” - how handy he was! I don’t think I’ll ever look at the word excelsior in the same way again!

Kristin said...

Why didn't the 2nd pawn that the white pawn took, take him first? This post was certainly chock full of interesting stuff.

Postcardy said...

Interesting post. I never heard of a flageolet before. I only knew of "excelsior" as packing material. It seems strange that the word could have such different meanings.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

I'll chime in with Bob and say "Brilliant". What restraint the writer exhibited when describing Mr. Blatt as a "useful citizen".

Howard said...

Another brilliant post Mike. I had always assumed a flageolet was just like a recorder, but the video shows it has a much richer tone. I think you should become a private detective, though more Holmes than Marlowe or Spade.


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