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 }

Miss Oda Rudolph, Trombone Soloist

06 March 2015

It's her breath that gives this photograph life. A quick inhalation that takes only a split second, almost a kiss, before her lips begin to vibrate in the mouthpiece and send sound flowing through the trombone. Her head and torso tilt in anticipation of a conductor's downbeat, while her right wrist bends gracefully, ready for a quick action with the trombone's slide. A corsage adds texture to her white gown that sparkles with sequins. Her photograph is a special favorite in my collection.

Her name is Oda Rudolph and she played the trombone.  

The fine camera of Mr. Bigelow's Central Gallery of 4th and Edmond Sts., St. Joseph, Missouri caught this moment. He advertised in the 1898 St. Joseph city directory as being a Flash-Light Expert and General Photographer. The flash light was a new explosive device for photography that added stronger artificial lighting and allowed a photographer to extend their work hours into the evening in spite of losing daylight, which at that time was the only way to illuminate a camera studio. 

Source: St. Joseph Businesses in 1898

By coincidence the photographer's image of "Dollie's Wash Day" comes from the same year as when he took Oda Rudolph's picture. She signed the back of the cabinet card photo:

     For Anna –    
     Sincerely –    
   Oda Rudolph  
    Dec. 25 -98-    
    Massilon, O.    

Goshen IN Pioneer
October 8, 1896

Massillon, Ohio (as it is correctly spelt) is a good distance east of St. Joseph, MO but not far if you took the train. And Oda was very familiar with trains as she was a musician in a traveling orchestra called the Clara Schumann Ladies Orchestra. This musical ensemble of 16 young women was put together in Chicago around 1895. It was one of several all-women professional orchestras and bands that were formed in America in the 1890s. These ladies orchestras performed with the lighter sound of string instruments which necessitated playing indoor concerts mostly for society events. The more successful groups toured the country getting bookings at Chautauqua and YMCA lecture series that were popular family entertainments because they combined quality musical and wholesome novelty acts with educational and religious speakers. 

Their concert programs included familiar classical overtures, marches, and popular tunes that were very much like the music played by wind bands. Despite the exaggeration of advertisements promoting them as the biggest, largest, etc., these ladies orchestras never had the full instrumentation of a symphony orchestra. All their music was arranged for much smaller numbers and using alternate instruments than the composers intended.

Oda had been a trombonist with this group since at least 1896 and was a featured headliner on some of their advertisements. Anytime an orchestra concert was booked in a girl's hometown or state, she was sure to have her name mentioned in the local newspaper reports.

* * *

Ft Scott KS Daily Monitor
November 26, 1901

Many of these women musicians came from musical families where one or sometimes both parents were musicians, so very often the orchestras listed 2 or 3 sisters on the roster. For at least two seasons Oda toured with her sister, Sarah Rudolph, who played string bass.

Oda was a frequent soloist and received many "complimentary" reviews like this one from the music critic of the Toronto Daily Mail and Empire published on April 21, 1897:

Miss Oda Rudolph, trombone, Miss Florence E. Beckett, flute, and Miss Alice N. Mead, harp, in their respective solos, surprised the audience by their technical ability. Certainly, in the case of the trombone, it is a novelty to hear a lady play this instrument.  

Since nearly every musician was unmarried, proper young ladies of the 1890s did not travel about the country without a chaperone. The Clara Schumann Ladies Orchestra were led by a gentleman who served as music director and stage manager. The group's first conductor was Frank Irwin, followed by Charles E. Perry, and then in about 1897 Frank W. McKee took over the baton. In later years his wife played first violin in the orchestra.

In the 1898-99 winter season, several of the Clara Schumann musicians along with McKee joined the Boston Ladies Symphony Orchestra. This orchestra came from arguably the most important center of music in America. There were already several successful female ensembles from Boston that were performing in cities and towns across the nation and even in Canada. The name, Boston Ladies Symphony Orchestra, sounds very grand but there were only 20 musicians including the conductor with 10 strings, 3 woodwind, 3 brass, (one string bass doubled on tuba to make a brass quartet), a drummer, and a harpist.

* * *

Clay Center KS Times
November 7, 1901

The theater circuits followed the rail lines and much of middle America heard traveling groups from Boston or New York that arranged concert dates in between larger bookings in the major cities. The small town of Clay Center, Kansas, population ± 3,069 in 1900 and  located on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad line, hosted the Boston Ladies Symphony Orchestra in November 1901. The local paper printed a large advertisement with a photo of the orchestra. Oda is third from the right. There are also two photos of solo musicians not dissimilar to Oda's photograph from Mr. Bigelow of St. Joseph.

We can see the same image of the solo cornet player, Elizabeth Banks-Allen in a promotional flyer for the Boston Ladies Symphony Orchestra which was distributed to event planners through the Chautauqua booking agencies.  And just above her is another image of Oda Rudolph with her trombone and wearing what looks like the same dress, but this photographer stayed with a more conventional pose. Perhaps Mr. Bigelow's photo was considered too daring, too brassy shall we say, for conservative small town tastes.

I found Oda Rudolph's name on only one census, the 1900 U.S. Census for Milwaukee, WI. She was sharing rooms there with two other musicians: Zeta McDonough, the violinist whose picture was on the lower right in the ad for the Boston Ladies Orchestra; and Alice Cheatham, a cornet player who once played with the Clara Schumann Ladies Orchestra. All three listed their occupation as musician and had the same address at a rooming house on a side lane off of River St. in Milwaukee. The spelling is not correct for the other two, but Oda's is right. However her birth date is recorded as Mar 1878, age 22, but from other documentation I learned she was actually age 26 and born in 1874. That would make her the older of the three women.

From one end to the other, River Street, Milwaukee is less than a half mile walk along the east side of the Milwaukee river which parallels the Lake Michigan shoreline. Today it is the main district for the city's food and culture. The Marcus Center For The Performing Arts is a stone's throw from where Oda and her friends lived in 1900. But of course in 1900 it was a center for industry and business of a different kind than today's trendy restaurants and galleries. 

Below is the complete census page for the 1st precinct of the 7th ward of Milwaukee, Wisconsin enumerated by Cornelius L. Van Ess in fine neat handwriting on the eight day of June, 1900. Oda and her two girlfriends are marked in the center. You can read their place of birth and their occupation on the right. But there something odd about this census record that caught my attention.

Can you spot anything unusual about this neighborhood?

Click the image to enlarge

Mr. Van Ess had beautiful clear penmanship on all 27 pages for this precinct, and there was one word that gave him a lot of practice — Prostitute. It was the occupation of 17 women who resided near Oda's rooming house on River St. There were 21 prostitutes on the page before. And 23 more on the page after.

In my reading of hundreds of census records, I have never encountered this occupation Prostitute as entered here. It certainly is not in the official Occupations at the twelfth census, 1900, Volume 1 published by the United States Census Office. Was Mr. Van Ess making a joke or just being truthful? 

So I decided to count them. Since it was also odd that 5 men listed their occupation as Saloon keeper or Bartender, I counted them too. And musicians too, of course. Each page has 50 rows for each person's name and data. There are 27 pages for this precinct, the last with only 44 names, making a total population of 1344 people. Of that number, 291 women made a living as a prostitute (21.6%); 93 men were either a Saloon keeper, Barkeep, or Bartender (6.9%); and 29 people were musicians including 4 actors (2%).

That is not a demographic of a typical city.

When I asked the oracles of the internet about this, I discovered a webpage from the Wisconsin Historical Society with a very rare document, a Ledger kept by a Milwaukee house of prostitution from 1909 to 1910. The book gives the income and expenses on each woman who worked at this brothel. The address for this place was 502 River St. – line 55 on the census page above!

This is page 14 from the same precinct. To his credit Mr. Van Ess never resorted to using " ditto. There are 46 Prostitutes and 2 Saloon Keepers and 1 Bartender.  We should make no judgement about Oda, Zeta, and Alice, as they were only struggling young musicians. It was a rough neighborhood.

Click the image to enlarge

By 1901 Oda Rudolph was clearly an accomplished professional trombonist who had performed on hundreds of theater stages from Boston to Kansas City to San Francisco. By demonstrating her talent on a musical instrument that was considered a bit unseemly, even unfeminine, to the society of this era, she made it acceptable and even worthy of admiration for other younger women who chose to make it their musical voice too. That was no small thing for any trombone player to do.

Though I found a citation for her in an 1894 Grand Rapids city directory as a music teacher, I have unfortunately found little about her beyond 1903. There is a gravestone in a cemetery near Flint, MI that records Oda Rudolph, 1874-1927, but though I believe it is her, I can not be certain it is the same person.

This story of Oda Rudolph is just part of a much larger history project about women musicians in America that I plan to write over several posts in the next year. The phenomenal popularity of ladies bands and orchestras created a wave of enthusiasm for more female musicians. Many of these musicians played in several bands and orchestras. The cornet player Nettie Reiter who was in my recent story, Cornets and Apples, was also a soloist with the Boston Ladies Symphony Orchestra as well as Helen May Butler's Ladies Band. Tracking down the names of these musical ladies is not unlike following the career of ball players moving from team to team. 

The inscription on Oda's photograph read: For Anna. She turned out to be a musician with this traveling ensemble too. But Anna's story is for another time. Stay tuned.

I've used this video before, but I think it deserves to finish Oda's story.
Here is the Bavarian Polka played by trombonist Daniëlle Elsinghorst
with Herman Engelbertinck and his Egerländer Musikanten band.
When you hear Daniëlle's triple-tongue virtuosity
you are hearing Oda Rudolph too.

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This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone loves to dance the polka!


Wendy said...

I wonder how difficult it was for Oda and other musicians to establish an air of legitimacy living in a neighborhood of prostitutes and barkeepers. Evidently the economics of Oda's profession limited her options.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

Another fascinating post. How ironic they had to travel with a chaperone but they lived in such a nefarious neighborhood. I look forward to reading more about these interesting, talented and ground-breaking women.

Arabella's blog said...

I'm really enjoying these posts, Mike.

Little Nell said...

I can see why that picture of Oda is so greatly prized by you I wonder why the bandmaster decided to ‘lend a hand’. As she demonstrated afterwards, she was more than capable!

Kristin said...

I've never run across a profession of prostitute in censuses either.

Alan Burnett said...

Another tour de force, indeed I always find your posts like a tour - one where it isn't just about where you are going but also about what you see on the way there. "A good read" - I can't think of higher praise than that

La Nightingail said...

What a great fun post. Loved the polka video. It seemed that one note was just a wee bit too low for her to reach? Or maybe it was just a fun bit added. Either way, it worked. And if Oda played that well, no wonder she was so popular! Musicians & actors did often live in questionable neighborhoods - but those were certainly a LOT of prostitutes! I wonder if Oda was friends with any of them?

Jo Featherston said...

I knew we could rely on you for a real polka, and what an amazing neighbourhood! Perhaps the ladies liked music while they worked?

Melissa Alysania said...

Echoing what Helen said about the chaperone! I do find it curious that artistic types lived in the same neighborhood as prostitutes, but I have to wonder if that's maybe part financial necessity and part social acceptance. To be a female musician and live alone without pressure to marry and fit into regular society might have been easier amongst women who are typically shunned by society.

Anonymous said...

Quite interesting and excellent research. I hope that Oda found happiness in her life as a musician, not poverty or shame.

Karen S. said...

You are so right, it's like you can almost hear her playing. I just adore that little washer girl too!

Anonymous said...

As fascinating as ever.


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