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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Four Plus Three

26 June 2015

They look like an optical illusion or a trick photo. Four young women. Three guitars. Six hands?
How does that work?    Take your time.     Did you spot the concealed fingertips?

The guitarist on the left is a girl of perhaps age 12, while the other three are older women in their 20s. They all wear similar long dresses except for the girl who has a short dress with white stockings and neat ballet style slippers on her feet.

This small carte de visite has no photographer's mark and the print quality is very poor with the image badly faded as well.  Fortunately digital software can correct and enlarge this photograph of four young guitarists. They appear to be in a photographer's studio with a light reflector tilted on the right. On the left we can just see a bit of the arm and fringed upholstery of the ubiquitous photographer's chair. 

Unlike the photos in last week's story of Master Wilbur, the Boy Wonder Violinist this photo has a very faint penciled annotation on the back. I believe it reads:

To Hawley
Miss Adie Simms

It's not much to go on, but enough.


Sedalia, MO Weekly Bazoo
February 20, 1883

In February 1883 the wonderfully named Weekly Bazoo of Sedalia, Missouri ran a notice of an impending entertainment.

The Simms sisters of Virginia, violinists, guitarists, vocalists, elocutionists and child danseuse, having met with delighted audiences in the east and west, will give one of their novel and delightful concerts at Germania Hall, Feb. 20th. They are splendid violinists and the finest living guitarists, and Miss Lulu will whistle the Carnival of Venice, accompanied by two guitars. They will appear on the principal streets, February 20th. in an open hack, with violins and guitars. Group photographs of the four sisters at the principal stores. 

The Simm Sisters certainly had the right number of sisters and at least more than one guitar. But the  fact that they were promoting their act with photographs made this a very promising lead to identify the girls in the photo.

Charlotte, NC Daily Observer
June 9, 1885

Two years later in June 1885, the Charlotte, NC Daily Observer printed a review of a concert given by the Simms Maidens at the Charlotte opera house.

At the opera house last night, a combination known as the Simms Sisters, gave a musical entertainment that was something out of the usual order of things. The company consists of father, four daughters and son, and they came unheralded, but billed the town yesterday themselves. The result was a pretty good sized audience to see the novel show. The Young ladies are skilled principally in the guitar and violin art, and aspire to song. 

One of the sisters, a bright vivacious child of 12, sang moderately well, danced a good deal and was applauded enthusiastically time and again. The three large sisters are experts on violin and guitar, were good looking, prettily dressed, modest and retiring. The combination playing of the four sisters on three guitars, or two violins and one guitar, was one of the successes of the show. For a novelty, the Simms Sisters are a success, but otherwise, the show is not more than ordinary.
 * * *

A review of very faint praise, but one could not ask for a better confirmation of the four guitarists' identity.

Sumter, SC Watchman and Southron
June 2, 1885
Only a few days before, the Simms Sisters played in Sumter, SC where their show was even less well recieved.

The Simms Sisters gave an entertainment in Music Hall, last Wednesday evening, and had a full house. The audience was disappointed, however, in the evening's amusement. The young ladies we think do their best, and really show considerable skill in playing both the violin and guitar under somewhat difficult circumstances, but they have no voices for singing, and their efforts in that line were flat failures. Little Flora was the only redeeming feature in the two hours of dreary flatness through which the entertainment dragged.

* * *

It is actually rare to find critical reviews as direct as that. Most newspapers promoted traveling artists using a good review from their recent performance in another town. If the show had merit they might offer additional praise, but it was uncommon to make such disparaging comments. The summer of 1885 must have troubled the Simms troupe as I found other reviews that were similarly critical. The Abbeville, SC Messenger: There was nothing remarkable about the performance, and the only one of the crowd that deserves especial mention was little Flora, who proved to be the life of the party. From the Carrollton, GA Carroll Free Press: ... people would not loose anything by letting them pass by unnoticed.

With the addition of another sister's name and a general description of the family from Virginia, I found Flora and Ada in the 1880 Census for Rapidan, Virginia , a small town in north central Virginia. Their father was George N. M. Simms, age 46, widowed, occupation Lawyer.   The oldest daughter was Lula Simms, age 18; followed by Ada, 16;  Nammie, 14; a son, Montgomery, age 9; and the youngest daughter, Flora, age 7.

1880 Census, Rapidan, VA

Judging from notices found in newspaper from Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, the Simms Sisters performed as a traveling musical act from about 1883 to 1886. Reports stopped after that year. To extrapolate from the brief reviews, the four Simm Sisters, not withstanding the novelty of playing three guitars, were just too ordinary.

My guess is that their musical program focused on chaste renditions of hymn tunes,  country dances, and popular sentimental songs. Acoustic guitars and violins are not loud instruments even in the best small town "opera house", so they must have struggled to make a noise that could compete with a brass band. It's unclear what instruments father or brother played. The public attraction seemed to be with little Flora, who as a child star would have limited years on the stage. Sadly the Simms Sisters were never destined to make the big time.

Assuming that the girls are arranged left to right according to age, the members of the Simms Sisters guitar trio quartet are Flora Simms, Nammie Simms, Ada Simms, and Lula Simms. There is a hint that some of the sisters joined the Salvation Army as I found two 1898 notices of events in Washington, D.C. where sisters by that name played guitar. But it is only a hint.

According to her certificate of death found on, Adie's full name was Aida Lester Simms  She was born February, 21, 1864 and died in Charlottesville, Virginia on January 3, 1960 at age 95.

She never married.
What ever happened to Hawley?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is checking out fine hotels this weekend.


Jo Featherston said...

Maybe some relative of Ada will see this and tell you who Hawley was, but I would think he/she must have simply been someone for whom Ada signed a photocard.

Wendy said...

Ouch -- those reviews! Maybe dad needed to stick to the law. I've done quite a bit of transcribing and indexing of various documents for the Greene County Historical Society, a county that borders the counties where Rapidan is located. I see the Simms name a lot. Quite often the name is attached to the movers and shakers -- lawyers, school board members, county clerks, town treasurer, etc.

Karen S. said...

So interesting, it's just the way I like a good hunt too. All you need is just enough to spark your curiosity! Then the adventure begins!

Kristin said...

Poor group! What sad reviews. I hope they made enough money to make it worth their while to travel around, leafleting the area upon their arrival.

Postcardy said...

It looks like it would be an interesting novelty act, with the way they are holding the guitars. Too bad they couldn't sing better.

Brett Payne said...

Perhaps that's why she never married - Hawley never returned her affections? Another excellent piece of detective work, though.

I have several such poorly executed cartes de visite, and generally assume that they were taken by itinerant photographers with little skill.

Joan said...

And now I am thinking about the backstory -- why a lawyer would take his family on the road? a shyster lawyer? --- and they "came into town unheralded" --- O, Mike, you may have some more great investigative work to do. Good tantalizing piece.

anyjazz said...

An excellent find with historical and theatrical significance! Good one! Good enhancement too!

Alex Daw said...

Intriguing as usual Mike. Maybe Dad was blinded by paternal love and thought his daughters were grand - or wished for a life on the stage and was living vicariously through them.


Tough to make a living with such reviews....
It kept the family together but if it didn't pay the bills,
must have been discouraging.
So, Flora never went solo? Or with another ensemble?
You did good on the photograph to revive it a bit.
I know such postures were required,
but you can't see the flame of passion in their eyes.
They look pretty dull, IMHO.
Maybe you'll come across something else in the future.


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