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 Thomas Family Concert Co.

25 September 2015

Of all the different genres of vintage musicians in my photograph collection, it is images of the family bands that I find most intriguing. In past times, choosing to make music a family lifestyle was unlike other family occupations like farming or shop keeping. Compared to the thousands of antique photos of families in front of their farmhouse or corner store, I think a portrait of a musical family posed with their instruments has a special quality that reveals much more about the subjects than what the camera sees. This is a story about one of those family bands that has an extra special quality. 

I'd like to introduce you to the Thomas family of Hartford, Connecticut,

Father is on double bass, and stands next to his wife with two daughters in front.
The youngest girl holds a pair of drumsticks, while her older sister has a violin..

Next to them are three more girls, a brass trio on tuba, cornet, and slide trombone.

Placed carefully on the floor in front of them are a tenor horn, a snare drum, and another violin and cornet.
The mother and her five daughters are dressed in long dark dresses with the puffy sleeves
that were fashionable in the 1890s. As you can see, the special quality
of these seven musicians, is that they are an African-American family band.

The location for this cabinet card comes from the photographer's mark, J. Nyser of  2 Ford Street, Hartford, Conn. The time frame is supported by the  fancy scalloped edges which were a characteristic of photos produced in the 1890s. But the best clue for identification is written clearly on the back.

The Thomas Family Concert Co.
290 Pearl St.

In 1921 a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C. destroyed 99% of the United States Census records for 1890. This catastrophe incinerated the records of 62,979,766 people living in the US on June 2, 1890, except for just 6,160 names that were recovered from the fire. The tragic consequences for genealogists and historians is that today there is a 20 year hole between 1880 and 1900, a time period large enough to hide a generation of human activity. Finding information about someone in an American photograph from the 1890s always presents a very difficult challenge.

That is why I am pleased to say that I was able to discover the Thomas family in other archival records. 

The first step seemed easy enough. Who lived in Hartford, CT at 290 Pearl St.?

The answer was conveniently found in Geer's 1897 Hartford City Directory.
Under the surname Thomas was Milton H. foreman. 56 Com. h. 290 Pearl.

1897 Hartford CT city directory

In 1896, Milton H. Thomas was also listed at the address 290 Pearl St., but in the previous city directories for 1894, 1893, and 1892 his home address was 210 Windsor St. During those years, his occupation was listed as ostler (stable hand), driver, and then foreman. Significantly, the directories from 1890 and earlier did not have his name.

<< The directory also listed a Philip Thomas who kept a restaurant and home at 290 Pearl. I suspect he was a uncle or distant cousin, as I did not find his name attached to earlier records for any of Milton's siblings. >>

* * *

As an aside to my story, I must show you the listing for another well known resident of Hartford, CT, found just between Tuzzilo, Twaddell, Twaddle,  , Twardoks, Twarz, and Tweed.

Twain Mark, Samuel L. Clemens, author "Inno-
cents Abroad," etc. h. 351 Farmington

1897 Hartford CT city directory

The master storyteller, Samuel Clemens, must have chuckled to read his listing every year when the directory was updated. His home is preserved as a national landmark and is only 1.3 miles east of Pearl St.

* * *

One of the curious but useful features of early city directories was a section titled Migrations, which offered several pages of an alphabetized list of those people who had left a city during the previous year. For 1899, Geer's Hartford city directory listed  Thomas  Milton H., Fishkill, N. Y.

1899 Hartford CT city directory

Fishkill, a small village north of New York City along a tiny tributary to the Hudson river, is about 80 miles west of Hartford. In the following year, Milton H. Thomas, age 45, was still living there to be enumerated in 1900 census, along with his wife, Sarah F. Thomas, age 42; daughters, Grace M. Thomas, age 21; Rachel A. Thomas, age 18; Suzie V. Thomas, age 8; and son, Milton H. Thomas, age 2. The youngest children had been born in Connecticut, while the other members of the family were born in New York. Helpfully everyone's birth month and year were a line item on this census. Milton H. Thomas Sr. recorded his occupation as R.R. Laborer, and his two oldest daughters listed theirs as Day Laborer.

1900 US Census, Fishkill, NY

But the most useful data is on the row for Sarah. She and Milton, ages 42 and 45 respectively, had been married for 26 years. Getting wed at age 16 was certainly not uncommon in this earlier century, and the result for Sarah, recorded in the next two boxes, was that she was the mother of 8 children of whom only 6 were living. That meant that there were certainly at least four more Thomas children on the missing 1890 census. Quite enough for a good size band.

The next step was to see if the Thomas's were in the 1880 census. Out of 682 residents of the village, there was Milton H. Thomas, age 36, Laborer; wife, Sarah, age 25; and three daughters, Sarah L., age 5; Mary E., age 3; and Grace M., age 1.

1880 US Census, Fishkill, NY

Putting the two records together, we can now account for enough daughters to give names to the Thomas Family Band. Deciding on the oldest girl is difficult as they are all close in age, but I think the cornet player is Sarah L. Thomas, the eldest daughter ; the tuba is Mary E. Thomas; the trombone is Grace M. Thomas; the violin is Rachel A. Thomas; and the youngest, dressed in white with the drumsticks, is Suzie V. Thomas.

The Thomas Family Concert Co., circa 1898, Hartford, CT

Based on the 290 Pearl St. address for Milton Thomas in the city directories, it seems safe to say that the photograph was taken between 1895 and 1899. But I think we can narrow it down even more. Suzie, the youngest girl, was born in October 1891 and in this photo she appears to be close to 5 or 6 years old. Milton H. Thomas Jr., the son who is not in the photo, was born in September 1897. Looking closely, I would venture to say Mrs. Thomas does not appear pregnant, so I think it was taken in the previous years, 1896 or even 1895. That would make the approximate ages for the five sisters as follows: Sarah L. - age 21; Mary E. - 19; Grace M. - 18; Rachel A. - 14, and Suzie V. - age 5.

I rarely get to make estimates like this, so readers are welcome to offer any alternate labeling for the Thomas family.

* * *

The various records for Milton Thomas, a black man who lived in Hartford, Ct with his family from 1892 to 1897, and in Fishkill, NY before and after that period, seem clear enough to make a good identification of the members of the Thomas family in this photograph.

But how do we interpret the note on the back? The Thomas Family Concert Co. strongly suggests a professional musical ensemble. With their multiple brass and string instruments, Milton's family definitely have the same polished look that is found in photos of similar groups of family musicians. This type of photograph was reproduced in large numbers to promote the concert tours of a theatrical company and sell as souvenirs of the show. The striking difference with the Thomas family of course, is that this is an African American family. It is difficult to imagine how they managed in the 1890s to find theaters that would book a concert of a black musical troupe that was predominately female.

Nonetheless that is what The Thomas Family Concert Company implies.

Fort Dodge IA Times
February 18, 1892

Historic newspaper archives offer a wealth of detail on daily life, that is missing in the dry statistics of directories and census books. I found the earliest reference to a performance by a Thomas family in a newspaper published a long ways from Hartford in Monticello, Iowa in July 1889.  It reports only that "a traveling troupe known as the
Thomas family gave a concert at the
Methodist church last night."

Two similar short notices appeared in a newspaper in Davenport, IA in November 1891. But the first mention of the Thomas Family Concert Co. came in a February 1892 notice in the Fort Dodge , IA Times, where they "gave a good show at the school house" in nearby Barnum, IA.

Thomas is a very common English/Welsh surname, and there is no mention of the group's race, so this is not a positive link. But there was an immigration of African Americans to Iowa  in the 1880s, especially in the Fort Dodge area, where they found employment in the coal mines and railroad yards. It is intriguing that the last notice in this clipping says, "Banjo Joe held forth at the school house last Saturday night to a full house. He is a 'Joe' on the banjo."

* * *

There were no more newspaper reports of concerts by a Thomas Family until 1897, and this time from Minnesota. The Worthington, MN Advance offered a review and a kind of quote from Mr. Thomas.

Worthington, MN Advance
November 18, 1897

The Thomas family gave a concert at the Congregational church Saturday night to a small audience. The entertainment was fair. Of them the Pipestone Star says: "The members of the Thomas Familiy Concert Co. are certainly enjoying their tour through this section. The family travels in three large covered wagons which are fitted up as near like home as possible. The two larger wagons are nicely heated by stoves, and the family lives right in these houses on wheels, and Mr. Thomas saqys they enjoy it greatly – especially when the weather is good" 

* *

I readily admit that it's a long stretch to conjecture that these reports are of the same Thomas family of Hartford, CT,  as Worthington, MN is in southwest Minnesota, about 140 miles northwest from Fort Dodge, IA. Again there is no mention of race or even gender, both characteristics of the Thomas family in my photo that seem remarkable enough that they would have included that description in a newspaper report. However, like the report from 1889, this newspaper also mentions a church. Could that provide a meaningful connection for the Thomas family? 

* * *

Richmond, VA Planet
December 11, 1897

Newspaper research uncovered one more report from Virginia of a traveling Thomas family in 1897. The  newspaper's Virginia location might seem more incredible than Minnesota except that it clearly ties into African American culture. The Richmond, VA Planet was a weekly journal established in 1883 for a nationwide African American readership. Its editor for many decades was John Mitchell, Jr. (1863 – 1929) who was a black businessman, newspaper editor, civil rights activist, and politician from Richmond. 

Because Mitchell's journal focused on issues important to African Americans, it regularly ran reports from cities outside of Virginia. One of these was entitled Bridgeport Jottings and carried the news from Bridgeport, CT. On December 11, 1897 the last item said, "The Thomas family of Hartford is still stopping at Rev. R J H. Taylors' The amount raised by the members of the Bethel A.M.E. Church was $124.21."  

The church was a parish of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, which featured in my story earlier this year on the Rev. Charles E. Stewart and his A&M College Band of Greensboro, NC.

* * *

Richmond, VA Planet weekly newspaper

The address in Hartford for Milton Thomas is practically in the center of downtown Hartford. Pearl St. is quite short, running along only 4 blocks, and roughly parallel to Bushnell Park which is where the Connecticut State House is located. The distance from 290 Pearl St. to the capitol building is less than 4/10ths of a mile, which Google Maps considers a brisk 8 minute walk. 

The Pearl St. block that the Thomas family knew is today mostly a large parking lot. But in 1900 it was very different, as we can see on the wonderfully detailed Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for this area of Hartford, CT.  In the center I've marked 290 Pearl St., captioned on the map as 3 tenements, brick built. Across the street is a fire station, (which is still there, though rebuilt), and next to it is a church –  the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. When Milton and the girls looked to the other direction from the church they saw the Y.M.C.A. buildings which included an auditorium that was undoubtedly used for music concerts.

You will also note that I've marked Mr. Nyser's photography studio which was just around the corner at No. 2 Ford St. The bottom right corner shows part of the Park River which once divided this section of downtown Hartford from Bushnell Park. This riverlet was frequently subject to flooding as it fed into the Connecticut River, and in 1940 it was completely covered over. Many present day residents of Hartford probably don't know of its existence. 

Sanford Fire Insurance Map
1900 Hartford, CT, plat 9

The 1897 Hartford city directory provides a description and illustration of the African Methodist Episcopal Church that the Thomas family knew.  The 34' by 60' building was erected in 1857 at a cost of $6,000. It had seats for 445 people and a congregation of 130. The pastor was Rev. J. Sulla Cooper.

African Methodist Episcopal Zions Church
1897 Hartford CT city directory

The archives of the Connecticut Historical Society provided this next photo of the Zions A.M.E. church taken in 1897. A caption on the back identifies the building on the right as the fire house for the hook & ladder company. The photographer is not identified but it's quite possible Mr. Nyser made it, given that his photo shop was only a block away,

A. M. E. Zions Church, circa 1897
Source: Connecticut Historical Society

African American churches, and especially the A.M.E. church, played a major role throughout the turbulent 19th century in shaping and sustaining black culture in the United States. I believe that Milton and Sarah Thomas were members of Hartford's Zion A.M.E. church and used their family band as a kind of musical missionary group to black churches in other parts of the country. That they we able to do this in the 1890s is truly remarkable.

The evidence here is very sketchy at best, and I recognize that the newspaper reports may be about a completely different Thomas Family Concert Co. But I think it makes sense that a black family band would find performance opportunities in black churches, and that they would tour in states where white people were not flagrantly racist and had supported the Union side of the Civil War. 

 * * *

There were more records for Milton H. Thomas, that helped in his identification. For all the faults of labeling people  by race, (and religion too!) the initial B in these early census documents made finding his family much easier that if he had been white. I learned that his father, Alexander Thomas, and his grandfather, Joseph Thomas, had called Fishkill, NY home for many years, going back to the 1840 census. This meant that Milton came from the heritage of free blacks, which I imagine gave him a different perspective in aiding the emancipated former slaves that were developing new communities in Iowa and Minnesota.

By the 1910 census, Milton and Sarah (Fanny) were again living in Connecticut, but now in New Haven, with only their son Henry, age 12. Milton was employed as Fireman, Steam Railroad, which was basically work as a coal stoker for train engines. In the 1920 census at age 65, he was alone in New Haven and now a widower living as a lodger in a boarding house. His occupation was Laborer, Rubber Factory.

Born in 1855, Milton was too young to have participated in the Civil War, and too old in 1917 for World War One. Yet the state of Connecticut required him to answer question to determine if he had any skills that could contribute to the war effort. Instead of the limited detail found on the 1917 US draft registration cards, this document discloses some very personal information that is unlike any questionnaire I've ever seen .

Like all proper government paperwork, the affidavit starts with full name and address:
Milton Henry Thomas of 107 Foote St., New Haven, CT.

  • Present trade, occupation?- Fireman.
  • Age?- 63 years.
  • Height?- 4 ft 11 in.
  • Weight?- 183 lbs.
  • Married?- Yes.
  • Dependents?- One
  • Serious physical disability?- Kidney trouble.
  • Can you Ride a horse?- Yes
  • Handle a team?- Yes
  • Drive an automobile?- No
  • Ride a motorcycle?- No
  • Understand telegraphy?-  No 
  • Operate a wireless?- No
  • Experience with steam engine?- Little
  • Electrical machinery?- No
  • Handle a boat, power or sail?- No
  • Coastal navigation?- No
  • High Speed Marine Gasoline Engines?- No
  • Are you a good swimmer?- No

* * *

Finding string bass players was obviously not a high priority for the Connecticut National Guard. But learning Milton's height and weight helps confirm my identification. The wooden body of a double bass is a bit under 44 inches long. Adding 5 inches for the peg, the height to the end of the scroll is nearly 76 inches. Combine that with portliness and I judge Milton Henry Thomas to be a very good fit for the man in my photograph.

For all his reported lack of skills, I think Milton knew much more than he let on that would have been useful to the military. Raising so many daughters (and a son too) required superior organizational abilities, not to mention a generous amount of patience, even if he never really took them on a concert tour of Minnesota in three covered wagons.

I'm also sure that Sarah Thomas shared in that musical home schooling and taught her children to have poise and confidence when performing in public. Learning to read music brings discipline and order to a young person, but as I always tell my own students, it is the fun that is most important. I expect the Thomas Family Concert Co. enjoyed a joyful household that was always filled with music.

 * * *

Now for the coda.

This very surprised infant sits in the lap of his father, while his mother offers a gentle hand of support, and his faithful Saint Bernard drools on the sheepskin rug of Mr. John C. Nyser, photographer of Hartford, CT.  

I don't know the address of the proud young parents, nor their baby's name, nor the size and weight of their dog. But there is something that I recognized that links these two examples of Mr. Nyser's work. Can you spot it?

Hartford, CT corner of Ford and Pearl Streets, circa 1916
Source: Connecticut History Illustrated

John C. Nyser of No. 2 Ford Street, was one of 15 photographers in Hartford. Nearly all kept studios within a few blocks of Pearl St. Thanks to the archives of Connecticut History Illustrated, I can show you the corner of Ford and Pearl Streets, circa 1916, where John Nyser kept his shop. It's the little shack with PHOTOGRAPHS in big letters on the side.

* * *

I confess that I actually bought this second photo because of the dog, but the bonus came when I compared the backdrop in both photos. Look at the pointy arches on the left and the column's capital on the right. I think they are pretty close to identical. It certainly places the Anonymous family in the same 1890s decade, and perhaps even the same year as the Thomas family.

In my imagination, I see this young family of Hartford pushing a perambulator down Pearl St. They pause as their dog takes a interest in the fire house. Mother smiles as baby responds to the sound of a band floating from across the street. The child listens to the thrum of a deep bass fiddle and tuba. He laughs at the melodious violin and shudders to the squawk of the trombone. The cornet's fanfare encourages father to resume their walk towards Mr. Nyser's shop on Ford St. Their steps align with the rhythmic rattle of a drum. It's a wonderful day to have music in your life.  

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more shaggy dog stories.


Jo Featherston said...

Fantastic sleuthing work, well up to your usual standard of excellence, and great imagination in relation to the family walking by 290 Pearl and hearing the band music on their way to the photographer's studio. I notice there was also a Philip Thomas living at the same address in the 1897 durectory, and wonder whether he was related to Milton, perhaps a brother for example?

Mike Brubaker said...

Well spotted, Jo. I forgot to add that detail. As far as I can tell from the names of Milton's siblings on the earlier census records. Philip Thomas was not a direct relation. He may have been a cousin or even an uncle. Middle initials are often incorrect, and of course don't give a full name. That's why the 1917 Connecticut Survey was so valuable in completing Milton's missing Henry middle name.

Barbara Rogers said...

I'm so glad I took the time to read this most detailed post about a musical family who lived in Hartford. Yes, I have often been stymied by the missing 1890 census data, and when I lived in Hartford in the 1960s, I don't think I ever walked around the State House. At that time it was suffering from many newly constructed interstate highways. I did walk around other parts of downtown, banks, book stores, offices. Never checked out any photo studios however.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

Another great piece of can hardly call this a post - it's far more a work of creative non-fiction. I feel weekly that your contributions deserve a large audience than Sepia Saturday provides. Do you post them anywhere else? I thoroughly enjoyed this sleuthing and then you capped it all off with the wonderful coda!

Anonymous said...

Another post that was well worth the reading. Your logic is always so clear and easy to follow but a lot of hard work on your part. Thanks.

Lorraine Phelan said...

Another example of your excellent research skills, and fascinating to read.

Wendy said...

I guess the Thomas family predates the rise of music clubs in Harlem, no? However, if their focus was the church, then maybe a music club was not part of the plan anyway. I wonder if the son ever joined the band.

Tattered and Lost said...

This was perfection! I now want to know so much more about this family. And you made the neighborhood come alive too. Pure perfection.

anyjazz said...

A fine exercise! I love it when photographs connect and contribute to each other. Good eye for spotting the backdrop similarity. Sometimes the slightest detail will change the whole perspective of a photograph.


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