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 Big Hat

12 March 2016

This is not just a big hat. This is a Grand Hat! 
Any man who wears a tall bearskin shako
complete with white tassel and gilt chin strap
is not making a fashion statement so much
as a military command for our attention.
His coat gleams with polished buttons,
gold epaulets, knotted cords and braids.
His eyes gaze toward some distant field
as he fearlessly awaits the order to advance.

Who is this gallant soldier?

I don't know.
But I have some ideas.

For one thing he is not exactly a soldier.

He's a musician.

The man stands in a photographer's studio wearing a splendid full dress military style uniform. His bearskin hat adds an imposing 15 inches or so to his height. His left hand grasps the bell of a shiny brass instrument displayed on a small velvet covered side table. Close behind him is a painted theatrical backdrop of an imaginary paneled lobby and staircase. I would estimate his age as somewhere between 25 and 35. His imperial style beard looks oddly contemporary and would not be out of place on a modern era baseball player.

This musician's photograph was printed in an uncommon large format, sized 5.5" x 7.65" and mounted on a large board, 7.5" by 9.5". (I've cropped the image to remove the wide borders.) This was probably done to allow room for both the man's hat and his horn. The photograph's print style date it to somewhere between 1880 and 1895.

The only marks on the photo are those of the photographer.


Lebanon is a small city in southeast Pennsylvania, about 30 miles east of the state capital, Harrisburg, halfway to Reading. In 1880, Lebanon's population numbered 8,778 which swelled in the next decade to 14,664 by 1890. In the 1870s Mr. J. W. Graeff at 20 South 9th Street was one of only two photographers in the city. He advertised as The Artistic Photographer, – Good  Pictures Guaranteed.

Lebanon, PA Daily News
February 12, 1878

Mr. Graeff's full name was John William Graeff. He was born in Lebanon in 1850 and was the son of John Gaeff, a confectioner who came from Darmstadt, Germany. In the 1870 census J. W. Graeff was listed at age 20 as single and still living in his father's home. Louisa Lichtenthaler, the woman who would become his wife, also lived in the same house working as a clerk in Graeff Sr.'s confectionery shop. By the 1880 census, John and Louisa had a daughter, Ethel, age 1. Louisa's brother also lived in their house working with John as a photographer.

Like many enterprising businessmen, Graeff sometimes indulged in versification to set his advertisements apart from others in the dense columns of Lebanon's newspapers. This lengthy jingle was published in May 1882.

Lebanon, PA Daily News
May 16, 1882

Nonsense And Sense


The hog was born by nature,
A powerful thing to root;
And in the spring rips up the sod
With his tough and hardened snoot.

The toad is born by nature,
A powerful thing to leap;
And when he stands he does not stand.
But sits all on a heap.



There is an artist in our town,
Who understands his trade;
Go and see artistic work,
And have your portrait made.

Graeff is the artist's name,
A power in oil and inl;
And when you want a handsome job
Of J. W. Graeff please think.

Assisted by experienced men –
W. Householder is one;
As Operator he can't be beat,
Nowhere beneath the sun.

The Dry Plate process is the thing
For babies young or old;
Taking Pictures in a wink,
And brings them out most bold.

Come try the new dry plate,
It surely will you please;
As Photographs we can now take
With perfect skill and ease.

With it we make quick work,
A thing so long looked for;
For groups and babies its all the go,
Good pictures always sure.

20 South Ninth street is the place,
And don't forget the name;
J. W. GRAEFF, Photographer,
And the place to get a Frame.


The musical instrument in this photo is very unusual. It has rotary valves with side action keys that were typical of American brass instruments from about 1855 to 1885. But the circular shape is a transition from the instruments used by brass bands during the Civil War, when the bell was held over the player's shoulder pointing backward. This instrument's bell points to the player's left side. Its conical flare and mouthpiece are wide like a trombone, but the plumbing is shorter than a trombone, about the length of a B-flat cornet. It is far too short to match instruments like cornopeans, alt horns, or mellophones, which were developed later and generally had piston valves. So I don't know if this instrument was voiced as an alto or tenor instrument, but it does have a shiny brand new appearance.

It is similar, but not identical, to instruments listed in the Boston Musical Instrument Co. catalog of 1869. These instruments have top action rotary valves.

1869 Boston Musical Instrument Manufactory Catalog

This 1877 advertisement for a Citizens' Band Concert from nearby York, PA, has an illustration of a musician playing another similar transitional horn where the bell goes to the left and then bends upward. This bandsman does not wear a bearskin hat but instead has a more typical military flat cap. 

York, PA Daily
August 25, 1877


Lebanon, PA Daily News
November 04, 1876

In 1876, a few years after he first started out as a photographer in Lebanon, perhaps just after his marriage to Louisa, John W. Graeff advertised the addition to his photograph gallery of a music store dealing in Knabe pianos and Mason & Hamlin parlor organs. The shop also stocked sheet music for bands and orchestras and offered his expert services as a piano tuner.

Graeff also noted that he could furnish music for Parades, Excursions, Serenades, and Concerts. An adjacent advert offered tickets for the concluding events at the great 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

The reason Graeff included that bit of information was because he was the band leader of the Lebanon town band, The Perseverance Band. The name derived from the group's origins in 1857 as the band of the Perseverance Fire Company. In October 1861, the band joined the 93rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry from Lebanon, as the regiment marched to Washington, DC merging with hundreds of units being assembled into the Union Army. The band's service was of no small significance as five months later Lincoln's War Department determined that paying for hundreds of regimental brass bands was not a military necessity. The Perseverance Band was mustered out on March 19, 1862 and sent back to Lebanon.

It is very faint, but there is a shape of the American Eagle embossed onto the belt buckle of this musician. This symbol was used only by military bands connected to guard or volunteer regiments of the U.S. Army.

Lebanon PA Daily News
May 27, 1876

In 1861, John W. Graeff was only 11 years old, too young to be even a drummer boy during the war. But evidently he had developed musical and leadership skills. In 1875 the Perseverance Band leader, John Stanley, died and shortly after the band elected the young photographer John W. Graeff as his successor.

Though they were never part of the regular United States Army, after the war the Perseverance Band, like many former military bands attached to volunteer infantry regiments, continued to serve their communities as the representative of veterans. The soldiers of the 93rd PA Vols earned a distinguished service record and were proud of their participation many engagements during the war. After 1865, many veteran units reorganized into state guard units that added younger men but still celebrated the heritage of the older veterans. Every time there was a dedication for a battlefield monument or an encampment of the Union Army's veteran group, the G.A.R. or Grand Army of the Republic, Lebanon's soldiers would assemble. 

And if there were soldiers, they marched. And if they marched, it was to the sound of a military band. So military bands like the Perseverance Band had to dress the part. In 1876, Graeff took Lebanon's Perseverance Band to Philadelphia for a large parade of the Knights Templar, a fraternal society with quasi military ceremonies, that was connected to the Centennial festivities. Uniforms were very important. 


Philadelphia Times
July 5, 1876

To judge by the thousands of column inches that newspaper editors devoted to covering parades, these events were the center of 19th century American patriotism. A major parade might go on for several hours, and involve hundreds of different units from around the region or in the case of Philadelphia's Centennial, from around the nation. There was a gigantic celebration parade in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1876. In just one section of the parade, there were four regiment units whose uniforms included bearskin shakos. The Massachusetts Light Infantry of Boston pushed  extravagance to a higher degree with white bearskin hats, presumably made from polar bear pelts or maybe arctic fox.

Each regiment usually came with its own band, though it is not entirely clear if the descriptions are of the band or the soldiers uniforms. In any case, no camera of the time could truly capture all the sparkle and color of these military pageants.  Since this parade was a military centennial too celebrating units going back to 1776, the Perseverance Band of Lebanon was probably too young to be included.


America's democratic taste in military uniforms was heavily influenced by the patterns found in the old world's monarchies. French caps, German helmets, and British busbies all took a turn at dressing up the armed forces of the United States. The volunteer military bands, even small town ones, followed the trends too. This page from the Lyon & Healy Band Instrument and Uniform Catalog of 1901, gives an idea of the variety of hats that were available. Note that a $12 drum major's shako, even one in imitation bearskin, was an expensive uniform accessory compared to a Marine Band Cap at $10.50 per dozen..

1901 Lyon & Healy Band Instrument
and Uniform Catalog, page 79

During the tenure of its leader J. W. Graeff, the Perseverance Band marched in countless parades; performed hundreds of concerts in Lebanon and vicinity; provided musicians for events large and small; and represented the town's veterans, churches, and societies on enumerable occasions. Today the Perseverance Band of Lebanon, Pennsylvania remains one of the oldest musical organizations still active in America.

1901 Lyon & Healy Band Instrument
and Uniform Catalog, cover

Lebanon, PA Daily News
March 26, 1889

The newspaper ads for Graeff's Photograph Gallery stopped appearing in the Lebanon newspaper after 1886. This business closure makes the date for my bearskin hat musicians sometime prior to 1887. By 1889 Graeff ran new adverts offering music lessons at his private music academy on Piano, Organ, Voice Culture, and All the Instruments used in Military Band or Orchestra, as well as piano tuning. It would seem his music store proved more successful than photography.



In 1888, Prof. J. W. Graeff of Lebanon wrote an article entailed Music Among Farmers that was published by the Pennsylvania State Board of Agriculture. In it Graeff describes the societal changes occurring in the 1880s that were allowing music to flourish among the rural people of Lebanon County. He writes:
We learn that in our own county there are no less than nine hundred Miller organs, besides about four hundred pianos scattered through town and county, mostly through the county. We are glad to say that very few of them are merely ornaments, but, the contrary, the young gentlemen and ladies of the country often surpass the people of our cities in displaying their tastes in music, paying more attention to practice and study.
Not taking the interest into consideration in piano and organ playing, we notice what great progress is made in playing orchestra and band instruments by the boys. There is not a village, however small but on stated evenings they can be seen trodding along in all kinds of weather, walking for miles after a hard day's work, going to rehearsal.
Ten years ago, Lebanon county had only four or five brass bands, two of which were in Lebanon, now there are fifteen bands with an average membership of twenty, making the number in total three hundred. Two hundred of these are the boys from the country, and there are few poor bands at that, the same satisfactory remarks can be made about the advancement of music throughout the State. Now that there is so great a change, and that the boys of our farms have started the ball rolling in interest in instrumental music, we see much improvement yet to be made in voice culture especially among the fairer sex in city or country. Education in all branches, mathematics, geography, history, languages, etc. has advanced. The young people of the country are becoming more intelligent, their German dialect is improved and there are few who a few years ago were unable to speak, read, or write the English language have now mastered all.  Music should be taught in our schools as well as the other branches, not only in the towns and cities, but in every school house in the country.
From 1875 Graeff remained leader of the Perseverance Band for 16 years. But in October 1891 he moved his family to Philadelphia, where he found work as a teacher at a music school. He also reported that he was in demand as a piano tuner. On at last one occasion he performed a cornet solo at a Philadelphia church. He would remain in the big city for the next two decades. 


If you've followed all this history you may have guessed where this story leads. I believe that this photograph is a self portrait made by the photographer and band leader, John W. Graeff.

First, the photograph is exceptionally generous for this kind of subject. Musicians of this era, even military bandsmen, seldom spent extra money to have a large format photograph. This is different from the usual cabinet card. It looks like a memento of meritorious service, meant to be displayed prominently in a home, atop a mantelpiece or a piano.

Second, the time frame for the photo process, the musical instrument, and the uniform neatly align with the photographer's age. Nothing about the photo feels out of sync with the lifetime of John W. Graeff.

Third, since the Perseverance Band considered itself a military style band, this man's uniform perfectly fits that description. While it is possible there were other band musicians who wore bearskin hats, I think it very likely that Graeff as the chief musician and director of the Lebanon band, would choose to wear a special bearskin hat as a mark of his position as band leader. His life history clearly demonstrates that he possessed the right set of musical skills to be a bandsman, a music teacher, and and entrepreneur that would fit this image.

And there is one more musical clue in John W. Graeff's background
that I believe supports my argument that he made this self portrait.

Graeff died in Philadelphia on May 17, 1912 at age 62. The newspapers reported that he was a member of Lebanon's Moravian Church, one of the oldest of Protestant denominations, and would be buried in its Hebron Moravian Cemetery. The sect's early 15th century adherents, led by Jan Hus, came from Moravia in what was then called Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. In 1735, just before the revolutionary war, Moravians began immigrating to Britain's North American Colonies. The church established its first successful townships in eastern Pennsylvania where their mixed German/Czech heritage was more accepted. 

The music of the early Moravian Church was quite distinctive compared to the services of other Protestant denominations, and used brass ensembles of trombones to accompany its vocal choirs. This harmonious brass music became an important musical influence on American culture and the growth of instrumental music in the New World.

One aspect about this musical tradition is less well known. Whenever a congregant of the Moravian Church was taken to his or her final resting place, a Moravian trombone choir would play at the graveside.

So it was at the funeral of John W. Graeff in 1912.

Lebanon, PA Evening Report
May 20, 1912

I know that I can't prove anything conclusively,
and I admit that much of this evidence may be merely coincidental.
But even if this musician was not named John W. Graeff,
his magnificent bearskin hat manages to hold the secret
to two musical stories at once.  

It takes a Grand Hat to do that.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where old photos are always warm and fuzzy.


Jo Featherston said...

Fascinating detective genalogy work on this musician in his very appropriate bearskin hat. I haven't heard of the hats being called shakos before, does that suggest that they shake?

Jo Featherston said...

Sorry, I now see that shako is a general term for musicians' headgear.

Deb Gould said...

Wow! Bearskins, shakos -- new vocabulary words for me. John's got a little gray in his beard and 'stache -- prematurely gray? And the fact that brass instruments' bells faced backwards is new to me, too. Wouldn't that screw up the acoustics?

Wendy said...

And here I was afraid that big hat and clarinet would leave you stumped this week. Ha hA yeah I kill me.

Dara said...

Well researched and interesting article Mike, it's such a pity marching bands have fallen out of fashion - they make a great spectacle.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Great sleuthing as always. I was surprised to read at least one of the bands had white bearskin shakos. I wonder if they used polar bear skin? Thinking about all those military bands playing together gives me must have been marvelous.

La Nightingail said...

At first I thought perhaps his instrument was a flugelhorn, but when I looked at the horns shown on the Boston Musical Instrument Manufactory list, I realized it wasn't - at least not exactly. Interesting horn shape, though. And my goodness - all your research! You'll probably never know for sure if John is who you think he is, but after all your sleuthing, I'd bet you're most probably right! :)

ScotSue said...

A wonderful research tale, that developed from an imposing bearskin photograph.

Titania Staeheli said...

A very impressive self portrait. Before I finished reading my mind already did a "Watson" which fell in a heap when I finished reading. I guess Photos studios at that time had all sorts of costumes to hire out for impressive photographs. He was a inventive man with advertising his photographic service. ( I feel sorry for all the bears who had to give their fur for "silly" hats.)

Little Nell said...

A very grand hat and a grand post - he was a multi-talented man!

Sharon said...

As soon as I saw the prompt picture, I thought of you :)

Barbara Rogers said...

I'm totally with your conclusions about Mr. G. And looking not only at his beard, but his hands, I'd say he was along in years when he took that self-portrait. You certainly put a lot of time into your research and it (as always) give us a great read. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

My spine tingles at the thought of trombones playing from the steeple. Can't you just hear it ?


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