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 }

Musical Children at Work

03 September 2016

Tools of a young musician's trade:
violin and bow,
ruffles and ribbons,
hair combs and ringlets,
stockings and slippers.

And one more special item -

a large ball to stand on.

Her serious gaze is directed slightly away from the camera,
yet her poise is confident atop a brightly decorated ball.
She seems ready to demonstrate
a combination somersault
and arpeggio.

This young girl's carte de visite photo is quite simple and without markings. Its square corners assign it to the first decade of this photo type, 1860-1870, and the lack of borders may even date it to 1860-1862. She looks about age 8, give or take a year or two, but surely not a teenager, despite her fashionable dress.

Though we may not know her name (yet), she is an anonymous example of an special 19th century occupation open to talented children - the musical stage. The violin and balancing ball were the necessary tools of her acrobatic circus or theatrical act. Most likely she made her entrance with quick footwork rolling onto the stage, playing a fiddle tune, and probably singing at the same time too. People would pay good money to see that. 


This next girl is dressed in nearly the same extravagant style, but with velvet rather than satin fabric. She chose a more pensive pose leaning on a photographer's studio chair with her instrument, a cornet. The fancy frock, white stockings and button shoes are no school uniform but marks of a career on stage. She seems is a bit older than the violinist, closer to age 12.

Her name is unknown too, but like the other cdv, this photo is  also very simple and likely dates from the same 1860s decade. The piston valves on the cornet may place her later to 1868-1870. 

She looks like a member of a family band, which was really the only acceptable ensemble for a female  cornetist in the theater world of the 1800s. One day I hope to find the rest of her group and make a proper identification.   


On the back of her photo
is a photographer's mark:

W. A. Elwell
78 Front Street
Gloucester, Mass.

William A. Ewell (1821-1891) listed his occupation as a daguerrian artist in the 1860 Gloucester city directory, and was one of three photographists who kept a studio there in 1869. This small coastal town, known for its mackerel fishing and shipbuilding industries, is situated on the eastern end of Cape Ann, northeast of Boston. It claimed a population of nearly 12,000 in the 1869 Gloucester city directory.



This musical lad posed with three instruments – a violincello, a tuba, and a snare drum. Being a boy, his costume is less embellished than a girl's, but it is neatly tailored from a rich velvet material, and his shoes are of a soft kid leather with buttons, not typical of most children's footwear. He looks about 10 years old.

The image of a drummer boy carried a strong symbolic and emotional message for Americans who had endured the years of strife during the Civil War. Like the other photos, this cdv was reproduced for sale at theater performances. I believe the boy was a member of a musical family troupe who traveled the early vaudeville theater circuit. These ensembles commonly made souvenir photos of individual children featured in the concerts. Because of their size, both the tuba and the cello, are unusual to see pictured with a child. Note also the photographer's stand behind the boy's feet.


The photo's borders, the rounded corners, and the photographer's imprint,

Eisenmann, Photo - 229. Bowery, N.Y.

as well as the more ornate design on the back, place this young musician in the mid-1870s.
Charles Eisenmann (1855-1927) was a prolific New York photographer whose material in now very collectible because of his subjects. An immigrant from Germany, he set up his studio in New York's Bowery district and became successful photographing the performers of New York's theater and circus world. Many of his clientele were people who made a living as human curiosities on display at P.T. Barnum's American Museum on Broadway. It seems



This last child musician shows a style very similar to the others. She is maybe age 8 or 9. Her slender frame leans casually on the arm of a photographer's studio chair, a cornet in her left hand. She wears a dress with more lace and frills than most mothers would allow. Her white stockings have a horizontal stripe and the tall white button shoes have an ornamental fringe. Around her neck is a Christian cross pendant and one arm has a bracelet. The cdv has no marks but its style and the piston valve cornet place it most likely in the mid to late 1870s.  

It is her face that I find most affecting. Her slightly downcast eyes, her gaunt features, her poor attempt at a fashionable hair style defeated by her wide ears, and especially her thin unsmiling lips, make this an occupational photo of a child at work. And hard work too.

Countless hours of practice perfecting new show tunes. Weeks of long travel by steamboat, train, stage coach, and even walking I suspect. A home life in hotels and boarding houses, living out of steamer trunks. Her only companions would be her parents and siblings. Constantly on the move, the normal friendships of childhood would be impossible. School would be whatever mother had time for. All this for just a few minutes turn on stage, two or three times a day with matinees, and the last show finishing late after dark. Show business was work. It took talent to get up on the music hall stage, but it took more fortitude to make the job of an entertainer a success.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where all this month children are at work & play.

When I found photographer, William A. Elwell
listed in the 1860 Gloucester., MA city directory,
my attention was distracted by several pages entitled:

Principal Local Events of 1859

The four pages with brief almanac descriptions
succinctly convey just how difficult life was
for our ancestors who once lived
and worked along the New England seacoast.
Little did they know what lay ahead for them in the next few years. 

Principal Local Events of 1859
1860 Gloucester., MA city directory

Principal Local Events of 1859
1860 Gloucester., MA city directory

Principal Local Events of 1859
1860 Gloucester., MA city directory

Principal Local Events of 1859
1860 Gloucester., MA city directory


Deb Gould said...

I haven't been in Gloucester in years, but if I'm ever that way again, I'll be sure to find 78 Front Street and take a photo of the studio...

ScotSue said...

A wonderful collection of young musical talent and I enjoyed reading your comments on their poses and expressions. There was a glimmer of a smile in the second photograph, but otherwise the children did not look too happy in their role.

Wendy said...

Oh, I thought all children wore kid shoes. Hat Har. Yes, folks, I'm here through the weekend (but I won't be rolling out on a ball)!

Barbara Rogers said...

Most of those children probably felt pretty lucky to have that work, especially compared to the lot of all the children who didn't get to go see them perform. The last little girl even looks as if her nose was a bit red, whether from a cold or crying, it supports her serious look.

La Nightingail said...

Obviously some children may have thrived on the attention they received for their talent. But I suspect just as many, & more, had no real choice in the matter - being forced on the stage and all that went with it by their parents which would amount to no less that forced childhood labor.

Jo Featherston said...

I agree with Sue, all those child performers look rather sad. Their lives must have been very regimented, with little spare time for play.

Kristin said...

That last little girl looks sad and ill. I don't believe she got enough to eat and I'm afraid she never lived to grow up, although I can see just how she would have looked if she had.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Is it possible to stand on a ball and play the violin? Poor children...I'm sure it was a hard life.

Little Nell said...

A thoroughly absorbing post. Athough those children, whose costume you describe so well, were employed, they look very downcast and the last child is severely undernourished I would say. I thought the almanac pages were fascinating. There is enough material there for any number of novels or poems. What horrible deaths some of them had too; thank goodness for the greased pig race to lighten the mood!


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