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 Elegant Low Brass of Philadelphia

18 November 2017

Good portraits try to present
more than just a mere likeness.
The image should, of course,
show the person's countenance at its best.
From the smile to the twinkle of the eyes,
everything must illustrate the subject's personality.

The woman on this cabinet card photograph
is framed by the character of her fashionable hair style,
the beauty of her elegant gown,
and the attraction of her favored accessory,
a valve trombone.

This woman affects a similar pose
with a lovely white dress,
a thoughtful gaze,
and graceful arms
artfully arranged
upon her tuba.

This third young lady
presents an almost classical Grecian visage.
The sepia tone can not hide
her bright eyes. Blue? Green?
Her gown's voluminous puffed shoulders
give dramatic effect
to her choice of a chic prop,
a slide trombone.

These three women
form an interesting musical trio
of three different low brass instruments.
I do not know their names
but I am certain that they once
knew each other very well,
and that there was an occasion when
they went together
to the same photographer's studio
to have their portraits taken.

The photography studio for the portraits
of all three ladies was:
Meynen & Co.
1204 Walnut St.

Only the photo of the valve trombonist
has a backstamp with more information.

Meynen & Co.
Franz Meynen
Artists and Photographers
Studio  1204 Walnut St.

The Skylight is on the Ground Floor.

Franz Meynen was born in Germany in 1840 and emigrated to the United States in about 1874. in 1875 at age 35, he married Amelia Medicus, age 18 ½ of Philadelphia. They were still together for the 1900 census and at that time recorded six children.  Franz Meynen took an active part in Philadelphia's German-American community and interestingly was noted as a member of the Männerchor or German Men's Choir in 1879.

His work in Philadelphia was not initially as a photographer but as an artist. Many early photographers advertised themselves in this way, but Meynen trained in Germany as a sculptor. I think his  background in 3-dimensional art shows in the way the three women are posed.  Especially the tubist whose instrument's size might otherwise obstruct the view of the musician's feminine charm.

The address of Meynen & Co. at 1204 Walnut St. is a good clue for dating the photographs. In the Philadelphia city directory, Meynen's home address was at 601 Marshall, and from 1890 to 1894, his photography studio was at 540 Franklin Street, not far from Philadelphia's waterfront dockyards on the Delaware River.

But in 1895 the city directory listed Meynen & Co. at 1240 Walnut St., a site closer to Philadelphia's city hall and business center. It was also just a short walk to the famous Academy of Music, the oldest opera house in the United States. This location for a photography studio surely attracted not just the attention of Philadelphia's high society but also the patronage of performers in the entertainment world who visited this center of American culture. Given the style of the women's hair and dress, top knots and puffy sleeves were big fads in the 1890's, and this change in Meynen's studio address, I think these women posed for his camera around 1895-97.

Who they are I can not say. But in this era the number of female tuba and trombone players in America was very small. The women's white dresses suggest school graduation pictures, and in 1895 Philadelphia did have a National Conservatory of Music at North Broad St. which accepted women and promoted its Ladies Orchestra class. But it advertised it as open just to string players, not low brass.

In the Philadelphia newspapers of the 1890s it was not uncommon to see theatre playbills with performances by ladies bands, which would seem an obvious place to find trombones and tuba, but those groups generally dressed in quasi-military attire suitable for marching, at least across a theater stage. These ladies are dressed too nice for that kind of ensemble. Try emptying a spit valve wearing a full length evening gown.

In my photograph collection, the center of music for women in 19th century America was not Philadelphia, but Boston. I suspect that this trio were part of a Boston Ladies orchestra that came to play select performances in Philadelphia. In 1896 one such "ladies orchestra", actually just 12 to 18 musicians with a handful of strings, a few winds and percussion, accompanied a panto of Cinderella at the Arch Street Theatre. That's only a 12 minute walk from Meyene's studio. It's possible that these musicians were members of that ensemble, as sometimes one or two low brass were included to help fill the sound in large halls, but this still needs more research before I can confirm that supposition.

What intrigues me most about these elegant low brass ladies is a tiny but important detail in all three photos. Each woman wears a wedding band on the ring finger of her left hand. Marriage in the 1890s usually ended the professional career of female musicians. I do not have an explanation as to how these married women managed to perform.

In August 1915 Franz Meynen died as age 75. His obituary appeared in the journal, The Bulletin of Photography. It noted that his career began in his native Cologne, Germany where he produced portrait busts of the composer Franz Liszt and Pope Pius IX. He also contributed a centerpiece sculpture of the Archangel Michael to the north portal of the Cologne Cathedral or Kölner Dom.

Bulletin of Photography, Vol. 17, No. 420
August 25, 1915

Kölner Dom, north portal
Source: Wikimedia

The figure is just between the two doors of the portal and show St. Michael slaying a dragon/devil. According to the Cologne Cathedral website, Franz Meynen's original sculpture was altered shortly after it was first installed. It was partly destroyed during WW2 and restored in 1970 to something more like its original design. 

Archangel Michael
in the north portal of the Cologne Cathedral

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where beauty has no match.


tony said...

Mike.Some Stirling Detective Work!
The rings are an interesting feature.Especially asit involves all 3 ladies..... Had it been just 1 ,then you could image some sort of individual dispensation.but 3 is indeed curious.
Generally,you can see the sculptor in the photographer.Especially with the effect of those white dresses.

Jo Featherston said...

These ladies and their instruments certainly made for elegant portraits, and how fascinating that the photographer's earlier work as a sculptor is to be found on the Köln Cathedral. Great detective work, indeed!

La Nightingail said...

All three ladies look to be posing for photographs beyond school graduation age. It is somewhat surprising they were still playing after being married if, in fact, those rings are wedding rings which would seem to be the case. One would hope they married men who understood how important their music was to them. Either that, or they were very independent women who insisted on continuing to play and their husbands realized it was in their best interests not to try to stop them? :D

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Emptying a spit valve has no appeal to matter the costume. The ladies in the first two photographs look like the same person do they not? Another great piece of detecting work. Every one of your posts vibrates with possility for more story...a springboard for further tales about these characters and what might have happened to them.

Mollys Canopy said...

Thanks for another well-researched post! I wonder if the women might have been married to fellow musicians, who may have been more open to their continuing involvement with the band. Or could they have been single and put on those wedding bands while on the road to keep men away? The dresses are stunning, and the poses unique. The photographer's obituary from a trade publication adds a nice biographical touch.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP