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 }

A Musical Habit

04 May 2019

A very tiny story
teased out of a cabinet card photo.

It was a warm afternoon, but not unpleasantly so. Really a perfect April day thought Justina. The plane trees outside her classroom window shimmered with the bright green leaves of springtime. Her girls were gone for the day, released early to prepare for their performance later this evening. She knew they would do well. They just needed to pay attention to each other.

She finished resetting the chairs and neatly placed the music folders in a stack for young Katie to collect before the concert. Satisfied that harmony was restored Justina headed down the stairs. She couldn't remember when she had last been outside alone. January? Late November? She should try and get out more often. She began to softly whistle as she set a brisk walking pace down Fourth Street. 

As she passed the teacher's house and then St. Marien's church, she crossed herself and said a quick prayer. At Marshall street the sound of children reached her ears. It was after lunch so the orphans at St. Joseph's would be at play in the yard. They certainly needed the fresh air after a winter of so much croup and ague. Praise God that none had been taken.

When she reached Broad St. she paused to marvel at so many people, horses, carts and wagons moving every which way like a swarm of busy ants. From the corner she imagined she could still see the tall spire where once the Grace Street Baptist Church had stood. It was such a handsome building, not unlike the churches of her homeland, though those were not Baptist of course, and now it was gone. She grimaced recalling the day of the terrible fire. Startled by the clang of a bell, she stepped back as an electric trolley car stopped at the curb to let passengers off. She wished she had reason to ride it but her destination was too close. She turned west and in a few steps was at No. 320, the door of Campbell's Photograph Studio. As she entered a bell above the doorway announced her arrival. 

The shop was empty, so Justina waited at the counter and inspected the collection of photographs displayed along the walls and in glass fronted cabinets. There were several large images of Richmond's impressive factory warehouses, grand hotels and giant emporiums some with the proprietor and his employees standing proudly on the front steps. Arranged in long rows on one wall were portraits of bright-eyed babies, handsome children, elegant ladies, and dozens of couples, young and old, posed for a wedding or an anniversary. Reminded of the things she would never have, she gave a quick shake of her head to chase those selfish  thoughts away.

Over on the other wall hung numerous landscapes, scenes of Richmond's many battlefields and fortifications. They were for the many tourists who visited Richmond to see the remains of the great war between the states. Wandering over the sites of so much suffering and destruction seemed a curious recreation. It was not something people ever did in the old country. Where would one begin? 300 years back? A century? Even just a few decades ago? So sad.

Just then a short balding man with a carefully groomed mustache emerged from behind a curtain that concealed a back room door. "I beg your pardon for my delay," he said as he removed an apron and took a coat from a stand in the corner. "I've been working at my darkroom and needed a moment more to develop a plate." As he adjusted his collar he turned to face her. "Oh my, Sister. I do apologize. I hope you've not waited long?" 

"Not at all Mr. Campbell. I have been admiring your artistic photographieren. They are quite marvelous." She nodded toward the shop's front window. "The picture of the horse is most beautiful. Mein Vater would like to see such a bay horse."

"He must appreciate good breeding. That is my King William, a superb racing trotter. Now that it is spring I plan to drive  him into town for some exercise. My livery is on Seventh Street so you may see him some time."
She pointed to a photo of a small band in the front case. "That is Herr Thilow's orchester, is it not? His daughter goes to our school."

"Yes, it is. That was taken last summer. Gustave is a good friend of mine and a fine musician. Have you heard him play?"  

"Yes, a few times I have listened to him when his orchester has made concerts at the park. He was so kind to help repair mein trompete when it would not work."

"That's just like Gus. He was very helpful when I lost my old studio to fire three years ago. His connections allowed me to move here, which being on the ground floor, is actually more convenient for my customers." Mr. Campbell glanced around her side. "I see you have not brought your cornet today. I presume you've come to pick up your portrait."

"That is correct. It is finished, yes?" Justina asked, arching an eyebrow.

"Of course," he replied.  "I have it here in my file box. He stepped behind the counter and opened a wide drawer. "I think you will be pleased with the effect." He handed her a card wrapped in tissue.

 As Justina unfolded the paper her face beamed. "Ah yes, it is perfect! You are a talented artist, Mr Campbell."

 "Thank you, Sister. I am very glad you like it." He waggled a finger.  "But you know you could have more copies made. It is very easy and costs only another 30 cents"

 "No, thank you. One is enough," she said as she put several coins on the counter. "This is correct, yes?"

 "Indeed exactly right, thank you very much." He dropped the money into a small cash box. "Sister, if you wouldn't mind my asking, is this intended as a gift? A present for your parents in Bavaria perhaps? Over the years I've made a number of cabinet photos of the Benedictine sisters, but yours is, shall we say, a bit unusual. Most choose to hold a prayer book or a rosary. But this is the first time I've made a picture of a nun with a cornet."

"No, mein Eltern have other pictures. But this is a special gift for a girl here at my school." Justina hesitated as she wrapped the tissue around the photo. "You see our Mother Vogel is to leave for a new convent school to the north. She has asked me to follow her in a month or two. However at the institute there is a young musician, a trompeter, who is my favorite student. Her name is Agnes Sitterding. I will miss her very much, but I'm afraid she will miss me even more." She tucked the packet into her habit's sleeve. "I hope that this photo will inspire her and help her find her way when she feels lost."

"Toward music," suggested Mr. Campbell, "or toward God?"

"Both!" laughed Justina. "The two are always found on the same pathway if you know where to look."

* * *

It would seem self-evident that any 19th century cabinet photograph of a Catholic nun holding a cornet would be a rare thing. But in the context of its local Richmond, Virginia history, it's not all together an unexpected thing. Since there is unfortunately no note on the back identifying the woman, and the fashion for nun habits has remained fairly unchanging, there are no clues to establish a date except to use the general timeline for the cabinet photo style which was roughly from 1875 to 1900. However there is one good clue imprinted in gold letters on the front of the card.

Campbell's studio,
320 E. Broad St., Richmond, VA.

The photographer's full name was Charles O. Campbell and he was a native of Maryland, born there in 1840, as was his wife Mollie, who was 4 years younger. Campbell had generously long career in Richmond, operating his own photography studio there beginning with a listing in the city directory in 1869 and continuing until 1912. In November 1901 he advertised that his studio at No. 320 East Broad was "the only one in the city situated on the ground floor." He  offered "fine pictures" for ninety-eight cents per dozen.

Richmond VA Times
24 November 1901

Following the Civil War there was a great demand for photographs. New methods for capturing images with a camera made photos cheaper and reproducible. As most photographers advertised a price per dozen, it's possible Mr. Campbell did persuade Sister Justina to order more, so there's a chance her  photo is not that rare.

Campbell & Co.'s Photograph Studio, 1893
Source: City on the James. Richmond, Virginia
But Campbell's studio at No. 320 was not his first location, as in the 1890s his studio had been at No. 429 east Broad where he had a very sophisticated gallery called Campbell & Co. and employed several assistant photographers and artists. Charles O. Campbell traveled with his camera and equipment, and was proud of being the official photographer of state politicians in Georgia, and both South and North Carolina. Evidently his business was successful enough to fund his interest in horses too, as his name was mentioned several times in newspaper accounts on sales of race horses. King William was a noted bay gelding of his.

A book entitled City on the James published in 1893 included an image of the interior of Campbell's studio. Notice the back room is very well lit, probably not from gas lights but from skylights and side windows which was essential then for making good photographs.

So why would a successful photographer move to another address just a block away? Problems with the landlord? Better rent? No, there was a more compelling reason for Campbell's relocation.


Richmond VA Times
25 March 1897

On March 25, 1897, shortly after midnight, a fire started at No. 429 East Broad where Campbell's business occupied the top two floors of a three story building. Five hose companies of firemen were called out. They did all they could, one fireman breaking a leg, but the building was destroyed. Campbell lost everything, estimated to be about $7,000 in value. And likewise Mr. Greentree, the owner of the clothing store on the ground floor, lost nearly everything from water damage. It was front page news filling an entire column. 

_ _ _

Richmond VA Dispatch
14 November 1897

By a strange coincidence a report in the adjacent newspaper column gave lengthy details of Richmond's hosting of the national convention of the Photographer's Association. Perhaps next day Campbell's fellow photographers learned of his misfortune and provided some assistance. In any case only eight months later in November 1897, Charles O. Campbell announced the opening of his new studio at 320 east Broad.

All of Campbell's plates and negatives were lost in the fire. He also needed new card stock with his new address. So Sister Justina could not have had her photo taken before November 1897.

The Grace Street Baptist Church that Justina liked was a very handsome Romanesque church that in 1896 was destroyed in a fire. Gustave Thilow was the name of a bandleader found in the 1897 Richmond city directory.

_ _ _

Richmond is the capital of Virginia and in 1900 it was the state's largest city with 85,000 citizens, which was 45,000 more than Norfolk, the next largest. Positioned as a kind of crossroads to the ports along the James River and Chesapeake Bay as well as the major road and rail networks to the south, north and west, Richmond attracted many immigrants. One of the largest were people from the German states, particularly the south Germans who were predominantly Roman Catholic. In Richmond they established their own church which were listed in city directories as a German Catholic church. In the 1850s a convent was added to the Richmond Catholic diocese facilities. This order changed after the war when in 1875 the Benedictine Nuns from St. Mary's in Elk County, Pennsylvania, just east of Pittsburgh took over the running of the Catholic girls school, St. Mary's Benedictine Institute. The location on Fourth Street was surprisingly close to Mr. Campbell's photograph studio.

St. Mary's Benedictine Institute advertisement, 1889
Source: Three Great Events in the History of the Catholic Church in the United States

The Benedictine girls school was one block up from the main Catholic church buildings where there was also a boys parochial school. Across the street from the Institute for girls was the St. James Episcopal home for widows. In this time before government-run social welfare, Richmond, like most American cities, had numerous "homes" run by religious denominations and fraternal societies that provided care for poor children and the elderly. The Catholics managed St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum which was on the next block opposite the St. Mary's church.

St. Mary's Benedictine Church, Priory, and School, 1893
Source: City on the James. Richmond, Virginia

Though by 1900 Richmond was a cosmopolitan city that had rebuilt and to a degree prospered from the Confederate States defeat in 1865, it was still very much a Southern town that tolerated racial, ethnic, and religious prejudices that are difficult to understand from our 21st century perspective. Suffice it to say that in the 19th century a Catholic nun would have been viewed with great suspicion in the mostly Protestant rural parts of Virginia.

The German community in Richmond was divided into roughly three groups, Lutherans from northern Germany, Catholics from southern Germany, and Jews from both Germany and Austria. Many were second or third generation immigrants from northern states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Some were new arrivals from the various Germanic regions of central Europe. And yet they all established their places of worship within a short walk in Richomond's relatively small downtown area. Here is a map from 1877 with a thin red line to show Sister Justina's walk.

1877 Map of Richmond, Virginia
Source: Historic Map Works

In 1893 St. Mary's Benedictine Institute taught somewhere between 120 to 150 girls. As a private school its tuition was not free and though I don't know the cost, I expect it was set to attract children of the middle to upper classes of Virginia society. The class ages are not described but based on census records, I suspect it was a mixture of ages from 7 to 17. Some girls whose families lived a long distance from Richmond did board there during the school term.
In 1895 St. Mary's Benedictine Institute advertised in the local newspapers. The curriculum was quite ambitious for female education in this era and for the first time it included something musical that had not been listed in earlier advertisements for the school –  two wind instruments. There were courses in English and the Sciences. German is optional; Latin is compulsory in the senior circle—both free of charge. A thorough course in Piano, Harp, Violin, Guitar, Mandolin, Banjo, Cornet, and Flute, Vocal, both in private and in class. Special attention is paid to Stenography, Typewriting, Drawing, Painting, and Fancy Work, the later without charge.

Richmond VA Times
25 August 1895
The subject of this photo was not that unusual. The proximity of St. Mary's Benedictine Institute to Campbell's new photograph studio makes it very easy to understand how it was that a Catholic nun had her picture taken. The fire that forced Mr. Campbell to set up new premises narrows the time frame for this photo to 1897 and later. But because cabinets were going out of favor, I don't think its much past 1900.

Sister Justina's instrument, a piston valve cornet with an extended leadpipe that lowers its pitch from B-flat to A, was also not unusual for a young woman to play, as I have lots of cabinet photos of female cornetists and ladies brass bands from this era. But none of them are dressed in a nun's habit. Why would a Catholic nun in Richmond, Virginia be posed with a cornet?

I think the best answer is because she was a music teacher, and the proof is in the advertisements for the Benedictine Institute. Music was am important part of a young ladies education, but an ad from 1893 only listed Piano, Harp, Violin, Guitar, Mandolin, and Banjo. These were all instruments then considered genteel enough for female musical instruction. But from 1895 to 1897 this Catholic girls school added Cornet and Flute to advertisements of its music curriculum. They would not have done that without a teacher. A female teacher.

This was a German Catholic church so it's understandable that instruction on cornet and flute was  desired. In my blog I have featured many German and Austrian postcards of female brass bands and orchestras that demonstrate how open German culture was to female brass and wind musicians.

I know that this is not a complete explanation of why a nun is holding a cornet in an old photo. But I think the evidence shows there might be a very good reason for this photo to be made, and even better, that there were enough interesting historical facts to narrate a simple story that filled in the guesswork. Hence my invention of Sister Justina.

St. Mary's Benedictine Institute advertisement
1895 Richmond city directory

Nuns did not get much attention in Richmond's newspapers. There were reports on events happening at the Catholic church and schools. There were a few reports of girls taking their vows to become novices or nuns. And school commencement exercises listed lots of student names and honors. The name I used for Sister Justina's favorite student was a real girl who played a cornet solo at a commencement in 1897. Mother Superior Vogel was also a real person. Rev. Edith Vogel, age 54 in the 1900 census, was born in Germany in 1845. Her older sister, Clara Vogel, age 58 was also a Benedictine nun. Sometime around 1901, Sister Edith Vogel the Mother Superioress (as it was spelled in the city directory) transferred to a new Benedictine school in northern Virginia, southwest of Washington D. C. She died in 1903 but her death notice appeared in newspapers from Baltimore to Norfolk, VA.

Here are two pages from the 1900 U.S. Census for Richmond, VA that record the Benedictine sisters who lived at the institute school. There were 29 women. The oldest was age 60 and the youngest age 18. Nine were born in Germany, seven in Pennsylvania, five in New Jersey, three in Virginia, two in Maryland, two in New York, and one in North Carolina. I may never know the real name of the nun in my photo, but I'm convinced these 29 sisters knew her well and enjoyed hearing her play the cornet.

1900 US Census, Richmond, Virginia St. Mary's Benedictine Institue

Sister Justina's name is borrowed
from one of the younger sisters
listed on this 1900 census record.
Justina Spangler, age 23,
born in Germany November 1876, single,
occupation: Teacher.

1900 US Census, Richmond, Virginia
St. Mary's Benedictine Institue

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where good habits are the best thing to learn in school.


SusanK said...

Fascinating post with great details.

La Nightingail said...

An entertaining post with an engaging story about a single photograph along with interesting information about the times and happenings surrounding it! Always enjoyable!

Kathy said...

I enjoyed this so much! Your story was entertaining and your research makes it believable. In researching my own ancestors, I sometimes get caught up in an unrelated, but somehow connected person and keep researching them instead. Your search to put a name and place and reason to the photo reminded me of how much I enjoy the hunt.

Wendy said...

A tour de force! As Kathy said, the research into Campbell’s studio and the convent make the story feel real.


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