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
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Two Family Bands

27 May 2023


I have hundreds of antique photos
of children holding cornets and violins.
But a kid holding a treasured pet cat?
Only this one. 

For some mysterious reason,
people back in the olden days
may have featured their baby in a tuba
or a small boy with a too-large trombone,
but they rarely included a cat.
Even in nonmusical families
cats are uncommon to find in old photos.

I don't think it's because
cats were not considered
part of a family's household,
but apparently in past times
most people didn't seem to think
a cat was worthy of being in the family photograph.

Or maybe it's just a cat thing.

Today I present two families,
one German and the other French,
that aspired to play music for the public.
Only one had a cat.

In this first postcard we meet the Dümke family from München, Bayern; known as Munich, Bavaria to most English speakers. The five members of this little band are grouped around a trapezoidal xylophone called a Strohfidel which is played with tiny wooden mallets held by a young girl. She stands next to her father, Herr Dümke who has a rotary valve trumpet. Two younger daughters hold trumpets, the one on the right is larger, perhaps a flugelhorn. On the floor is a baritone horn which is probably the xylophone player's second instrument.

Opposite Herr Dümke is a young woman with a rotary valve trombone. I presume she is his wife and mother to the three girls who look about ages 7,9, and 11, though it's difficult to say for sure She could be an older daughter, but as she is dressed in a more mature ladies' fashion rather than the sailor-suit tunic of the girls, I think she is their mother.

The postcard has two postmarks of 18 November 1904 from Wiesmühle? and Altenmark? The  marks are a bit obscured but the first one may be a place name in Germany and the second in Austria. Someone stole the stamp.  

* * *

The Familie Dümke returned to the a different studio some time later for a similar pose with the same instruments. The girls have matured by at least another two years. The xylophonist wears her hair styled for a young woman, not unlike her mother's. The girls wear matching outfits that look vaguely like folk costumes. Bavaria border Switzerland and Austria, so the Dümke brass band likely played traditional tunes from the Tyrol region. 

The postmark dates 24 May 1905 from Nuernburg or Nürnberg, Germany. The back includes a helpful printed name of "Postcard" in 17 languages. The dates of the two cards are too close to  each other to explain the age difference in the girls. The first card's photo was surely taken in 1901-02, if the second image was made in 1905. 

* * *

My next family band is the Harmonie des Minimes - Famille Poupelin. Mother and father bookend six children, two older boys and four younger girls. Father Poupeli holds a clarinet while his sons hold a piston valve trumpet and a baritone horn. The tallest daughter holds a triangle. The girls are all dressed alike and I expect they sang together in the family's performances. 

They were photographed by the Maschek studio of Bordeaux, France. The postcard was never posted but it likely dates from 1905 to 1910. 

* * *

The Poupelin family returned to monsieur Maschek's studio for a second postcard and this time have brought their pets. They are called the Harmonie de La Bastide, which is a neighborhood along the Garonne River’s right bank in Bordeaux. Mother and the eldest daughter are absent, but father Poupelin and sons have the same instruments and sport summer straw hats while the girls wear darker patterned dresses. But it's the youngest girl that caught my attention. She is holding a short-hair tabby-mix cat who is struggling to escape the brother's trumpet. It's a charming photo that I think shines with life and personality. 

And there's a dog too. A Jack Russell Terrier, I think. Its attention is focused on someone beyond the camera. Madame Poupelin perhaps?

Family bands were once a very common entertainment to find throughout Europe and America. Typically they were the product, so-to-speak, of a talented father who had musical training and desired to promote his music through a family troupe. The children might have some talent, but it was unlikely they were Wunderkind like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Their main qualification was that they worked for free. 

In the early 20th century most family ensembles performed in venues near their hometowns and very few achieved regional or national celebrity. In France, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria a family band was a wholesome entertainment found in village inns, wine gardens, and hotel restaurants. 

Yet there was a problem shared by parents of every family band. Within a few short years their children grow taller and lose that adorable quality that makes grandmothers smile. Listening to a child of six thumping on a tuba is amusing, but hearing a boy of sixteen squawk on a clarinet is just annoying. For that reason most family bands had a short career in show business. But I suspect many children like the Dümke and Poupelin siblings learned valuable lessons about self-confidence, family teamwork, and personal discipline from performing music at such young ages. I would like to have heard them. Where's my time machine, Mr. Musk?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where black cats are best.


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