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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The Nebraska State Penitentiary Band

31 August 2012

The Big House. The Slammer. The Joint. The Pen. It was also called a House of Correction, but few people would think to add Prison Music Conservatory to this list. These 12 musicians are inmates of the Nebraska State Penitentiary Band, and whatever name they chose to call it, this Penitentiary was a place for doing your time, and for a privileged few, practicing your time too.

This 11 piece band of tuba, trombone, two trumpets, three saxophones, clarinet, flute, banjo and drums has its band leader who holds a baton, standing on right. On the left, holding a straw boater, is another gentleman whom I will introduce in a moment. Their hair styles and clean shaven looks (mostly) might suggest post- WW1. Trumpets really only start to show up in band photos in the 1920s, so I think this photo was taken in the early 1920s. Note the blackwood flute, kneeling right, and the smaller C clarinet, kneeling left. Both instruments became less common in the US after  the 1930s.

But this is not a band made up of prison guards. These musicians are convicted criminals serving time, as on the back is a handwritten caption, Lincoln Penetentary Band. The Nebraska State Penitentiary is located in Lincoln in Lancaster County, NB. The AZO stamp box would date the photo sometime between 1910 and 1930.

In March, 1912, there was a riot at the Nebraska Penitentiary when two inmates attempted a breakout. Though they failed to escape they still managed to stab and kill the deputy warden. During the confusion three other convicts took advantage and made their own bid for escape using guns that they somehow smuggled into the penitentiary. As they fled the prison they murdered the warden and two other correctional officers. Despite a late winter snowstorm, a concerted manhunt by law enforcement forces tracked them down for harsh justice. It became the stuff of legend and probably inspired the storyline for many crime novels and movies. But subsequent to the riot and murders, the official investigation revealed a prison administration rife with corruption and incompetence

The man appointed as interim warden in 1912 was the former Lincoln police chief, Samuel M. Malick, who had also served as Lancaster County Sheriff, U.S. deputy Marshall, and detective for the Nebraska Banking Association. Charged with reforming a notoriously corrupt system that had allowed drugs and violence to rule over both inmates and correctional staff, Melick began with improving the prisoners' food and their living conditions. He allowed newspapers and a library for the first time and promoted recreation and sports  for the inmates. He also established a 22 piece band which became known as the Malick Cornet Band.

This image comes from a terrific memoir of prison life, Hell in Nebraska: a tale of the Nebraska Penitentiary by Walter Wilson, a former convict, which was published in 1913. Wilson describes the band as one of the first improvements by Malick, standing right, who believed that music improved not only the musicians but also the morale of the other inmates. During the week of the state fair, the prison grounds were open to thirteen thousand visitors, and the band raised $325. Enough money to pay for all their new instruments and sheet music.

Presumably the band performed, and Wilson recounts that the band members were "clad in snow-white uniforms during the summer months, and cadet blue uniforms with broad black braid during the winter months."  The dog was their mascot and was named Bob. He beat out the other prison "pets" - a black snake and a giant gold fish, and got a full page photo in the book. 

Wilson also describes the brutal conditions of the penitentiary before Melick's term and offers an insider's perspective to many prisoner stories including the infamous murders of the warden and deputy. 

This next postcard shows a musical group with a bass drum labeled N.S.P. BAND. But unlike the first photo of the Nebraska State Penitentiary Band, this 11 piece ensemble has string players - three violins, cello and double bass, along with two cornets, trombone, clarinet and drums. The trombone here is a piston valve instrument, unlike the slide trombones  in the previous photos. The cornets show the slightly stubby length that distinguishes the cornet from the trumpet. The flute is again wooden and the clarinet is not the common Bb but shorter C. The tall clarinetist is also seen seated in the Malick Band photo, so I would date this to around 1915-1920.

And if you look at the stout gentleman on the right holding a bowler hat, he is the same man that stands left in the first photo. He was the next warden of the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

His name is William T. Fenton, and he succeeded Warden Malick in 1913 according to Wilson's book.  By 1914, Warden Fenton's  success at continuing the prison reforms started by his predecessor, were reported in an article entitled Daybreak in Nebraska State Prison.  Like the warden from Iowa who appeared in my story on the Ft. Madison Prison Orchestra, Warden W.T. Fenton  worked to change incarceration from a term of hard labor to one of constructive work that taught skills to the felons in his charge. He was part of a new progressive movement in America's correctional institutions, and he must have taken pride in the musicians as much as Malick. 

In the book, Hell in Nebraska, Walter Wilson tells another tale of an escape during Fenton's first tenure. A musician, a German violinist, was allowed to accompany the prison chaplain to a private home and provide entertainment for a party. As the evening concluded, the violinist disappeared. A Wanted bulletin was promptly sent around the region to all police districts. After the man had passed numerous bad checks and skipped out from paying hotel bills, he was captured in Woodstock, IL and returned to the Lincoln prison. Since at that time prison officers were held personally responsible for escapes, the chaplain acquired a bill of $189 for the expense in securing the escapee, leading Wilson to remark that next time it would be cheaper to just hire a full orchestra or band instead of one "free" inmate violinist. 

The front entrance of the Nebraska Penitentiary was worthy of a photograph, and has the classic look of a Big House with its fortress-like turrets and crenelated rooftops. The front lawn seems to be plowed, perhaps for landscaping or farming, or maybe for the state fair. The first permanent prison in Nebraska was established in 1871 in Lincoln, which is the state capital.

The camera had enough clarity to bring out the sign to the left of the entrance - PRISON RULES, and one man standing by the entrance and holding a hat. Want to bet it is Warden Fenton?

Prisoners had a lot of time to write and probably the prison print shop did a good business in selling postcards. This one, a colorized sepia photo, shows the Court Yard of the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska. Compare the battlements and towers to the other card. This view shows a line of convicts in lockstep, each man with right hand on the shoulder of the inmate in front,  while raising high the right foot and shuffling with the left in unison as if linked together with a chain. This silent march was the undignified way prisoners were kept in order when moving them from place to place in the 19th century.  It was phased out with the reforms of the 20th century.

In November 1913, the postcard was addressed to Gus Johnson in Manhattan, Kansas and reads:

Dear Folks,
    How is everybody?  it has been spring weather here for last week.  Would like very much to have you come up Thanksgiving. The convicts are going to have a Minstral (sic) show at the pen.
Love to all          Al-

I found August Johnson in the 1900 census living with his family on Yuma St in Manhattan, KS. A Swedish immigrant, he had three children, the youngest son was Albert Johnson, born 1893. Unfortunately I can't find Al Johnson in Lincoln so I don't know from his message if he was an inmate, a guard, or just a young man who picked out a picture postcard from a Lincoln drugstore display. But his note suggests that prison life had some entertainment, and in a period when there was no radio or recorded music, an in-house band performing minstrel shows must have been a relief from the daily monotony of doing time for both guards and inmates alike.

A penitentiary surely had a few clocks, but I suspect that there were many more calendars. Maybe even a few inside some instrument cases.


In August 2014, I wrote another story entitled:
Prisoner #7280 - A Lifer in Music

It's about Louis Chobar, the band leader of the
Nebraska State Penitentiary Band.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you can might hear more than just the ticking of a clock.

A Bandsman and his Wife

25 August 2012

click to expand

A short fiction
drawn from an antique ferrotype photo

August 16, 1862            

My Dearest Clara,

It has been some several weeks since I last received a letter from you. Our regiment has been on the march and we scarce have time to sit for our supper, still less to write a letter. No doubt the Postmaster has lost us again. Yet your photograph inspires me this evening to write down our recent adventures.

We are camped tonight some distance from Richmond, the farms in Virginia being not that different from those of New York. Just less trees and more clay. It has been awful hot this last week, and General Jackson's soldiers should take some lessons from the Virginny Skeeters which bite mighty fast and sharp. It makes playing my cornet a challenge.

The band is wore out from all the work this last month, as all the bands from the Volunteer Regiments have been mustered out. Seems the Secretary of War decided it was too much to pay for every camp to have a band. We picked up a few musicians to fill the gaps. Most of our loss have been from sickness, but you are not to worry as thankfully my health has been good.

A soldier's life progresses mostly at a walk, sometimes a canter, but then the bugles blow and drums clatter and everyone moves at a gallop. Our horns sound tunes for daily formations, parade reviews on Sunday, and occasional "skirmishes" with the Rebel bands across the battlefield. Mainly we play regular serenades for the officers though the enlisted get to hear too. I've penned a few new songs for our boys, just to keep them amused. We had 24 musicians but between one thing and another we are down to 19.

We did a spot of bravura earlier this summer off the York river. We don't often get into the thick of battle but this time Johnny Reb had a bit more sting and some of our companies were running back. The Brigadier was riding back and forth, shouting for all he was worth and it wern't doing. Then he spots us under the trees, moving off to pick up casualties for our hospital duty. Up he rides and calls, "You bandsmen - Halt there! Halt! Give us Yankee Doodle or some other d__ned doodle!" So we dropped our litters and got our horns out and commenced to blow as loud as we could blow. As we were taking some lead in the air too, in our excitement I think we played Nelly Bly or Hail Columbia or some other doodle, but by Gosh that turned our fellows round and they remade their lines and pushed back. By the end of the morning, the Rebs had fallen a good ways aback from where they had started. 

I hear the orderly coming round now, so I must finish in haste. I remain your loving husband and pray that this war will soon end and we will be together again.


This unmarked tintype photo of an anonymous musician with his wife presents some challenges to a history detective. I can not say with any certainty that he is a bandsman from the Union army or even that the photo dates from 1861-1865.  So even if I may think so now, everything in the above letter is just an invention to tell something about a musician of that time, and I may have it all wrong. (However the story of the officer ordering a band to play Yankee Doodle is true, though the band was never identified.) There are clues that suggest the Civil War era is possible, but other clues that may contradict that time frame. The photo type is the first clue.

The Tintype or Ferrotype photo was introduced to the public in the late 1850s as an inexpensive and quicker process for making a photograph. The "tin" is actually a thin sheet of iron painted with a black "japan' enamel, that the photographer uses as the base for the wet chemical coating that captures the image. The exposure could be very tricky to time and might take several seconds, hence the often stiff expressions of the subjects, who might have small stands hidden behind them to hold their heads steady. The process involved several steps with different chemical baths and was quite a specialized craft as each photo was individually prepared. Like the similar ambrotype which uses the wet plate collodion process but on glass, the tintype photo is a mirror image that is reversed from a true left/right.

If you look at the man's uniform coat, the buttons are on his left and buttonholes on his right, opposite the traditional arrangement for men's garments. And the cornet is also shown in a reversed image, as it is always a right-handed instrument.

The metal sheets used for ferrotype photos could be as small as gem size, 3/4" x 1", but this one is the more typical size, 2_3/8" x 3_1/2". Tintypes might be stored in a wooden or thermoplastic hinged case or wrapped in a paper mat envelope. This photo unfortunately has lost its original case which might have identified the location or date of the photographer.

The instrument is an E-flat cornet with top action rotary valves. A design that is near identical to a cornet made by John F. Stratton (1832-1912) of Brooklyn, NY. An accomplished cornetist and band leader, Stratton opened a shop in New York City  manufacturing and importing  brass instruments in 1859. During the war he supplied the Union army with over 60,00 bugles. His business expanded after the war with the increased popularity of brass bands, and he built two factories in Germany to manufacture brass and string instruments.

John F Stratton Eb Cornet

This image of a Stratton cornet comes from a large internet encyclopedia for collectors of antique brass instruments. The Stratton cornet has a very pronounced conical bore, very like a bugle and not like a modern trumpet which is mostly cylindrical until the final bell flare.

Another and even better example of a Stratton Cornet can be found at the National Music Museum. Click the link. We'll wait.

Union Band before quarters at Camp Stoneman, D.C.
Library of Congress Archives

Though most Union and Confederate army bands used sets of brass Over-the-Shoulder style horns which point the bell backwards, the bell-front cornets were sometimes used as the lead soprano voice. If the cornet in my photo is made by John F. Stratton, it would be a likely instrument for a regimental bandsman from New York.

At the start of the war in 1861, there were bands for nearly every volunteer regiment in the Union Army. The campaigns that first year had nearly 28,000 musicians, which included the field musicians, i.e. buglers and drummers used for signalling, as well as the regimental bands. Most infantry bands had 24 musicians, with an annual expense of $13,139.40. With over 600 bands, the cost was too much for Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton  and by July 1862 he abolished the many Volunteer Regimental bands and reorganized the regular army bands into Brigade Bands.

Edwin M. Stanton
U.S. Secretary of War 1861-1868

The cornet player in my photo wears a military style frock coat, that resembles those worn by some soldiers in the war. Unfortunately his belt buckle is hidden and there is not enough definition to see if the buttons are army issue. The collar is consistent with an army coat, and though he has no shoulder strap or chevron to indicate rank, that would be the style for an enlisted man. But the cuff and the hat are the problem, as I can't find any matches in the standard army dress regulations. His cuff may indicate a special branch unit like artillery or cavalry, both of which had bands, but the hat looks more like a soft cap than the kepi style adopted by both the North and South military. And he may be a bandsman from the decade after the Civil War, 1865-1875, though I believe he wears a military outfit and not that of a civilian band musician. 

The woman wears a dress and hair style that fits the 1860s. Note the ring on her finger. But there may be other details that point to a later decade.

Last year I posted a story on a similar couple from New York, Mr. & Mrs. Albee Turner  but that cdv had several good clues, notably the annotation of the names. This photo still needs more research, but I do feel that it represents a musician and his wife posing for a camera on a date important to them, perhaps their marriage, or the husband's departure to war. 

Only they can provide the real answer to the riddle, but their lips are sealed.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you might find more wedding bells and happy couples.

A Man and his Dog

17 August 2012

So my nephew, he is in the army too. He writes to me from the front that his wagon horse has the cough. When he takes her to the company farrier, the chief mixes some schnapps with a little water. "Give this to your horse once each  morning and evening."

"Did it cure your horse?" I ask my nephew.

"No, no, but now everyone's horse has the cough twice a day."

My nephew, his candle wick is maybe not too long. He tells me that last week he lost  20 pfennig down the latrine hole. "So what did you do?" I ask.

"I tossed in my watch and fob, of course," says he.

"Why ever did you do such a thing?" I ask.

"Well I am not going to go hunt down there for just 20 pfennigs!"

 Now I will play a little tune for you fellows on my trumpet. 

"Yoooooww, Yoow, Yoww, Yowl !!!" 

Oh dear, Dieter does not like that song. No, no, no, Dieter. You must sing nicely and then you will get a good bone.

That was my imagined routine that Paul Pilz, Charakterkomiker, might have performed as a comic entertainer in the Wandertheater from 1916 wartime Germany.  Paul, whose name Pilz means mushroom in German, is dressed as a kind of hunter or rural rube, and he holds a trumpet and a small dog, whose real name is unknown. But Dieter sounds like a good name for a German dog, and I think s/he is a terrier, perhaps a Cairn Terrier. 

Ludwig von Falkenhausen

The Wandertheater was a traveling theatrical show attached to A. A. Falkenhausen or Armee Abteilung (Army Detachment) Falkenhausen which served on the southwestern German front in World War 1. A reserve group of the German Imperial Army, it was named after its commanding general, Ludwig von Falkenhausen (1844-1936), whose photo I include here because his slight resemblance to Paul Pilz may have been part of the humor. This army group saw action in Lorraine which was that contentious region of eastern France that Germany had controlled since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. 

There is no stamp on the back of the postcard, but instead two postmarks. One marked: K.D. Feldpostexped. der 19 Ersatz Division, 14.4.16 - 14 April 1916. And the second: Sold. Brief * Gren. Landw. - Rgt  100 *  I. Bat. 2 Komp. which stands for Soldaten Brief (Soldier's Letter) Grenadier Landwehr Regiment Nr.100, an infantry battalion from Sachsen or Saxony. The handwriting is too difficult for me to decipher, but I think there may be a mention of the show along with another date of 12/4/1916 and an address in Dresden which is in Saxony.

There was also a Wandertheater Orchestra with 13 musicians and a conductor, a typical size for a music hall pit orchestra of this time. This small ensemble of 2 clarinets, trumpet, tuba, percussion and 8 string players is dressed in military uniform and seated in front of a theater stage. According to a book entitled German Soldier Newspapers of the First World War by Robert L. Nelson, the German army had 43 army theaters, 11 Regimental theaters, 8 on a battalion level, 2 on brigade level, and 7 independent itinerary theater shows like this one, called Wandertheaters.  For these musicians, this kind of work would have been just a continuation of their civilian careers in German cinema and opera theaters. I don't believe there were equivalent theatrical shows produced by the military and performed for the English, French, or Russian troops.

But this emphasis on entertainment was intended not just as an amusement for the Kaisers' army, but to be an essential part of both military and political propaganda. The great fear of all the governments at this time, but especially those of Germany and Austria was the threat of communism. Worker's strikes became more common as the war dragged on, and as happened in Russia with the rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917, social unrest could lead to the overthrow of a government and abolishment of a monarchy, or worse. Keeping the soldiers laughing and singing was preferable to allowing their discontent to breed revolution.

Until this story on Paul Pilz and his dog came together this week, I had not recognized that the two Wandertheater postcards were related more directly than just the title on the front.  This second Postkarte was written by the same person, to the same address, only two days later on 14/4/1916.  But again the cursive script proves too challenging to read. I would expect that the writer had attended a performance of Paul Pilz and the Wandertheater and these were free souvenir cards for the soldiers. Writing paper must have been very dear in some areas of the Great War.

The first two cards were sent from a unit within the Sächsisches Landwehr Grenadier Regiment Nr. 100.  The 2nd Landwehr  was a home guard division that at least initially in 1914, was ranked third behind regular and reserve army groups, and intended only for occupation and security duties. That rear line duty changed to front line combat as the war lengthened and fighting covered more territory.

This Ersatz or replacement division included the Regt. Nr. 100 from Saxony, and by chance, I have another photo postcard of 6 German army bandsmen who are also from Saxony - a horn player, a trumpeter, a piccolo, two clarinets and one musician without an intrument.  If you look closely the player 3rd from left has his piccolo tucked into the front of his tunic.

This card has another indecipherable cursive but has Soldatenkarte written under a faded postmark that I think dates from 1916 also. It is addressed to Arthur Rühl of Augsburg in Bavaria. I would guess that the writer is one of the bandsmen in the photo.

The pickelhaube  that these musicians wear was the most distinctive part of the Imperial German Army uniform. It started as the helmet of the Prussian military tradition but was adopted in the 1870s by all the armies of the German States. The Wappen or helmet plate is a coat of arms that is unique to each army unit. The Spitze or spike could be removed and changed for a Trichter or parade plume, which these fellows probably had ready in their kits. There were several different shapes: smooth or fluted; pointed or rounded; and different bases that indicated rank, regiment type i.e. infantry, cavalry, or artillery, and division and corps. Officers had even more extra details of rank added on their helmets.

This plate taken from an official book on German Military Uniforms shows the distinctive 8 pointed star Wappen for the Sachsen or Saxony Regiment (2nd row left). The Nr. 100 Regt. Wappen was described as gilt on silver, the opposite of the other Saxon regiments of silver on gilt.

The countless different insignias of rank and unit are positively medieval and would have required an encyclopedic knowledge to distinguish one from another even in this era.

Fortunately in today's internet world that information can be found on several websites of collectors of this iconic headgear of the German Empire. Here are two sites I have used:
Colonel J.'s Puckelhaubes
and The Kaiser's Bunker .
Both have fascinating photos, stories and details on the army uniforms of this now forgotten military history.

It did not take long for the shiny glitter of the Pickelhaube to become a target for enemy sharpshooters. Photos of German and Austrian soldiers from late in the war usually show them wearing olive drab uniforms and headgear with cloth covers that fit even around the Pickelhaube spike.

This is only the first part of the Wandertheater story,
so stay tuned for more in a future post.  

Let's have Paul Pilz have the last word with one more joke.

So you like Dieter's singing? Yes, he has a wonderful voice but alas his speech is still not so good. What little he knows, he knows well, but you should hear my cousin's dog. Now that was a smart dog. That dog could talk. My cousin Otto tried to sell him to me once.

"So tell the truth. You have a real talking dog for sale?" I ask when I go over to Otto's house.

"Yah, I will sell him for 5 marks," says Otto. "If you want to see him, he is just outside."

So I go outside and there is this mutt not much taller than Dieter. "Are you the talking dog?" I ask.

"Yes, I am," replies the dog. "Very pleased to meet you,"

I am thunderstruck. "How did you ever learn to speak German?"

"Oh German was easy," says the dog. "I learned that when I was a guard dog for the Kaiser in Berlin. After that he promoted me to the diplomatic corps and I picked up Swedish at our embassy in Stockholm. Now when the war started I became a courier dog and French was hard. Too many vowels. And then in the last year, the high command assigned me to the Navy and I had to learn Turkish while guarding the submarines in Istanbul."

Now my head is spinning, so I go back inside to sit down.  "Otto, that dog is amazing! But why would you sell him for only 5 marks?" I ask.

"Because he is a horrible liar! He never did any of those things."

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where this weekend you might hear more dog stories
than you could shake a bone at.

A Parlor Quartet

10 August 2012

click to enlarge

Two men and two women in an unusual musical quartet of flute, cornet, violin and piano, pose for the camera in someone's home parlor. For countless generations this kind of house music was how most music was heard, played by amateur and professional musicians alike, and yet early photos of this domestic music are hard to find. In part this was because before the advent of small hand held cameras, most photographs had to be taken in a photographer's studio, so this photo of a parlor quartet is a rare exception.

My scanner can't quite do justice to the fine quality of the original, as this large glossy albumen print is remarkably clear. The engraved cornet and the blackwood flute with its ivory head joint are very well focused. But the smaller details of carpeting, wallpaper, and knick-knacks are what bring this turn of the century group to life.

Two musicians have names, as on the back is written:
2nd left  Winnie Stevens
seated at Piano  Hattie Wilson

The cornet player's name Winnie is usually short for a feminine name, Winnifred, but the masculine versions, Winfred or Windfred were also known as Winnie, as were Edwin and Irwin. Hattie Wilson the pianist has a very common name 19th century name.

But what makes this an exceptional photo is seeing the sheet music. In so many photographs of musicians, we can never know what music they played. But for this quartet we can, as a copy of My Old New Hampshire Home is placed on the piano desk.

The music was written in 1898 and sold to a publisher for $15 by Aaron Gumbinsky, better known to music history as Harry Von Tilzer, (1872-1946). His song, with words by Andrew B. Sterling, proved to be a fantastic hit selling over 2 million copies, which suggests that the population of New Hampshire in 1900 was a lot larger than it is today. 

Though he didn't make much from his first effort at popular song, Harry Von Tilzer went on to write many more big hits for the early vaudeville and Broadway shows in New York City. They include A Bird in a Gilded Cage,  All Alone,  Wait 'Til The Sun Shines Nellie,  I Love My Wife, But Oh You Kid!,  They Always Pick On Me, and  I Want A Girl (Just Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad).

Supposedly it was Harry Von Tilzer's habit of placing paper strips in the strings of his piano that led to the name Tin Pan Alley. These tinny sounds coming from his music office studio were so strident in that area in New York that the name stuck in the public's mind for a whole genre and period of popular music.

For a special treat we can hear the music by listening to the tenor and baritone duet of Byron G. Harlan and A. D. Madeira singing My Old New Hampshire Home from an Edison recording of around 1900.

And for contrast here is a version with 4 voices , sung in the same key by the Consolidated Quartette.  It is also from an early Edison cylinder recording from 1900. Consolidated was also the name of the music publisher.

The early music publishers produced an astonishing number of songs. Many of the covers were used to promote other performers or songs in their catalog. This small compilation that I made shows 9 other versions of My Old New Hampshire Home with different artists and publishers in the lower vignette. I found four more, though none were exactly like the one on the parlor piano which seems to show two women in the photo circle.

The second piece of music is more challenging and adds an ugly twist to the story. There on the music stand to the right is a copy of Come Back My Honey, I'se Been Waitin' .  A song with words by Fred N. Statia and music by Lew H. Newcomb, it is subtitled A Coon Sensation.

Such offensive titles are part of a music history that has been understandably neglected but for reasons that are part of America's troubled cultural past of racism. 

Composed in 1897, Come Back My Honey is contemporary with Harry Von Tilzer's music, but comes from another branch of older popular music - the minstrel shows. Though the music is really no different from other sentimental songs of this period, the lyrics and sentiments come from the legacy of slavery and depiction of African-American people in broad degrading stereotypes. The minstrel shows began in the 1830s before the Civil War but reached their height in the 1890's. These almost formulaic variety shows combined "coon" songs and dances with comic skits and other vaudeville acts, all performed by people wearing blackface makeup. Though abhorrent to our modern sense of decency, these shows were incredibly popular with hundreds of companies touring the country.

Recently I finished a wonderful biography of the great black musician and blues composer W.C. Handy by David Robertson. In it he describes Handy's early career working as a minstrel show band leader run by African-American performers who dressed in blackface.  Black musicians imitating white musicians imitating black musicians. A truly bizarre notion but one that was universally accepted in 1900 as mainstream humor and entertainment.

If we could turn the music over on the music stand this is the page we would find. The publisher's list of Coon Songs That are all the Rage in the Rage of Coon Songs, with titles like  My Coal Black Lady,  Mammy's Little Picanninny boy,  De Darkey Cavaliers. and  All Coons Look Alike to Me.

Despite the use of demeaning stereotypes and denigrating humor, the minstrel shows were the first truly American theatrical art form. They introduced many of the musical styles and fashions that would evolve into ragtime music and then into jazz. They were also by no means just for white audiences and performers, as many black entertainers like W. C. Handy got their start in these traveling minstrel shows. One of the composers listed on this page was Bert Williams (1874-1922) a black singer and comedian who became one of the most highly paid entertainers of this era and helped to overturn many of the racial barriers that existed at this time.

So we can say with some confidence that the parlor quartet dates no earlier than the 1898 copyright of Tilzer's music. And since who would want to be identified with an old stale piece of music, the latest date is probably no more that 1900.  Yet despite having names for the cornet player and pianist, I could not come up with a confirmed match as their names are too common to quickly pop up on So we don't know where they are. But my suspicion is that the choice of My Old New Hampshire Home means they are likely not sitting in a Nebraska farmhouse.

I found one small town in the 1900 New Hampshire Census - Bennington in Hillsboro County where a Mrs. Hattie Wilson, age 26 and husband Henry Wilson, age 37 lived with a daughter Ruth, age 2. Henry was an assistant foreman, cutlery factory. Just next door was a boarder, Charles Stevens, age 22 who worked as a cutlery grinder. And in the same town was another boarder, Edwin G. Stevens, age 32 whose occupation was woodturner. All this is true speculation as these musicians could just as well live in Vermont and pine for the woods of New Hampshire. Winnie's tanned complexion suggests regular outdoor activity and both Hattie and the young violinist wear rings. Wedding bands perhaps? 

Uncovering the music that this parlor quartet played, changes our understanding of this photograph. Learning that these pleasant looking men and women enjoyed songs with such overt racist language is like discovering that grandpa never changed his underwear and grandma drank a pint of whiskey everyday. But that is part of American history too and part of the reality beyond the frame of the photo.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you might find more quartets on bicycles. 

The bicycle was another popular 1890s fashion and I can't resist including this image of the sheet music for Daisy Bell, (Bicycle Built for Two) which was published in 1892 by Harry Dacre.  The song was a big favorite of many early computers too.

Two's company but a bicycle built for four would definitely be a crowd.

The Imperial Boys' Orchestra

03 August 2012

In the first decade of the 20th century, just before the world was turned upside down by war, the word Imperial had a different connotation than its use in our 21st century. For one thing it was a regular adjective in the vocabulary of advertisements, as it was easily understood by a world populated with monarchs great and small. Europe had over 23 royal heads of state in the years before the Great War of 1914-18. Though there were some national democracies with various levels of freedom, it was the crowned head that was the defining image of most countries. 

Last year I wrote a story on the Imperial Girls Band of Reading, Michigan. In this set of postcards it is the Imperial Boys' Orchestra who have perhaps a better claim to the word as they are from England, Scotland, Germany, and maybe Austria. The first photo shows 17 boys and young men dressed in kilts and led by Muiskdirktor Mr. Linde who wears a formal tailcoat. The top corner has a handwritten date of June 30- 06 with another line that I'm unable to decipher. Perhaps a future concert date of 14-18 July? The card has no postmark and was probably sent in an envelope.

The orchestra is made of a mix of strings, brass, woodwinds, drums, and curiously bagpipes. The one piper is standing just beside the double bass on the right. The two boys to the right of Mr. Linde, hold rolls of music which was the typical musical prop for a pianist or organist. On the left behind the group is a set of tubular bell chimes. In the center is an elaborate shield or crest to signify the Imperial nature of this ensemble. On the right is a percussion instrument called a Turkish Crescent, or Jingling Johnny, which was a popular instrument in German and Austrian marching bands. It is a staff with hanging bells, and comes from the Turkish Janissary bands of the 16th century.

In the next card, which is printed in halftone, the ensemble has a more eccentric title of:

Imperial englisch schottisch Streich-Orchestra, London u. Glasgow.
Musicdirector Mr. Linde.

The musicians are arranged differently with a few older men as well as boys. This time Mr. Linde is wearing a kilt and sporran too. They also seem to have replaced the piper with a cellist, which would be a more practical orchestral instrument. On the sides are some testimonial words in an odd Anglo-Deutsch:

Mr. Linde who appeared by Royal command before their majesties
König Eduard et Queen Alexandra etc

Mr. Linde hatte d. hohe Ehre vor Sr. Majestät König Eduard VII. u.
der Königin Alexandra kommandiert, vorgestellt u. presented zu werden.

As King Edward VII was on the British throne from 1901 until his death in 1910, this gives a good date for Mr. Linde's Imperial Boys of 1905 to 1910.

The third card offers yet another pose and an English text.

The Imperial Boys' Orchestra
(The only Boys' Orchestra who have appeared before the KING and QUEEN,

Musical Director - Herr Wilhelm Linde
(Late Strauss Court Orchestra, Vienna).

“The King complimented Herr Linde on the splendid training of the boys,
and expressed his good wished for their future”

“His Majesty recognised (sic) Herr Linde, and noticing that he was wearing
a Medal presented to him by the Emperor Wilhelm of Germany,
asked to be informed of the occasion.” Daily Telegraph

This is a slightly larger group with 19 players, including two bassoonists in the right front row. At the back right with his jacket covered in medals is the piper again, though his bagpipes are hidden. Herr Linde with his baton is dressed again in tailcoat. His resume would imply that he is Austrian by the reference to a Vienna Court Orchestra under Strauss, a deliberately vague citation which could mean he once played waltzes conducted by one of the many orchestra leaders of the Johann Strauss Family. But Wilhelm is a very Prussian name, as is his mustache, (Austro-Hungarians favored muttonchops) so he might just as easily be from Berlin. Or he might be Scottish!

At a glance this last card appears to be the same as the first, but it is not.

This postcard traveled in a postman's bag in Stuttgart, Germany. The postmark is not completely clear but I think it is also 1906 like the first. The numeral 12 is a postal zone and not a year. The handwriting is quite beyond my ability to translate so I leave it to any Germans who would like to try

The pose of the orchestra is so nearly identical, I have made a GIF image, a kind of modern Kinetoscope, for a demonstration of what computer imaging can do.

Now how could an orchestra be more Imperial than to combine three Empires? Are these musicians from England? Though boys may be boys, I think these lads look more English than German, but would any English boy wear a kilt?

So are they Scottish? The caps, jackets, kilts, and sporrans look authentic. And how many German virtuosos of the dudelsack  won medals? But remember the Scottish dress of the girls in the Janietz Elite Damen? Appearance is not always what it seems. 

UPDATE: Bob had a comment on the crest which I believe is the Royal Coat of Arms for the United Kingdom. Only the Royal Family, the British Government or holders of a Royal Warrant can use it. So how did Herr Mr. Linde get permission? And the coat of arms is different for Scotland with the Lion and Unicorn switching sides. Very curious. 

On the other hand, the language mash-up suggests a strong Germanic connection. Herr Mr. Linde seems to have had an Austrian or German background, and not Scottish or English. And this kind of promotion was typical of many postcards of German and Austro-Hungarian bands from this period.

The answer is there are no answers. I have been unable to find any trace of the Imperial Boys Orchestra or Herr Mr. Wilhelm Linde. He may have been an enterprising orchestra leader who collected young talent from several countries including Scotland and England. Music halls all around Europe were a big business in this era, so the confusion of dress and nationality may have been deliberate to enhance their novelty value. They may have been orphans or from impoverished families looking to give a young boy an education in a useful craft. They are definitely not a community  band like the Imperial Girls of Reading. These boys are a professional troupe who were skilled entertainers. Many would no doubt play in the military bands that served the Empires at war in the second decade of the century.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
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