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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A Newsboy from Milwaukee

27 April 2013

"Extra, extra! Read all about it," the newsboy cries. It's a cliche that has lost its context, if not its meaning as well. When was the last time any newspaper printed an Extra edition?
So let's turn the calendar back to another century and meet a boy who knew those street calls well, as he is a proud member of the Milwaukee Journal Newsboys Band.

As an occupation, the newsboy's day is long past from when he was essential to the success of a newspaper business. In the 1900s, most cities could boast of at least two or even several news publishers, so competition was fierce, and newsboys were the key to sales. Hundreds of boys hawked papers on every corner, at every hotel, and outside every cafe, restaurant, and saloon.  It was hard work. In the late 1890s, the Milwaukee Journal recognized the value of these young employees and organized the boys in order to boost sales. They offered summer recreation and other boys' club activities, and for a few select newboys there was a place in the brass band. This lad in his wonderful uniform has an alto horn (a tenor horn in the UK) and the Milwaukee Journal badge on his cap.

Most of the photos of newsboy bands are souvenir postcards like the Toledo Newsboy Band story I wrote about last year. So this cabinet photograph by Prescher of 527 Chestnut St. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is unusual to show a single child musician. Unfortunately the boy's name is not recorded, but we can learn more about his band.

The band was organized in 1898 with around 40-45 young musicians whose average age was 14. This boy looks about 10 or 12, I think.  On August 26, 1899, The Milwaukee Journal ran an article on the great summer outing they produced for the hundreds of newsboys who sold their newspaper. Over 1,200 boys were taken to the beach at Lake Michigan where there was swimming, sporting events, and a picnic too. The Journal's Newsboys Band led the parade to the train station. This image is a poor reproduction from the digitized newspaper article, but there is just enough clarity to recognize the fancy buttoned uniform and flat cap. 

The Milwaukee Journal
August 26, 1899

In this era there were few protections given to child labor. Newsboys, and sometimes girls too, often started work as young as 6 or 7 years old. And the work hours began in the early morn and lasted until late evening. Each boy had a small territory, perhaps a street intersection, or a hotel district to attract buyers for the daily paper. A copy of the Milwaukee Journal sold for three-cents. The dealer collected two-cents and the newsboy kept one-cent. If he was lucky he might pick up a tip. In 1900, Milwaukee had over 2,500 newsboys selling papers.

The man in charge of this youthful army was the Journal's circulation manager, Bert Hall.  A small monthly religious digest called The Philosopher, published by Van Vechten & Ellis in Wausau, Wisconsin, printed this tribute to Mr. Hall in August 1903. 

One of the really great men I know is Bert Hall. Probably you never heard of him. But then, you don't have the chance I do to bump up against the Truly Great. Ostensibly, Bert Hall is the circulation manager of The Milwaukee Journal .....  Mr Hall is engaged in working up the raw material afforded by twenty five hundred newsboys, into future presidents, senators, ministers, plenipotentiary, or any other old thing above aldermen. The hardest thing a circulation manager has to manage is the newsboys. That's where many a good man falls down [the] cellar. Hall is one of the few men who has discovered the fact that good Aunt Mary Philip out at Hillside found out years ago __ that there's more good than bad to any boy __ if you have wit enough to get at it. 


Mr Hall's theory is that to make a boy a good newsboy, you've got to make him a good boy. And he has a genius for that that I wish he could put up in small bottles and sell for general use. The boys of today suffer more moral starvation from the lack of sane and wholesome stimulus in right directions, than they do from all the vice and folly that assails them. A boy can't work for Bert Hall and be a bad boy. The boy doesn't live that would have the nerve to try it. He may be a successful circulation manager but it isn't a patch to his success as a boy manager.

In the summer of 1903 the band was sent on a tour of Wisconsin cities to raise money for various charities. I suspect that this photograph of a stalwart newsie and bandboy was taken in 1903 and used for promoting the band. Perhaps he was the alto horn soloist or a successful news agent. The same unknown writer in the The Philosopher  gave this description of the band. (The Philosopher's print shop was also called The Cabin)

The largest single class that has ever taken the degree right here in The Cabin was The Milwaukee Journal Newsboys band ~ and they are a band in more ways than one. In the second place they are about the best brass band you ever heard, and in the first place they are a band of as fine young lads as could well be brought together. They are boys who have to hustle, which is good for them, but they also have something to hustle for, which is worth while. They are bright, active, live, up-to-date, sincere, lusty boys and they put the same fresh young enthusiasm into their music that they do into baseball or selling papers, or doing anything else that they love to do. 

And that is where Bert Hall comes in. He makes a Milwaukee Journal newsboy understand, from the start, that if he is going to be a newsboy at all, it's worth while being a good one and worth trying to be the best one. Then he puts this band of forty five pieces right in the center of a gang of twenty five hundred newsboys, and from the farthest edge of the circle every one of that quarter of a thousand is hustling to edge his way in to the band. But there is only one way he can get in. Musical ability won't do it; as many a boy who was valuable to the band from a musical standpoint has been shut out because he didn't come up to the standard as a boy. That is the first demand __ he must be right as a boy; then he must be a good newsboy __ then if he can't play anything this side of a jewsharp, he is turned over to Mr Bennest, who teaches him to play something and teaches him to play it well. 


The band stands for proved effort on the part of every member of it. And so it comes about that you will have to hunt a long ways and a long time to find a better lot of youngsters than are these. They wrote their names on our Book, and there is no finer page in the book, even though most of it is an eloquent testimonial to the utter futility of the new-fangled system of straight-backed writing. And even among the selections they played out on the lawn while they were waiting for the train, there was no music half so sweet as the lusty yell they gave when somebody propounded an inquiry as to what was the matter with the Log Cabin. It is settled now for all time that it's all right.

Being a Milwaukee Journal newsboy was a privilege. Being a musician in the Journal's Newsboys Band was an honor. I bet this boy sold a lot of papers.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Where everyone is reading the news today.

This smiling Maryland boy celebrated being 84 years young this week. He is my father, Russell Brubaker, dressed in his best suit for his high school senior photo.

I don't know when he got his first camera, but for as long as I can remember, his photos have recorded our family life. More pictures of people, places, and events than I could ever count. Even a few of a young boy in a band uniform with his horn.

It's a sharp eye that takes a good photo, and even if all those lessons on lens and F-stops and film speed seem irrelevant now in our digital age, it was his many great photos that inspired me to take up collecting vintage photographs and write about them on this blog.

From time to time, I'd like to include some of those photos too, but meanwhile here's one from my camera.

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So happy birthday, Dad. Here's looking at you, kid.

John T. Owens, An Armless Artist

19 April 2013

What defines a virtuoso musician? It is more than just musical technique or artistic inspiration. It's about expanding the boundaries of music. I think that one of these two musicians had that special quality. People will pay attention (and money) to hear a man with no arms play a violin. Or a banjo. Or a guitar. A true virtuoso makes an audience sit up and marvel at a sound that before seemed impossible. This virtuoso was named John T. Owen.

Wearing a tight fitting theatrical costume, he is seated in a photographer's studio next to a guitar, a banjo, an autoharp, and with his bare feet he holds a violin and bow. He has no arms. Standing next to him is a woman holding a second guitar, and she appears to be able-bodied. She is his wife, Matilda.

This report appeared in The Salt Lake Herald on January 12, 1892.


John T. Owens,  the armless man gave an exhibition of his wonderful skill last evening. 
He is an accomplished musician and a fine and rapid writer. A ball was given in his favor.
His violin and banjo playing gave every satisfaction to the most fastidious.
Specimens of his writing are held by a good many of his patrons as mementoes of the occasion.
He does his own tuning of the instruments and can use his feet with incredible dexterity.

This cabinet card came from the Wendt studio of Bonton, New Jersey which had a specialty in making souvenir photos of the many entertainers performing in the music halls, circuses, traveling shows, and curiosity museums of the late 19th century.

This excerpt from the Cleveland Plain Dealer of October 24, 1893 gives a good description of what could be seen at one of these exhibitions of strange and wonderful oddities.


The leading features this week are John Owens, the armless wonder,
who is endowed with such phenomenally nimble toes
that he plays well on the violin, guitar, banjo, autoharp
and other instruments, and is a dead shot with rifle and pistol;
the genuine and only Albino Indian child;
the three-horned cyclopian dwarf bull;
and Hamlin, who walks honestly, if gingerly on the sharp edges of a double row of swords.
The craze to show fate-lined palms to the gypsy free fortune teller shows no sign of abating.
Prof. Hugo gives an unusually entertaining exhibition of magic in the upper auditorium
and the vaudeville theater offers a varied and artistic bill.
Crowds swarm around the big window at the museum entrance, fascinated
by Frank Rallston's fearless familiarity
with sixteen venomous rattlesnakes.

Under the long list of Chicago amusements found in the March 3, 1895, Chicago Inter-Ocean was this listing. 

Kohl & Middleton's Dime Museum

... In the curio department will be seen the oddest of married couples,
Miss Lizzie Strugeon, the armless pianist,
who plays skillfully with her toes;
and John T. Owens, the armless, who is an expert rifle shot,
holding his weapon with his toes;
"Whale Oil Gus," the Arctic traveller, wit, and story teller;
accompanied by "Monday," the only boy ever born on board a whale ship;
"Polly," the wonder talking seal;
the Russian lady orchestra; and the Yankee whittler.

The State Street Globe Museum will have
the Midway dancers, acrobats, musicians,
and other Orientals as one of its principal features.
Professor J. King, lightning calculator;
Hubin, the king of magic; Mlle. Betra, snake enchantress;
Jules Carr and his troup of wrestling bears,
and Miss Mabel Milton, long haired beauty.

On the back of the photograph is the distinctive signature of John T. Owens under a fanciful doddle of a bird.  Was he left footed or right?

Much of his history is now lost, but one website specializing in circus oddities and freak show performers, posted a short biography giving his full name as John Timothy Owens, born 1865 in Pattonsburg, Missouri to a large family. His wife's name was Matilda Fry and they had three children. John Owens died in Missouri in 1918.

On April 5, 1903 the Ardmore OK Ardmoreite ran this short report which corroborates much of this information. By this time he has acquired the title of Professor which was commonly added to the names of bandleaders and solo musicians.

The Armless Man

Prof. J. T. Owens, the armless wonder, who has been on our streets for some days, has gone.   The marvelous man is really a curiosity. He is 35 years old, born without arms or hands, belonged to a family of seven or eight brothers and sisters,
reared in the Grand Valley of Colorado,  herded  cat­tle with his brothers,
fell in love and married and now has two children.

The professor plays the violin, ban­jo, guitar and autoharp, writes, sews, whittles, shaves, strings and tunes his own instruments and is an expert rifle shot.

I could only find John T. Owens in the 1880 census when he was 14, but no other records of his adult life. In the photo he appears to be about 30, so it was likely taken around 1895. Except for these few newspaper accounts, his name shows up only on a few more vaudeville notices in the 1900s.  Lemar, Iowa in 1900. Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1902. Bemidji, Minnesota in 1904. Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1913. And in 1915, in between the feature films at a Moulton, Iowa cinema.

In this era it must have been a challenge to tour the country as a disabled man. There was actually quite a lot of competition from similarly handicapped circus and carnival performers who had developed various footwork skills that the public would pay to see. Almost all seemed to be presented in a dignified manner that promoted the "armless wonder" for their inspiration at overcoming adversity. Many were very adept at feats of skill and sport, and learned to play several musical instruments too.

I doubt that John T. Owens saw himself as having any handicap. He probably thought he could do anything he set his mind to. And I think he knew he had a gift. That gift is what a virtuoso knows will make us wonder to see and hear.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you will meet more extraordinary and astonishing people.

Wandertheater der A.A. Falkenhausen

12 April 2013

Every General knows that success on the battlefield depends as much on a soldier's morale as it does on the quality of his weapons and equipment. That's why when the Great War of 1914 reached it's third year in 1916, the German Army assembled a special unit for entertaining the troops. It was called the Wandertheater der A.A. Falkenhausen or the Travelling Theater of Armee-Abteilung A.  which was the Division Falkenhausen of the German Army, named for its general, Ludwig von Falkenhausen (1844 – 1936), who was in command of the southern part of the Western Front in Alsace-Lorraine. Ludwig must have been fond of the music hall revue as these performers presented almost every kind of variety act.

The postcard was sent by Feldpost from France on 19 June 1916 to a Katrina Stumpf (?) in Würzburg. The high angle of the German cursive handwriting defeats my efforts to read it.

In this closeup we see that the entertainers stand behind the orchestra on a very small stage only a few meters wide. There is a ventriloquist with his dummy, two pairs of acrobats in leotards, a male vocal quartet in uniform, several comic characters, and one woman (looking rather masculine to my eye)

One of the performers you have met last August, when I introduced Paul Pilz, a Characterkomiker with his trumpet. Herr Pilz is on the left  with his dog, and undoubtedly was a popular act with the German soldiers.

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In the center are two clowns, Becker und Stössner, die beiden Spaßvögel or the two jesters. The German word Vögel means birds, which explains the feathers in their caps. A classic pair of jokers that look just as funny today as they must have been in 1916.

This postcard was again sent by Feldpost, the free postal service for the German military, on 24 Sept. 1916 to Fräulein Lotte Huf (?) of Ingelheim am Rhein.  All the military powers censored the letters and cards received and sent by soldiers, but the German army censorship was the most restrictive. Besides redacting any military information, they also monitored correspondence for any subversive or revolutionary communication. The censors must have developed great skill to read all the different handwriting styles.

I'm not certain if this gentleman, Tobinski, a komischer Rollschuhläufer  or comic roller skater, is either the man left or the man right next to the clowns in the group photo. But he appears to be another variation of the humorist with special skills. Before the war, the music halls and vaudeville stages had hundreds of acts like this, and Tobinski may have been a celebrated comedian. I would like to have seen how he managed to skate on such a small stage.

This postcard was also sent to Fräulein Lotte on the next day. The postcards were probably free or inexpensive, and served as reassuring propaganda for the soldier's families back on the homefront. Who wouldn't laugh at this zany fellow?

Every nation in the Great War struggled with how to control civilian anxiety over the war effort. The Russian Revolution of 1917 which overthrew the Russian Tzar was a serious concern for all the governments that had an investment in this horrific war. Keeping the troops happy with diversions of novelty music and cheerful clowns was seen as one way to pacify the servicemen and prevent unrest and rebellion.

This photocard of Das Orchester of the Wandertheater was in my earlier story on Paul Pilz. They are a typical small theater orchestra with strings and a few wind and percussion instruments. Their military uniforms mark them as bandsmen from one of the German regimental bands. It was, and still is, a long standing tradition for military bands to have smaller ensembles using string instruments for concerts and social events that were held indoors. 

Every theater manager knows that success on the stage depends as much on the backstage crew as it does on the performers in front of the lights. This last photocard shows Die Mitglieder des Wandertheater Armee-Abt.A. that is the Members of the Wander Theater of Armee-Abteilung A., posed outdoors. Paul Pilz plays a tune on his trumpet while someone holds his other dog. Becker and Stössner are next to him, along with all the acrobats, musicians, and road crew. And that manly woman is there too. Did they make General Falkenhausen laugh?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is on the march.

The Piper and the Auld Brig o'Earn

05 April 2013

What makes Scotland such an inspiration to artists, poets, and of course, photographers? Is it the rugged wild landscape? The colorful eccentric people? The brilliant  balmy weather? I think it is the evocative sound that accompanies any view of Scotland — the mellifluous voice of the bagpipes played by a Highland Piper.

This photograph has a caption, A Highland Piper, 524, with the initials AI, and may resemble a postcard, but is actually a large format  photo (8"x 5.25") mounted on an old album page of  heavy card.

I believe he is a pipe major of the Gordon Highlanders, as his sporran has the same black tassels on white as the pipers of that Scottish regiment. 

I have been unable to identify the photographer, but the number with the initials AI would likely be the mark of a large studio that produced picturesque photos for the tourists.

The same piper shows up in a sepia photo postcard published by Raphael Tuck's Postcards in 1906, but without the AI. It must have been popular and was printed again in the 1920s in a colorized painting for Tuck's Scottish Life Oilette Series, which had a set of six scenes of Scotland. 

As a bonus, pasted on the back of the album page with the piper's photo were two artistic landscapes of Scotland. The largest photo (8"x 5.25") shows two ruined arches of a medieval bridge and is captioned The Auld Brig o'Earn, 184.  J.V. This photographer was easier to find, as his collection is in the digital archives of the University of St. Andrew. The Auld Brig o'Earn was taken by James Valentine (1815-1879) sometime around 1878 and shows the Old Bridge across the River Earn. The bridge was built in 1330, and had become a ruin by 1592. A Scottish village still carries the name  Bridge of Earn  but has lost the tourist traffic as the old bridge was demolished in 1976.

Unfortunately the second landscape photo was cut, but the caption was saved. Birnam Falls, 426. J.V.  This is another photo from James Valentine, who was one of those prolific photographers responsible for thousands of beautiful photographs of Scotland. Many of these artful images were turned into postcards by his publishing company, but in the decades before postcards, I believe they produced these as souvenir photos for visitors who wanted to remember wild Britain.

All three photographs are very nicely made and carefully cut and mounted to the board, so I think they were all printed at the same time. As the piper major's photo is at least earlier that 1906, and these date from 1878, I think he was likely photographed in the 1880s -1890s.

So where is this lovely pool of water? Only about 18 miles to the north of the Auld Brig o'Earn. Another early Scottish photographer, George Washington Wilson, set his camera up on the same rock as Valentine and captured a nearly identical mist of the Birnam waterfall.

Handbook for Travellers in Scotland, 1906

Birnam Falls, by George Washington Wilson
Source: National Galleries Scotland


by J. K. Annand

The hielant piper in his braws

Heedrom hodrom hi

Pluffs his rosie cheeks and blaws

Heedrom hodrom hielantman.

He gie's his oxtered bag a squeeze

Heedrom hodrom hi

And oot the bonnie music flees

Heedrom hodrom hielantman.

Fingers on the chanter prancin

Heedrom hodrom hi

Gar a bodie's feet gae dancin

Heedrom hodrom hielantman.

Some can pipe and some can sing

Heedrom hodrom hi

But I can dance the Hielant Fling

Heedrom hodrom hielantman.

Now let's have some Hielant music while you re-read that poem out loud.

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The is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you will never ruin your weekend.


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