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 }

Boys with Sticks

26 September 2013


A small English boy spreads his arms wide as he prepares to lead the band. Dressed in a traditional British military bandsman uniform of the 19th century, the boy wears a cap with a badge shaped like the anchor emblem of the Royal Navy.

Once again please!

His music is now folded so we know the piece has finished. The boy bandleader grins as he asks the band to play it again. These novelty postcards were published by Davidson Bros., Real Photographic Series, London and New York. The postmark date was Oct 19, 1907 from Barnes in SW London.

It was addressed to Miss S. Bessent of "Walnut Tree Farm", Lonsdale Road, Barnes "Local". The trivial and yet odd message gains charm from "Laura"s fine handwriting and embellished "quotation marks". 

"E. Weldhen just been to confess that letter handed to her 12:30 yesterday to post was posted at 6 this morning" Fond love to all from; "Laura."

Miss Bessent was one of 7 children belonging to Harriet and Frank George Bessent, a market gardener living on the south side of the River Thames opposite Chiswick. Of the four Bessent daughters - Beatrice, Edith, Ethel, and Elsie, the youngest - Elsie, who was age 17 in 1907,  seems the likely recipient of this postcard.

In 100 years, will we derive as much fun from reading a cellphone text log?

** **

On the continent, another small boy raises a baton to start the music. Is he conducting a band? An orchestra? Since he is seated and looks to be singing, maybe it's a choir. This postcard is a kind of hybrid photo/illustration and though the handwriting of the message is in French, the card publisher is from Bologna, Italy. The writer begins with the word DO, the term for the musical pitch C, as used in Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si. The music on the stand appears a real music manuscript of a trio or quartet.

The postcard was sent to Monsieur Michel Gascon of Nice, France in October but the postmark left too faint an impression for the year. My guess is 1905-09.

** **

Das Konzert beginnt.
Aufgepasst , eins, zwei und drei,
Los, dass alle Wände beben: 
Unsre Liesel, die soll hoch
Dreimal hoch soll Liesel leben.

 The concert begins.
Watch out, one, two and three,
Come on, all the walls shake
Our Liesel, which is high
Three cheers shall Liesel live.

This German boy shouts dramatically as he leads some hidden group of musicians. His sheet music is however a vocal song with piano accompaniment. My attempt at translation hits a snag with Liesel which is not a German word but may be a familiar name for a celebrated woman.  I don't think it refers to the wife of Kaiser Wilhem II, who was Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, but it might be Austria's Kaiser Franz Joseph's wife, who was Elisabeth of Bavaria. However Empress Elisabeth was murdered in 1898 by an Italian anarchist, so maybe this boy conductor means someone else deserves three cheers.

The postcard was sent on February 23, 1913 to a Fraulein Hartman of Leipzig.

Fortunately for the anxious mothers of these three musical boys, all their batons had blunt points. Real conductor batons are usually much sharper and have been known to cause injury to either musicians, conductor, or both!

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where other boys are stuck in bed with a sore throat.

English Ladies Orchestras

20 September 2013

As usual they are unknown. An unmarked postcard with no names, date, or place. Since I acquired it from a dealer in England, it would be reasonable to describe them as an English Ladies Orchestra.  But they might be Danish, or German, or even Welsh. What we can know is that this elegant ensemble has 10 women musicians posed on what appears to be an outdoor stage, perhaps a performance area at a seaside hotel garden or an amusement pier.

The orchestra has four violins, cello, double bass, flute, cornet, percussion, and standing 2nd from left, either the pianist or a violist. The conductress or orchestra leader stands in the center  wearing a black dress in contrast to the other 9 ladies in white. My guess based on their hairstyles and fashion is that they are from 1910 to 1918.

They captured my attention because of how they resembled the Greenhill Ladies' Orchestra which I featured on my blog back in July 2011. The postmark on this postcard was obscured but the stamp of King George V meant it was no earlier than 1912. These two ladies orchestras did not play serious chamber music. Not with percussionists anyway. Their music programs were more likely to have waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr. than opera arias of Richard Strauss. This was a time when people heard the sound of music only if a live musician was performing. Since hotels and restaurants needed a hook to bring in more customers, ladies orchestras became a novel attraction for these respectable venues. The high class orchestras of the symphony hall and opera house were still a musical preserve for men only. But women found they could perform in musical groups if they were on stage with other female musicians.

Earlier this summer I acquired a small cdv photo, also from an English dealer, of an anonymous woman violinist. She stands on the ever present photographer's fur rug and in front of rather odd striped drapes. The lighting looks like it might be outdoors too. The woman has her violin and bow in a relaxed stance, and stands next to a music stand that sadly has too much glare for us to see the notes and read what music she is playing.

There are no clues, no identification, no photographer's name. Nothing. But something about her face seemed familiar.

I think she is Bessie Lillian Greenhill. She was born in 1873 in Hampstead and began performing in the 1890s with her older sister, Christine Greenhill, who accompanied on piano. Here is their 1891 census record for Wilsden, England where Christine, age 21 lists her occupation as Pianist, Professor and Bessie, age 17, is a Violinist.

The name of Bessie Greenhill - violinist, appears several times in musical journals and magazines of the 1890 - 1900 era. A cdv portrait like this would have been a useful promotional photo for a professional entertainer like Bessie. If we account for the age difference, I think these are images of the same woman separated by about a decade. Of course there can never be a certainty, but I think the likenesses are very close.

Bessie died in 1943 in St. Austell, Cornwall.  She never married, but I believe she made her living as a music teacher and violinist.  

In this pre-suffragette age, there were formidable challenges for a woman to become a successful professional musician. It required bravery to face the discrimination, the inequity, the favoritism, and even outright hostility that confronted working women. I imagine that brave face as Bessie's, and now I can imagine I have two images of her.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more vintage photos of strong women.

All-American Girls

13 September 2013

"LADIES, PLEASE! Pay attention.
Once again from the beginning."

"Look over there. Is that who I think it is?
Do you suppose he can see us?"

"Hey! That's sharp! Watch what you're doing, Virginia."

Yes it was a fine day to celebrate the 250th Anniversary of the Founding of Kingston, New York. Actually three days - May 30, 31, June 1, 1908. The bleachers had 13 rows specially built strong enough to hold 452 young ladies of Kingston. Their costumes were cleverly designed with blue, red, and white capes and contrasting white and red coronets. Technically the 46 starlet ladies were not appropriate for the current 1908 flag of the United States which had been around since Utah was admitted to the Union in 1896 as our 45th state. But the organizers of Kingston's All-Lady Flag must have decided to rearrange the upper left corner in anticipation of Oklahoma becoming the 46th state one month later on July 4, 1908.

The good people of Kingston, NY evidently had some difficulty choosing a year to celebrate the 250th anniversary of their city. The arithmetic would make that 1658, but according to the Friends of Historic Kingston, the real date was 1652 when the Dutch established a town on the Hudson River called Esopus, named after the local Native Americans of the Esopus tribe. The settlement was renamed Wiltwijck in 1658 by Peter Stuyvesant, who was the Director General of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. That was the foundation year they used in 1908, even though the Dutch gave over their colony to the English in 1664, who then renamed the town Kingston. When the British colonies formed the United States of America in 1776, Kingston was briefly the first capital of New York until the British burned the city in October 1777 shortly after the Battle of Saratoga. History is never simple.

Daily Kennebec Journal, Maine
May 29, 1908

In fact, the Kingston 250th anniversary celebration was carefully coordinated with another memorial event, the re-burial of the body of  George Clinton (1739 -1812), 1st Governor of New York,  and 4th Vice President of the United States under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  (There was no family relation to Bill Clinton, the 42nd US President)

Vice President Clinton, who was also a brigadier general in the Continental Army, had been buried in Washington D.C. after his death in office in 1812. But he was exhumed in 1908 and brought to Kingston, where he had served as New York's first governor. This was a major event that involved a military escort, a parade down Broadway in New York City, and attendance at the re-interment in a Kingston cemetery by many politicians and dignitaries of the day, including President Teddy Roosevelt.

This was the special context of pomp and ceremony that explains why 452 young ladies were assembled into a giant human flag.

The young ladies appear to be singing. They are led by the woman conducting in front with her baton in a blur.  Can you spot the two girls who were moved from a white stripe to a red? What did their mother have to say about that?

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everything this weekend is made in America.

Here Be Bears and Dragons!

06 September 2013

Tom und Alma
Musik -Clown und Instrumental = Virtuosen

Basel - Switzerland 9/9/1899

My Dear Angeline - This is the picture of two funny Swiss players that I saw last evening. They could do many queer things to make people laugh. Does thee get the pretty postals that Papa sends thee? To-day I go to a City whe(re) it is said, are many bears all over the place - called Berne - which means "bear", but they are quite tame. In Basel they have dragons everywhere, but they let the people pat them on the head, or do what they please. Hoping thee is well of thy cold, and that I shall have another letter from thee at Geneva. Thy Loving Papa. P

Postmarked from Bern, Switzerland on 9 IX 1899, this charming postcard was delivered Sept. 21st to the mailbox of young Angeline Johnson Power at her home in Philadelphia on 2035 N. 15th St.  She lived there with her parents, Emma and Edward S. Powers and her older sister Edith. Ageline was born in September 1888 and would have been age 11 when her papa sent this picture of the two Swiss clowns, Tom and Alma, to her. The 1900 US census records the occupation of Edward S. Powers as Pharmacist, which suggests he may have been on a business trip to Switzerland.

A picture postcard was a new novelty for Americans. There had been some souvenir postal cards for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But for various reasons involving US Postal regulations and an economic recession, the postcards of the mid-1890s were primarily only advertising cards for trades and retail merchandise. In 1898, Congress reduced the price of message cards to 1 cent, and authorized private companies to make a  Private Mailing Card.

But there were still many restrictions on the paper, size, and color that prevented many postcards like this from being produced in the US. The rules were changed in 1901, which really marks the beginning of the popularity of real photo postcards and picture postcards in America. Note that this postcard is not a photo but instead uses a Photogravure type printing process. The printing company was F. Kemnitz of Eberswalde in Prussia, so maybe Tom and Alma were German performers.

Follow this link for more information on the timeline of U.S. postcard history at the website for the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York.

As for Tom and Alma, they are an example of the early comedic musical duos who played music halls, vaudeville theaters, and circuses around Europe before the Great War. These two considered themselves virtuoso musicians, but we can only guess what their instruments were. And maybe their gender too.

I bet they made Angeline laugh.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone else is afloat in a boat.


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