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 Musical Child Prodigies

25 July 2014

It is the universal dream of every parent – a wish for a smart and clever child. But suppose that wish comes true? How do parents manage a precocious child who displays a musical talent beyond their years? Given such a marvel, some parents might decide to put them up on a stage and let people pay money to hear them. And that was exactly what the father of Tommy Fish did.

This carte de visite or cdv shows a small boy aged 5 or 6 years old leaning casually against a large chair while holding a piston valve cornet. The printed caption in large capitals reads TOMMY FISH For my Benefit. The boy's velvet short pants and fine slipper shoes are not the outfit for a typical family photo. He has the look of a professional performer.   

Newport RI Daily News - May 1, 1873

In fact his full name was Thomas Frederick Fish Jr. born in Rhode Island in 1869. His father, Thomas Fish Sr., was an immigrant from England and a well known musician of Providence, RI.  In 1873 Thomas brought his 4 year old son, Master Tommy Fish, onto a stage in Centredale, a village near Providence, to play a number of cornet solos with violin accompaniment by his father. The infant cornetist greatly impressed the audience with a pureness of tone, force and time not found in the playing of many older performers. All present were of the opinion that it was the most wonderful musical performence it had ever been their  pleasure to hear.

With that reception dad and Master Tommy headed for America's music hall circuit.


Brooklyn Daily Eagle - August 31, 1876

One early review in 1874 listed him as an infantile musical prodigy in a pantomime called "Humpty Dumpty". This was a variety show very loosely arranged around the classic children's rhyme with acrobats, magicians, singers, and a boy cornetist. Evidently it was popular with family audiences who were looking for a wholesome entertainment.

From 1873 to 1878, Tommy made appearances around the country playing towns like Augusta, GA; Janesville, WI; Chicago; New Orleans; Washington, DC. And of course the Big Apple of showbiz – New York City. 

This advertisement from 1876 for the Park Theater listed the acts in a variety produced by Colonel W. R. Sinn. There was a magician - The Great Herman; a strong man - The Berlin Wonder, Little Todd; the ascensionist and wire performer - Miss Jennie Engel; and

America's Infant Wonder, the marvelous Child Cornetist
Tommy Fish
The last report of Master Tommy was in 1878 from a Newport, RI newspaper. Retirement sometimes comes early for child stars. Tommy would have been about 9 (or even 10, as his young age, like that of many youthful artists, was often exaggerated) and after so many years on the road, the once bright and shiny child was no longer the box office draw he had been at age 4.

The traveling and relentless performing may have had an effect on his health too. In an 1879 newspaper report about a Hungarian boys band trying to gain permission to play in New York City, Tommy Fish was mentioned as an example of how brass playing could be detrimental to young lungs, because he had been forced to give up performing because of ill health.

In the archives of, I found his name noted once more a few decades later in the new century. The document came from Pittsfield, MA and records the marriage in Albany, NY on August 1, 1905 of Thomas Frederick Fish, age 38 to Edith Rebecca Maynard, age 35.  It was his second marriage and her third.

Both husband and wife listed their occupation as musician.

>>> <<<

This bright child did not play the cornet. She played the piano. The cdv shows a small girl seated at an early piano with her dark hair set in stylish ringlets and her legs swinging from the stool. She appears even younger than Master Tommy. 

(I should add that in terms of rarity, antique photos of boys holding a cornet are surprisingly common, while a vintage photo of anyone playing the piano are very exceptional.)

The back of the photo reads:

Susie Medbery,
The Little Fairy Musician,

only four years of age,
and plays more than One Hundred
and Fifty Pieces on the Piano,
Melodeon or Organ, with a
correctness and precision
that would do
credit to many
Professional Players.
Duplicates sent to any address
upon receipt of 25 cents, by
Geo. B. Medbery,
New London Co., CONN.
James Lombard
Copyright Secured.

Susie Medbery was the wonder child of Susan and George B. Medbery of Baltic, CN. She was born there in 1864 during the Civil War. George listed his occupation in the 1870 census as Overseer, Cotton Mill. She had an older brother twice her age named George. (Genealogy research is never easy when families have name traditions like this.)

As a toddler, Susie demonstrated a remarkable ability to play the piano and sing tunes from memory. Such a gift was worthy of a mention in the newspapers of post-war America like this space filler from the Times Picayune of New Orleans in March 1869.  

New Orleans Times Picayune - March 14, 1869
Though her talent was noted in newspapers from Kansas to New York, she does not seem to have joined a touring music hall show like Tommy Fish. Traveling with a piano is not as easy as with a cornet, and most reports describe her as playing in Connecticut. For the parents of a Wunderkind, arranging a concert tour in this era was a challenging task as well as an expensive investment for a family. Even Mozart's father, Leopold Mozart, complained about the high cost of travel and accommodations in the previous century. While most parents would sign with a music agent to handle their young performers, some parents like George Medbery struggled by themselves to promote their little musician. I imagine George seated at the kitchen table while Susie practices her piano, as he writes countless notices to mail to newspapers.

This second cdv is not marked but we can recognize little Susie Medbery at the same piano. She is older here, perhaps 6, and wears a white dress with a floral band in her hair, so this photograph probably dates from 1870. Her national celebrity was very brief, only running from 1868 to 1870, after which her name disappears from the entertainment and trivia notes of America's newspapers.

Susie and her family were recorded for the 1870 census of Sprague, CN, but by the next decade's census in 1880, her father's name is absent, leaving only Susie, her mother, and brother at home. Her brother, age 24, works at the cotton mill.

Susie Medbery, age 16, listed her occupation as music teacher. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where the signs all point to something different. 

Theatrical Ladies

18 July 2014

It's an old army joke.

"Who was that woman I saw you with last night at the canteen," asked one soldier of another.

"That was no woman," exclaimed the other soldier.   "That was my Feldwebel {Sergeant} !!!"

Maybe it was funnier in the trenches of 1916 when this postcard of José ??? was printed for the Wandertheater of Armee-Abt. A. or the Traveling Theater of Armee-Abteilung A.  also known as the Division Falkenhausen of the German Army. It was named after its general, Ludwig von Falkenhausen, (1844 – 1936), who was in command of the southern part of the Western Front in Alsace-Lorraine and evidently thought soldiers deserved high class entertainment to improve their morale.

I told the story of the Wandertheater back in April 2013, and José ??? was a performer of questionable gender that I spotted in the lineup of the cast and orchestra.

 <<  >>

In this detail of the postcard, she\he stands in the front line and is the only "woman" in the ensemble of music hall players. On the left side with his dog is the comic Paul Pilz whose story I  wrote about in 2012. Clearly Paul and José ??? were headliners and popular enough with the troops to justify printing a promotional postcard for each of them. I feel certain that she\he sang cabaret songs accompanied by the orchestra and no doubt flirted with the manly acrobats and clowns in the group. The Wandertheater seems to have had a mixture of professional civilian  and army musicians that was not unlike the U.S.O. shows that performed for allied troops during the Second World War. Nothing serious, just a good lighthearted fun entertainment.  

The card was sent by Feldpost - soldiers post - from the Gebirgs - Batterie Nr. 14 to Herrn Konrad Linz. There is no date but similar postcards were mailed from 1916 and 1917.

Thanks to Susanna Rosalie (see comments below)  for her translation of the postcard's message.

The sender was:
Abs.[short for Absender= sender]
Kan. [Kanonier= cannoneer] Huber Karl
Geb. Battr. 14 (K) 3.Zug

The soldier Karl Huber sent it to
Herrn[= Mr.] Konrad Sinz
Metzger [=butcher]
Owingen [town]
Hohenzollern [province]

Would like to write to you once again. I am always doing fine and I am healthy. Hope the same with you. At the moment we have visitors here. It is very funny. The picture shows a 'Feldgrauen' from our visitors. With many greetings, hoping for an early answer.
Yours sincerely Karl Huber

Will Euch nun auch
mal wieder
geht mir immer gut und bin
gesund hoffe bei Euch das
selbe. Wir haben zur Zeit Besuch
hier geht es sehr lustig zu. Das
Bild zeigt einen Feldgrauen
von unserem Besuch. Hoffe
mit vielen Grüßen auf baldige [?]
Baldige Antwort.
Der Ihre Karl Huber

A 'Feldgrauer' is a synonym for a soldier, based on the color of the uniforms (field grey).

<<<  >>>

There was more musical theater behind the German lines in World War One but German soldiers were not always the intended audience. In this case a musical was put on for French, Belgian, British, and Russian servicemen held in a Kriegsgefangenenlager or Prisoner of War Camp. This photo postcard shows the stage and orchestra at the Königsbrück camp. Five actors appear to be in a French restaurant and three of them are men dressed as women. The orchestra, which seems engrossed in the action, has 10 musicians with flute, clarinet, and violins. The musician on the left has a box shaped violin that was probably made in the camp.

The stage set, though quite small, has table and chairs, fancy drapes, and a painted scene flat. The signs on the left and right – Pièce {Room} and Défense de fumer {No Smoking} help create the illusion of a hotel restaurant. Judging by the makeup on the cook in the center, this was a farce where the two officers complain to the proprietress about the poor food and surly service .

This second photo shows another production in the Königsbrück camp but this one was for Russian prisoners as the postcard caption reads Gefangenenlager Königsbrück Russen Theater. There are 9 musicians in the orchestra with two violins, two guitars, and possibly 5 mandolins. The classic Russian string instrument is the balalaika which has a triangular shape and 4 strings, but the instruments here look like mandolins which have 8 strings and a pear shape body like a lute. The leader stands in the center wearing a white tunic and with his violin resting on his hip.

There is only a single performer on stage, a "woman" who bears a resemblance to José ???. She\he seems about ready to sing as the musicians play. The camera has captured a clear image of the sheet music on the violinist's  stand and it looks quite challenging. The stage set presents a drawing room that is much more elaborate than the French restaurant. The painted proscenium even gives a foreshortened perspective and the furniture is quite elegant. Was it borrowed from the camp commandant's residence?

The postcard was mailed by Feldpost on 21.12.16 or 21 December 1916 to Frau Rosa Ulbricht (?)f Armsdorf. The writer was a German soldier so perhaps he saw this musical. 

Thanks again to Susanna Rosalie (see comments below)  for a translation of this postcard's message.

The second card showing the Russian Theater at the prison camp Königsbrück has a stamp saying 'Übungsplatz' =drill ground or military training ground. So you are right, the card was sent by a German soldier apparently stationed at the garrison Königsbrück.

Abs.[= sender] P. Ulbricht. Ers.[tes or atz ?? first or substitute ??] Masch.[inen] Gew.[ehr] Battl. [= Maschinegun Battalion]
I. Komp.[anie= company]
Feld Abtlg Härtel [Field Division Härtel]
Königsbrück Neues Lager [New Camp]

It is addressed to his mother
Mrs. Rośa Ulbricht
Arnsdorf i/Sa [=in Sachsen/Saxony]
Bahnhofstr. 77c

Thursday evening
My dear Muttel!
May God bless and protect you!
Today, our lieutenant told us that we are once again allowed to visit home.
I will likely come tomorrow evening or early Shabbat. In any case you can order your carp. I think everything is taking its course as wished. Our guns are here, but not all of the wagons yet.
They say that we are not going into the field before January, 5.
I send you my love, until we'll meet again
Yours Seppel 

Donnerstag abend
Mein liebes Muttel!
Der Herr segne und beschütze Dich!
Heute teilte uns unser
Leutnant mit, daß wir nochmals auf
Urlaub fahren dürfen. Ich komme
voraussichtlich morgen abend oder Sabbat
früh. Jedenfalls darst Du Deinen Karpfen
bestellen. Ich denke das alles nach Wunsch
geht. Unsere Gewehre sind da, aber noch
nicht alle Wagen. Es heißt wir kommen
nicht vor 5. Januar ins Feld.
Es grüßt Dich herzlichst
auf baldiges Wiedersehen Dein Seppel

When deciphering all the words of the handwriting I was deeply moved as the fate behind it became clear. A Jewish German soldier of WWI.

This last photo shows another French production from the Königsbrück P.O.W. camp theater where the photographer was closer to the stage. The cast of 11 men includes three dressed in drag as women.  The caption reads La Roulotte {the caravan} — Mlle. Culot. Though I can't be certain, the title may refer to an 1898 French comic operetta entitled Mamzelle Culot written by Maurice T'ar Nemo with music by Ch. Gerin.

The one reference was found on Google Books in the Journal général de l'imprimerie et de la librairie, Issue 87, Parts 1-2, page 456.

The back of this postcard has printed instructions more formal than what I have seen on other P.O.W. cards from 1914-1918. It has the location of Königsbrück (Sachsen) which was a small town in Saxony on the eastern side of Germany. That would explain the presence of Russian soldiers captured on the Eastern Front.

These postcards of captured servicemen indulging in recreation were obviously used to convey the supposed humane conditions of the German P.O.W. camps. They also had a propaganda purpose to convince the enemy to surrender. What soldier would not want to trade the horrors of trench warfare for a chance to put their feet up and enjoy a musical show? In fact there were over 15,000 POWs confined to the camp in Königsbrück, and it was just one of hundreds of camps. Many were harsh labor camps where enlisted men were compelled to join German work details. The millions of allied prisoners were also last on the German government's lists to receive food rations and health services. A POW camp should never be mistaken for a holiday resort.

What intrigues me about these postcards of POW theatrical productions and orchestra concerts is that they offered the men a chance to restore everyone's humanity, both captives and captors alike. The universal cruelty shared by all in the camps was unvaried boredom. Musical theater was a natural creative outlet for men faced with imprisonment for an indefinite period. That they were able to mount such a variety of costumed entertainments is a testimony to the tenacious human desire to tell stories and sing songs.

And as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein would say 30 years later —
"There Is Nothing Like a Dame"! 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where guys are always in step, even in a tutu.

Kameraden in der Musik

04 July 2014

When four men share the soldier's life they become Karmeraden – Comrades. That bond is no less strong even if they happen to carry trombones instead of rifles. It was surely true of this quartet of hearty German army bandsmen with their arms linked together and trombones at the rest, as these musicians were from one of Kaiser Wilhelm's regimental bands. They stand in a large field that is perhaps a parade ground in some park where they are getting ready to play for a review of the Kaiser's troops and horse guards.

Their instruments are three tenor slide trombones and a bass trombone on the left. A trombone can be just as lethal as a rifle but is less reliable in sharp keys. It also has a tendency to jam in hot weather.

The back of the postcard has a message, presumably from one of the trombonists, that was written with invisible ink and is now faded. I have improved the contrast and above Lieber Freund! – Dear Friend! is a place and a date. I think it reads Charlottenburg which is a famous area of Berlin known for the Charlottenburg Palace of the Hohenzollern royal family, but the date is much less clear – 18.8.11 or 18 August 1911. It may be 1917 instead, but these men seem too cheerful for it to be the third year of the Great War. Was this photo taken on a parade ground near the palace?

In my experience, trombone players tend to be an affable and good humored lot, which I think we can see in the faces of this quartet. So it is not surprising that they would wish to send their picture and message to a fellow bandsman by SoldatenKartn or Soldiers Card. The surprise for me was that it was sent to a player of my instrument – Hornist W. Schmidt of the Pionier Battalion No. 24 in Köln.

Recently I acquired another postcard of one of the Kaiser's bandsmen. He is not Hornist Schmidt but he was a comrade too and a horn player. 

The photographer posed this young soldier in front of a very floral backdrop that undoubtedly was used more for photos of children, grandmothers, and wedding couples. The embossed name is difficult to read but it begins F. Neustettin. Neustettin is a city near the Baltic sea in Pomerania which was once part of East Prussia. Today it is in Poland and is known by the rather inharmonious name of Szczecinek.

On the back is some very stylized handwriting. On the left is the place – Neustettin and a year – 1910, or possibly 1915 or 1916. The postcard does not appear to have been mailed, so the address may be that of the bandsman. I read ?___ Meirich, followed by Musiker which is a bandsman's rank.

The young hornist stands at the ready as if waiting for his cue to begin a solo. He holds a single horn in F with 3 rotary valves. You can compare his instrument to those of the other army horn players in my collection who are from the same era, the Horn Player of West Kent  and the Belgian Horn Player, who used piston valve horns. Someone has penciled in some improvements to the curl in his mustache, and there is a fine reflection in the horn bell that I fancy is an image of the photographer. The horn player's tunic or Waffenrock is subtly different from the uniforms of the four trombonists, but includes the "swallow nest" on the shoulders which was an epaulet worn only by military musicians. Unfortunately the photos' sepia tone prevents us from seeing the colors on the bandsmen's swallow nest, collars, and sleeves which would identify their military units.

This soldier has no instrument but the fringed swallow nests on his tunic show that he too was a member of a Deutsches Kaiserreich regimental band. He has seen service in the war because tucked behind a coat button is the ribbon of the Iron Cross award.

On the back there is writing with a challenging cursive style. It is addressed to Familie P___(?) in possibly Gummersbach(?), which is near Köln. The year however is clearly 1916.

This photograph shows another bandsman of the German Reich who is also without his instrument, but he may not have needed one as I think he was a Militärkapellemeister or bandmaster. In his left hand he holds gloves and a sword hilt. The stripe on his trousers is actually the sword blade. Though many military bandsmen wore a short sword as standard equipment, this one appears to be longer and seems more appropriate for a band leader or officer. On his shoulders are the musician's swallow nests and there are two medals pinned to his chest.


The photographer was Wilm. Köhler of Posen, another city that was once in Prussian and is now in Poland. Today it is called Poznań.

Even without the photographer's address we could still discover where this bandmaster came from by looking closely at his distinctive Picklehaube helmet which he holds in his right hand. The Helmewappen  or helmet plate was a different design for each army regiment of the German Reich. This one is from a regiment in Preußia or Prussia and has the initials F. R. on the eagle's chest, which stands for Friedrich Rex. It matches this helmet found in Colonel J'.s collection, a website that has an extraordinary if not exhausting history on the military uniforms of the German Empire era.

Prussian M95 Pickelhaube

Comrades in arms and in music, these German bandsmen represent a military tradition of music making that vanished after the end of the Great War in 1918. Now all that remains of the German Reich era are the march tunes and the photos of shiny horns and Pickelhauben

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is a Kamerad ready to shake your hand.


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