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 }

All-American Boy Violinists

03 March 2017

The music finishes
as the solo ends with a flourish.
The young violinist
turns toward his audience
to accept their applause.
Admirers toss bouquets of flowers onto the stage.
The boy only acknowledges them
as his rightful due.

"Mother, can we go home now?"

{click any image to enlarge}

The boy violinist with long golden curls is from St. Louis, Missouri where Mr. Klotter of 2700 N. 14th Street, St. Louis took the photograph in his studio. Mr. Klotter kindly included an imprint of the year 1893 on the cabinet card's back. The boy looks to be about 5 or 6 years old and is dressed in a velvet cut-away jacket, frilly lace shirt and knee pants. It is a fashion popularized in the 1885 serialized children's story Little Lord Fauntleroy by English-American writer Frances Hodgson Burnett. The novel was released in book form in 1886 and was adapted into a drama for Broadway in 1888. It is a rag to riches story of a a poor American boy who gains his rightful claim to a British aristocratic title and in the process restores his mother's honor and wins over the heart of his crusty English grandfather. As far as I know, there are no violins in the story. 

* * *

This next boy violinist is a bit older, perhaps 9 or 10 years old and also comes from St. Louis. He wears a proper young man's suit with his violin artfully propped on his thigh and his bow hand next to a stack of music and books. His cabinet card photograph dates to around 1885-87 and was made by Cramer of 1001 S. Fifth St., Cor. Chouteau Ave., St. Louis, MO.

From around 1885 to 1915 there were dozens of young boy violinists who toured the country performing on the early vaudeville theater circuit. Next to Chicago, St. Louis was a major hub for theatrical artists and I suspect this boy may be one of those first Wunderkind performers. There's something about his confident posture and clear gaze that has the look of a talented professional musician. It also looks like a promotional photo too. Someday I hope to confirm his identity.

* * *

This boy has that same professional poise with his violin tucked under his right arm. He leans slightly on a kind of screen decorated with an ornate floral design. My guess is he is age 8 or 9. His knee breeches suit and large bow tie are a more traditional fashion for a young boy but his polished button-top shoes were likely not his regular school footwear.

His cabinet card photograph came from the studios of the Brandt Bros. on 119 W. Second St., Davenport, Iowa. Instantaneous process used exclusively. Duplicates can be had at any time. The elaborate design on the back marks this as a photo of the 1890s.

* * *

This towhead boy does not share the same self-assurance of the previous violinists. His instrument is held fiddle-style against his collarbone instead of under his chin, and his bow hand is not in a relaxed grip. His downward gaze conveys a timidity that looks almost like stage fright. He's about the same age as the boy from Davenport, 8 or 9, and dressed in nearly the same suit.

His violin case is open and leans against the photographer's studio chair. Another floral screen is in the background. The boy's photograph was taken by J. Bartoo of Rensselaer, Indiana, which is about 100 miles southeast of Chicago. In the 1890s when this cabinet card with its scalloped edges was printed, Rensselaer, IN had a population of around 1,455 citizens. 

* * *

This boy stands with his violin in playing position, waiting for the conductor to signal the start of the music. He is also about 8 or 9 years old and wears the same style short pants and jacket. A tall stand with a stack of books is beside him and he stand on a fur rug. The photographer's mark is embossed onto the cabinet card mount and reads Clauser Bros., Havana, Ill.

This is the only photo with an identification. Written in faint pencil on the back is:
Ted A. Cook
3 Small ... (?)
Ted Cook

Havana, IL is on the Illinois River southwest of Peoria. About 32 miles north is the village of Fairview, IL. In the 1880 census, Charles Cook, a carpenter lived there with his wife Ann and nine children. The second youngest child was a son, Theodore Cook, age 6. If I have the correct family, then this photo was taken in about 1882-83.

* * *

Havana, IL is roughly in the center of a triangle if a murder of crows flew from St. Louis to Davenport, IA to Rensselaer, IN.  Far away in New York state another boy violinist posed for a camera around the same time. He is also about age 8, maybe 10, and dressed in the same fashion style as the previous boys. The pomade in his hair glistens as he looks direct into the lens with his violin bow ready to begin a tune.The photographer was Peck of Newburgh, NY, which is about 60 miles north of New York City on the the Hudson River. This cabinet card with it's dark green paper mount dates to the later 1890s.

With the exception of young Theodore (Ted) Cook, the names of all of these boy violinists are unknown. Their individual history may remain a mystery but the way that each presents a musical accomplishment on the violin demonstrates an important quality about American culture in the later part of the 19th century. This was an era when a child's talent on a musical instrument was greatly valued by families and considered worthy of including in a formal photo portrait. These boys certainly came from families in middle or even upper class American society where it was expected that a good education was their pathway to advancement in the world. That education often began with music lessons on a violin. Their parents may have come from Germany, Sweden, or England, but these were All-American Boys. And their photographs made their grandmothers proud.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where cuteness knows no limit.


Jofeath said...

Prodigious young violinists were clearly popular entertainers in those earlier times, and I imagine they vied with each other in terms of cuteness as well as musical ability. Good luck identifying more of them!

La Nightingail said...

Some boys have dogs, and some have violins! Nice post, but I had to smile. We went to watch our granddaughters play basketball in a high school section finals game today. Our team had their pep band there. The other team came with their entire school band and then some - the oddest thing to see with a band being several violins! Me thinks they brought every musician they had with them. I saw some electric guitars too, but the violins really had me shaking my head and smiling! It was a nice touch, but didn't help their team win. Ours did. Yay!

ScotSue said...

A wonderful gallery of young violinists and I enjoyed your analysis of their different poses. The first photograph of the boy with the curls and Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit was so similar to one of my cousin's father, around the same period - but in north west England - and he was no musician or performer.

Alex Daw said...

Mike - what a collection of photos you must have! And what a gift it must be to be able to play an instrument and create your own music. When the world is giving you the pips nothing revives the soul like music.

Wendy said...

Wonderful study of photos. I love it when I learn something that I hadn't noticed before - like "fiddle style." I have watched plenty of string concerts as well as bluegrass bands, but I have not paid attention to stance or technique. I guess I thought fiddlers were just being cute.


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