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 }

Singin' In the Rain

16 March 2018

It's their hats you notice first.
A kind of bell hop's brimless cap.

Then it's their umbrellas.
Lots and lots
of furled and unfurled
multi-toned umbrellas.

It's a strange quasi-uniform
for a such large group of men.
One large banner reads
Greensboro Council
No. 296

Another smaller one reads


Asheville is where I live in North Carolina.
Who are these guys?

They are
The Order
of United Commercial Travelers
of America.

"By this sign shall ye know them"

On Friday,  June 4, 1915
about 500 members of the U.C.T.
convened their convention
in Durham, North Carolina.

Durham NC Morning Herald
04 June 1915

These men belonged to a professional society called the United Commercial Travelers. It was established in Columbus, OH in 1888 for traveling salesmen as a mutual aid organization providing disability and accidental death insurance for its members. It was modeled on other fraternal societies like Freemasons with secret rituals and orders. The UCT logo and cap badge mimicked masonic symbols with a crescent surrounding a sample case, the universal tool of the commercial traveler. The umbrella was also part of the Commercial Travelers' regalia, perhaps associated with its symbolism as protection against life's stormy weather and the hazards endured by door-to-door salesmen. The umbrella's panels were made in the society's three colors, white blue, and yellow.

This convention was an annual regional event for the UCT councils of both North and South Carolina. The location rotated between various cities in the Carolinas and this was, I believe, the first time Durham had hosted the United Commercial Travelers assembly. It was a two day affair and the convention program was published in the Durham Morning Herald. Friday was reserved for the society's business affairs, while social events were scheduled for Saturday. After a memorial service at 9:00 AM, at 10:30 the UCT delegates would march down Durham's main street in a grand parade. Just before they set off, a photographer would take a photo of the UCT grand council posed on the west side of Durham's city hall.

And if there was a parade,
there had to be a band.

Sitting on the curbstones in front of the UCT delegates was a line of musicians from the Durham Hosiery Mill Band. A bass drum with the band's name was placed in the center of the photo giving the photographer a good focus point.

It was mostly a brass band with a couple of saxophones and a clarinet. 

The 21 bandsmen were often called out to provide music for civic events.
After the parade there was an automobile drive around the city,
followed by a picnic in Durham's Lakewood park.
A Carolina League baseball game between teams
from Charlotte and Durham finished the day.

It is a very large photo, 8" x 19.5", which the newspaper probably printed in quantity sufficient for the 500 visiting delegates. This photo required two scans and a digital stitch.

Unfortunately I've been unable to find a large image viewer
that will work with Blogger,
so readers will have to
click the image

above to see it in a larger format.

Durham Hosiery Mill Band
Source: Durham County Library
The bandsmen were all employees of the Durham Hosiery Mill No. 1, which was just a mile from city hall. The mill was the first of 15 cotton mills in North Carolina operated by the Durham Hosiery Company which produced cotton socks and hose. This mill opened in 1902 and by 1907 had 1000 employees working at 11,000 spindles, 64 carding, and 1000 knitting machines. Most of its factory workers lived nearby in company housing.

Durham Hosiery Mill No. 1  circa 1908-10
Source: Durham County Library

The Durham Hosiery Mill Band started in 1913 with fourteen musicians under the direction of bandleader Charlie Warren. They practiced twice a week in the mill's spooling room. The bass drum was the last instrument acquired by the band. I suspect that the working environment of Mill No. 1 was very LOUD. Any employee who was granted permission to be a musician in the band must have felt very privileged to get away from the sound of machinery for an hour.

Durham NC Morning Herald
12 February 1913

By 1915, the Hosiery Mill Band was performing regular concerts for the factory workers as well as for church socials, baseball games, and civic parades in Durham. This community service helped the Hosiery Mill Co. maintain goodwill with Durham's business and political interests, as well as instill a sense of pride with its workers. Like many Southern factories in the early 20th century, the hosiery mill was a non-union workshop,  and the company went out of its way, using both carrot and stick, to discourage any union organizing.

1907 City Hall, Durham NC

The convention of the United Commercial Travelers was held at Durham's Academy of Music, a public theater adjoined to the city's main municipal building. Like many towns across American, the city/town hall incorporated an "opera house" in the same building so that local government could raise funds through rental of its performing space. Finished in 1903-04 the Durham civic building originally had a market on the ground floor, while the second floor offered a large convention room and theater. The newspaper had its office across the street which made it easy for the photographer to take a picture of the assembled UCT delegates.

Rotary Park, Durham NC

Just behind the building was Rotary Park which had a bandstand. On the left of this postcard we can see the arched windows and fire escapes of the backside of the Academy of Music.  This matches the metal stairs and windows of the UCT photo. Another photo of employees of Durham's Morning Herald shows another viewpoint of the same doorway stairs.

Durham NC Morning Herald
04 June 1915

Durham NC Morning Herald
04 June 1915

What made identification of this 1915 event even easier was that the newspaper printed several photographs of the officers of the United Commercial Travelers. The newsprint is grainy and the UCT photo is now faded with age, but I think I found some matches.

_ _

The first is Mr. R. E. Ward, the Grand Chaplain of the United Commercial Travelers. He is one of the few men with a mustache and I think the man with the resolute square jaw sitting just behind the bass drum is him. As the society had just observed a memorial service that morning, it seems likely that a Grand Chaplain would have taken center stage.

The other match is a man who does not wear the UCT fraternal cap and instead has  on a normal hat. He sits left of center next to two children who are with a woman who might be his wife. That's only speculation, but the turn of his head seems very like the profile of Mr. C. H. Webb, Grand Executive Committeeman.

No doubt there are Google engineers who specialize on matching ear lobes and jawbones. But you don't need a degree in anthropometry to see the resemblance of the man, seated right, second behind the clarinetist, to the big ears and full lips of Mr. J. C. Ferrell, Secretary of Durham UCT No. 546.

In the early summer of 1915, the skies were clear in Durham, but very dark in the rest of the world. The Great War in Europe was now approaching nearly a year of terrible bloodshed with no end in sight. The Durham Morning Herald's front page report on the UCT convention took only two of its seven columns. The other reports were about Russian losses at Peremysl to Austro-Hungarian forces; the German ambassador's report to President Wilson on the sinking of the Lusitania; the evacuation of Americans from the conflict in Mexico;  a speech by David Lloyd George, then minister of munitions, urging British industry to do more for the war; the destruction of the Austrian naval base; and a court report on the trial of a Raleigh man accused of fraudulently stuffing a ballot box.

Durham's cotton mills would soon be making more than just socks and hose. When America entered the war in the spring of 1917, canvas tarpaulins, soldier's leggings, munition sacks, and countless other military supplies were shipped from North Carolina factories to France. Though American soldiers made a valiant contribution to the allied war effort, it was America's industrial strength and financial power that really turned the war. By 1918, the Durham Hosiery Mill Band was playing for war bond drives, and Red Cross Benefits. There was reports that some members of the band might join the army band attached to a North Carolina field artillery regiment. When the war finished the Hosiery Mill Band was in the lineup for Durham's celebratory homecoming parade for the returning troops in April 1919.

The global economy rebounded in the post-war years but manufacturers of cotton hose now had competition from silk and other fashion materials. The Durham Hosiery Mill Co. struggled until 1922 when it decided to shut down the No. 1 Mill. It kept on a smaller workforce to make cotton yarn and cheap men's socks there until 1932, but began selling  off the nearby worker's house lots to developers. The Hosiery Mill Band disappeared from Durham's newspaper reports in 1920. Today the impressive No. 1 Hosiery Mill has been preserved as a historic architectural landmark and converted into attractive apartments.

During the Friday night welcome ceremony for the UCT, the mayor of Durham, Mr. B. S. Skinner, commented on the three cardinal principals of the order of United Commercial Travelers, Unity, Charity, and Temperance. These values remain an important part of the UCT organization that continues today. It has nearly 55,000 members in the US and Canada who "volunteer to enhance their communities through community service, charitable fundraising and helping those in need." Their website does not have any umbrellas or masonic-like insignia so the quasi-secret society fashions of the 1915 UCT don't seem to be part of the organization's 21st century traditions.

Durham NC Morning Herald
06 June 1915

Contrary to the stereotype image of a traveling salesman, the United Commercial Travelers were committed teetotalers, abstaining from alcohol. During the week the newspaper gently joked that Durham's soda pop shops might have good business over the weekend. At the Saturday picnic, lemonade was the delegates preferred beverage. After a fine dinner, a grand time was had by all at the baseball game and another annual convention of the United Commercial Travelers was adjourned.

Though many delegates took an evening train home, a number of UCT members stayed overnight on Saturday making Durham more lively than usual.

They gathered about the corner, in the hotel corridors and at other places and raised up their voices in song. They sang many selections such as "How Dry I Am,"  "The Bear Went Over the Mountain,"  "Why is a Wild Cat Wild?"  and other classic ballards of good repute in the community.

The delegates of the United Commercial Travelers
would have understood this next excerpt
from  Meredith Willson's classic musical,
The Music Man.



"Professor" Harold Hill, of course,
has discretely remained silent
in a back seat of the coach.
He's the one that
"Doesn't Know the Territory!"
and sets out to prove them wrong
in River City, Iowa.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where dark clouds always have a silvery sepia lining.


Kristin said...

That is a big group of glum looking musicians in the clickable big picture.

Molly's Canopy said...

Fascinating post about the UCT and their background. And great job of matching up photos to identify individuals. I am intrigued as well by the red brick building with the cleaved roof. A unique style I've not previously seen. I am also still amazed at how many workplaces organized bands back in the day.

smkelly8 said...

I was surprised to see the musicians with their umbrellas in the rain. Great.

Barbara Rogers said...

Sample cases, traveling salesmen...I wonder how many of them walked neighborhoods and knocked on doors to sell "what." I think my mother bought encyclopedias and the "great books" from one. And I remember the Fuller-brush man coming around regularly. Then there was a many who sold vacuums. Women were in the home all day until the 50s, and these salesmen were invited in. Those days are sure gone. And I really appreciate learning about their organization, as well as the site of their convention.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

When I was a kid, I remember all kinds of salesmen coming to the door
including the door-to-door photographers. My mother went door to
door picking up and delivering dry cleaning-a short lived but lively
career which she dropped in order to teach tap dancing. Temperance
was an important part of many organizations in those days. I
guess a pledge was the first step toward the development of AA.
Great post!!

La Nightingail said...

As usual, an interesting and informative post! And thanks for including a video of the opening number from "The Music Man". Fun! But what really caught my attention was the article alongside the one about the UCT Convention in Durham - the one about the Americans caught in the middle of the Mexican Revolution needing help to get out. I hadn't realized so many Americans were in Mexico when the trouble began until I Googled information about the situation. I knew about the revolution of course but wasn't aware so many Americans were caught inside the country when it went to war with itself.

21 Wits said...

Come rain or shine there's music to play and singing to hear! Wonderful collection of hats as well, especially the brimless! The Music Man was something from my sister's record collection it was wonderful to listen to. Very informative post.

Jofeath said...

A wonderful and informative post, as always, and I love that musical clip, altogether perfect for your blog. By the way, many thanks for the unicycling link, to which I’ve replied on my blog. Absolutely amazing!

Wendy said...

If only Willie Loman had had such a support group as the UCT!

tony said...

Blimey! Who knew?
I always thought Commercial Travellers ( the British species at least) were the archetypal solitary Loners
It's kinda life-affirming to know they were such a social bunch ( they do lose a few points in my estimation for wanting to be teetotal & masonic,but hey-hoy,ce la vie!)


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