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 }

Art in a Time of War

30 May 2020

For a brief moment
the photographer is the center of attention.
The eyes of every soldier,
French, Russian, even German,
are focused on the camera
as it records a special occasion.

We know it is wartime
as the years 1914-15
are marked out with small pebbles
on the ground in front of the men.

But why would
so many soldiers of different armies
engaged in a terrible global conflict
be peacefully gathered together?
For art appreciation of course.

They were a captive audience.

The soldiers are gathered around a giant relief sculpture
of a Kazak or Cossack cavalryman
astride a black horse with his lance and sword.

A Russian Cossack print 1813
Source: Brown University Digital Repository

The Cossack people came from the steppes north of the Black Sea
and were famed for their fierce mounted warriors.
Throughout European history,
the Cossack on horseback
has remained a poplar romantic image
and powerful symbol of Russia,
as seen in this print from 1813
and a postage stamp from 2011.

2011 Russia 15p postage stamp

The sculpture of the Kazak lancer also resembles
the mounted horseman in the Russian Imperial medal,
the Cross of the Order of St. George,
Russia's highest military award.
Russian Imperial medal
Order of St. George, 4th class

The full image shows
that the relief sculpture
is about 6 meters square,
presumably carved from
a mixture of sand, plaster, or lime.

The caption reads:
Sandplastik ausgeführt
von Kriegsgefangenen

Sand sculpture executed
by Prisoners of War

Gefangenen Lager

The back is stamped in a very official German manner that clearly identifies the Königsbrück lazarett hospital and prisoner of war camp. Königsbrück is a small town in Saxony, south of Berlin. In the early 20th century it was the site of a military training center and when the war began in 1914 it was quickly converted into a prison camp. Königsbrück was one of nearly 300 detention centers constructed in Germany for enemy soldiers captured on both the western front and the eastern front. In the first month of the war after the defeat of the Russian forces at the Battle of Tannenberg, the German military command had to contend with over 100,000 captured Russian soldiers. The next month September 1914 brought similar numbers of Belgian and French soldiers taken prisoner. By 1917 the camp at Königsbrück was reported to house 15,000 POWs. By the end of the war in 1918 Germany held 2,400,000 soldiers of the allied forces.

Map of Prisoner or War Camps in Germany
during WW1 (1914–1918)

A second photo postcard taken around the same time shows another group of soldiers, this time with more French than Russian, assembled around another sand sculpture. This one shows a woman sowing seed as the sun rises. It is labeled France.

France 1 franc coin, 1907
Source: CoinfactsWiki,com

The figure is Marianne,
the iconic symbol of the Republic of France.
Here she is rendered on the one franc coin
as La semeuse ~ the sower
from a design by  Oscar Roty, (1846–1911)
the noted French medalist.
The same female symbol
appeared on French postage stamps.

France, 10c postage stamp 1910

Like the other relief sculpture, 
this giant figure of Marianne
measures about 6 meters square
and is painted.

The photo is also captioned like the other postcard,
Sandplastik ausgeführt
von Kriegsgefangenen 
Sand sculpture executed
by Prisoners of War
Königsbrück 1915

It was posted by a French soldier, Maurice Georgin, a corporal in the 37e Regiment du Infanterie to his family in Nancy, formerly the capital of the Duchy of Lorraine, and the French province of the same name. In 1915 Lorraine and Alsace were part of Germany, a prize from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, but Nancy remained part of France.

I have been unable to get a proper English translation of the German word Sandplastik. I suspect it is a plaster like concoction, made principally, or entirely, of sand, as sand is sand in both languages. Königsbrück seems to have had a lot of it. This postcard shows French POWs laboring with shovels and carts in a sand pit, and the postmark is from Königsbrück dated 25 February 1915.  This work, digging up a basic material for building construction, may have been the inspiration for making these works of art.

I used this image in my story from January 2019, The Prisoners of Königsbrück. For some unknown reason, perhaps a photographer secured military contract to produce propaganda postcards, the camp at Königsbrück is documented in more photographs than any other POW camp. I have quite a few relating to the music and theater at the camp which I plan to present in the near future.

The last photo is another representation of national pride.
It shows two profiles carefully carved into sand.

On the left is
His Imperial and Royal Majesty,
Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941)
of Prussia and Germany.
The likeness looks very like
the Kaiser's image on Prussian coins.

Prussian 5 mark coin 1908

On the right, facing Wilhelm,
is His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty,
Kaiser Franz Josef (1830–1916),
Emperor of Austria,
and King of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia.
His image is a close match to the one
used on Austria's corona coins.

Austria 10 corona coin, 1911

Together the two profiles are carved
into a large sand box about 6 meters square.
The painting alone is impressive 
for the extra ornamentation
of an imperial crown and cross.

But what is most striking
about this photo postcard
is that unlike the other two
here there are no soldiers in front of the camera.

The street is empty,
a subtle reminder that
the creators of this sculpture
were still foes of the two Kaisers.

This card was sent in a letter by a German man, presumably a soldier serving in the Königsbrück camp guard. The photographer was Carl Schmidt of Königsbrück and Berlin.


I have found two more photo postcards
of Sandplastik art intstalltions from the Königsbrück POW Camp.
Both depict the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Sachsen ~ Saxony.

A group of Russian soldiers stand
behind a large raised mound of sand, possibly sloped,
which has a heraldic shield made of thousands of small colored pebbles.
The postcard caption is hard to see, but reads:

Sandplastik ausgeführt von Kriegsgefangenen Königsbrück
Sand sculpture made by prisoners of war Königsbrück

The shield is the coat of arms for the Kingdom of Sachsen ~ Saxony

Small Arms of the Kingdom of Saxony, 1804-1918
Source: Wikimedia

The second card is also a mosaic of the same
coat of arms of Saxony,
but it is smaller and made differently.

The art piece is clearly located in a different place,
though the postcard caption is the same.
As the soldiers standing around it are French
and the the method of construction is different,
I believe the first one was installed
in the Russia section of the Königsbrück POW camp,
and this small second one was made in the French section.

Königsbrück was located in the Free State of Sachsen ~ Saxony.
It is interesting that there are two mosaics of the same coat of arms.
Perhaps there was a competition between the soldiers.
It suggests that the Sandplastik art was intended
for the local residents of Königsbrück.

Did the POWs make this art for a special event to honor their captors?
This mystery will require more research
before I have an answer to that question.

* * *

I've been unable to find any information on the occasion that inspired these impressive art installations at the Königsbrück POW camp. Finding examples of the postcard series with clear postmarks is difficult, but a rough estimate dates this prison artwork to June/July 1915. Was it for a memorial? A celebration of sorts for the anniversary of the war? These are questions that may never have answers.

It seems clear that the art was produced by the imprisoned soldiers. There were likely many French and Russian artisans there who were employed before the war in the decorative sculpting and carving trades for architecture, metalcrafts, pottery, and furniture. Some may have been trained in fine arts of painting and engraving.  There may be more installations made in the Königsbrück camp as I know of at least one more giant relief monument to the German free state of Saxony. I do not see any British uniforms in the crowd of soldiers, but if there were, it seems likely that there would be something commemorating Britain. 

The common shared element in these three works is national pride. The soldiers' choice of art subjects shows their desire to honor their homeland and salute their heritage. That they were allowed to do this and would reciprocate with a respectful design for the monarchs of Germany and Austria is a remarkable example of fraternity and decency.

In a way it also shows an optimism that the war would soon end. But as the calendar pages turned from 1915 to 1916, then 1917, and 1918, the soldiers' proud bright faces that we see looking into the camera undoubtedly changed to a darker, more grim countenance. Imprisonment may have saved these men from the horrible violence of the war, but it also stole some of their dignity and left them with many distressing issues to reconcile after the war. But for a time, however brief, they were united in an appreciation of art.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where we never know what treasure
Alan may dig up.

The Novelty Musical Artists

23 May 2020

A micro-story fabricated
from two cabinet card photographs

Maybe he should have stayed home today, thought Gus. Between random hammering from the stage crew for the new set, to the rhythmic clatter of tap shoes in that new dance act, his headache was not going to get any rest. Why did that pianist have to play so damn loud? He groaned and downed the rest of his coffee. At his age staying up for a Friday night card game would cost him much more than his winnings, or in the case of last night, his losings. Whatever made him think to bet against a magician? Professor Berkell, my eye. What college teaches you to be a card sharp? Stupid luck.

"Jules," he shouted. "More coffee!" Gus rubbed his eyes and picked up the latest New York Clipper. He flipped through a few pages of the trade paper scanning the dense type for any news of the acts he'd hired this season. The theater circuits were pretty lively this year.

The door to his office opened and a stout young man with a wispy blonde mustache entered carrying a tray with a coffee pot and a tall stack of mail. "Here's some fresh ink, Uncle Gus," he said. "Nice and hot. I put sugar and cream on the side in case your tummy needs some relief too." He pointed to the letters and packets. "You want me to sort them for you? Hide the bills from Aunt Milly?" He grinned.

"Yeah, sure," Gus grimaced. "That's the first job of an assistant theatre manager." He refilled his cup, leaned his chair back, and put his feet up on the desk. Outside his window the sky was darkening. After a minute or two, he looked up from the paper. "Anything to report from the show last night? What's the take?" 

"Not good," said Jules. "Maybe half of last weekend. And that's counting both shows. The rain's supposed to let up this afternoon so maybe folks will come into town. Mr. Ritchie sent a note this morning. Says he ain't feeling well, so his trick cycle bit is out. But Mr. Parker said he could add another turn with his dogs to fill the slot. He has a goat cart that folks haven't seen before."

Gus grunted, he knew what ailed Richie. Little guy drank enough for three last night. Probably couldn't keep his balance if his bicycle had five wheels. He went back to studying the Clipper's adverts.

Jules finished separating the post and picked out one larger package. Taking a penknife he cut the twine binding it and unwrapped a letter with a set of photos. "Say, Uncle Gus. Here's a novelty duo that might play well here. Take a look at this ol' fellow and his gal playing banjo and guitar." He passed a card photo to his uncle.

"Hmmph," snorted Gus. "Hayseed Reuben meets rich big city socialite. That's an original. Where have I seen that before?" He waved at the hundreds of entertainer photos pinned to the walls of his office. Gus handed the photo back to Jules. "What's the matter with her? She don't look like she appreciates having her strings plucked. They got a name?"

"They call themselves Fitz and Frazier. Say they're at liberty next month. Something about a tent show that went bust." Jules turned the letter over. "They're looking for bookings on the route back to Boston. One night or a week."

Gus turned back to his paper. "Banjos are ten cents a dozen now, and there's not much noise in a guitar. What else can they do?"

Jules put another photo on the desk. "Country boys don't usually play saxophone to their cows, uncle. This bit's not your typical minstrel routine. Looks like they got a tenor and a soprano sax."

Gus turned over the second photo and paused in thought. "Okay, this is novel. I'll give them that. A comic sketch with a pair of saxophones ought to wake up the loafers sleeping in the balcony." he scratched his head. "But I still don't get her. She looks like she swallowed a plug of tobacco and is trying to decide whether to spit or ..." Gus started to snicker but it changed into a hacking cough that made him spill coffee on his vest.

Jules chuckled handing him a towel. "Says here, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald—that's their real names—played good dates last fall in Seattle and San Francisco. They come with a bunch of other instruments. The Mrs.—Mamie is her name—she plays handbells, cornet and violin too. You know the Knights of the Golden Arches have their state convention here next month. With the Tracey trio breaking up after Doris ran off with that Italian trapeze fella, we got a hole in our lineup that week. We could use some novelty musical artists to replace their song and dance numbers."

Gus turned to stare out the window where the rain had returned. "All right. You write to them about dates that week with the usual guarantees, etcetera, etcetera. Tell them we want refined material and decent skits. No bum work. The Majestic Theatre caters to a family crowd." He watched the rain splatter on the marquee below his window. "Mostly. Except when it rains."

"Sure thing, Unk." Jules picked up the tray and scattered papers. "I'll get it out to the post office before this afternoon's matinee." He turned toward the door. "You gonna stay around today?"

Gus sighed. "Maybe. Let me know when the Professor takes his turn. I want to check his bit with the three cards again. I still don't understand how it works." He turned the two photos over. Harris of Chicago was the photographer, corner of West Ohio Street and Milwaukee Avenue. Not far from the theatre district, if he remembered correctly. Seems like a classy studio. So why couldn't they get the dame to smile? 

Gus shuddered. He'd seen that kind of face before. It was like when the sky turns another shade of grey just before the storm hits. Just like Mildred's face when she learns he's been out for a late night of poker. 

With a shiver he threw the two photos into his desk drawer. Maybe he should find a reason to stay around for the second show.

* * *

Sometimes old photos come with really good clues but they still fail to reveal their true history. So instead I get to make up my own story. In this case I've tried to illustrate the purpose of a vaudeville entertainer's promotional photograph.

With these two images we see two musicians dressed in incongruous stage costumes. The man in his big straw hat, farmer's boots, and scrubby duster coat fits a stereotype of the country bumpkin or rube. The woman in her glamorous sequined gown looks the part of a matron of upper-class urban society. Both were familiar character types of American theater and literature in the 1890s, which is the period for their fashions and their over-sized cabinet card photographs. Their trick banjo/guitar style, (take a second look if you missed their hand positions) identifies the couple as performing in the comic genre of novelty musical artists.

On the back of the banjo/guitar duo's photo is a name, Mamie Frazier,  written large in ink. Despite my best effort, I could not find any entertainer by that name, much less someone who played guitar and saxophone too. It doesn't help that it is very common name, which even in Chicago, Illinois, showed up too regularly to fix an identification. But if we look closely both the man and woman wear wedding bands on their left hands so it seems probable that they were married to each other. Stage names that used alliteration was also a bet on an old showbiz tradition.

But it's their second photo holding tenor and soprano saxophones that is especially unique. These hybrid brass/woodwind instruments were still relatively "foreign" to American audiences in the late 19th century. The sound color of the saxophone family–soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass–was only beginning to be used in professional bands. And the notion of a saxophone playing a jazz solo would not be invented for another 25 years or so.

When I searched for "saxophone duet" in newspapers from the 1890s, I came up with very few hits and even fewer that connected to vaudeville musical artists. But in the New York Clipper, the weekly trade magazine for theatrical arts, there was a mention of one couple in February 1893 that caught my attention. 

New York Clipper
23 February 1893
"The Holbrooks are still winning much praise for their clever work with Dr. Goerss' Specialty Co. They are stationed for the present at Galesburg, Ill., and good business is reported. Mr. and Mrs. Holbrook excell in their saxophone duet. Both are accomplished and versatile musicians."   It's a short and succinct notice, likely supplied by the Holbrooks themselves. Self-promotion was another old showbiz tradition.

But searching for this name in the New York Clipper, I learned that in 1891 that, "Al Decker has arranged for the Holbrooks a neat musical sketch, entitled "Down on the Farm."" 

New York Clipper
3 October 1891

The Clipper and similar national newspaper magazines like Billboard, and Variety, were the social media of this era for theatrical and circus performers, agents, managers, and supporting businesses. The pithy notes read like today's Twitter and Facebook feeds and were intended for people working in the entertainment world, and not for the general public. Letters to performers could be posted care of the Clipper to be picked up or sent to the addressee on the road. Like many artists, the Holbrooks took out regular advertisements in the Clipper to seek new bookings. Their full names were J. H. or Josh and Lizzie Holbrook, America's Greatest Musical Artists. The word "Great" was surely the most ubiquitous adjective of this era.

New York Clipper
8 April 1893
The Holbrooks lived in Sherborn, Massachusetts, just 20 miles west of Boston. Josh Holbrook was born in England and in the summer of 1894 he and his wife left America to play on the British music hall circuit. In June they appeared at Mr. Stoll's Panopticon in Cardiff, Wales. This "museum" venue presented a series of several tableaux of sentimental romantic paintings using live but static actors. In between these staged events were musical skits when the Holbrooks were featured.

Cardiff Western Mail
26 June 1894
"Prior to the tableaux, the Holbrooks, an American couple, contribute a splendid musical show. Miss Holbrook plays beautifully on the cornet, bells (a Yankee novelty) and a saxophone. On the latter instrument she is equally expert as Mr. Holbrook, who extracts sweet music from a banjo, cornet, and clarionet."

By August 1894, London's Royal Aquarium advertised The Holbrooks (J. H. and Lizzie)  Instrumentalists, and the Lady Champion Saxophone, Cornet, and Post Horn Soloist. The post horn was described in another report as a coach horn, a long straight bugle used by the driver of a horse drawn stagecoach to signal arrival at the next station.

By October 1894, the Holbrooks were back in the States performing as an act within a traveling variety show. Their musical and comedic talent on "novelty" instruments was enough to keep them get them on the Clipper's notice boards through 1899. After that, they seem to have disappeared.

It's very little to go on. Maybe there is a Mamie Frazier who played saxophone in vaudeville, but I think the name is not directly connected to the subjects of the two photos. The Holbrooks, on the other hand, played both saxophones and banjo. They advertised as a duo of novelty musical artists. The played a comic skit called "Down on the Farm". They promoted Lizzie Holbrook as a virtuoso soloist on saxophone and cornet. And more importantly they played around Chicago during the era for this kind of cabinet card photograph. That's a lot of curious coincidences.

It may not be proof,
but it is enough to make believe.

So maybe one day,
with a bit more searching,
I'll find another photo
of a dour-faced female cornet player
accompanied by an ancestor
of Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.,
a.k.a. John Denver (1943-1997).

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday.
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The Soldiers Salute

16 May 2020

It can make a young man wise
and an old man foolish.

With enough lager
a shy man will sing
and a brave man may cry.

Whether sharing a pint, or a litre,
good ale inspires songs of life
and stories of old friends.

One of the curious sub-genres of photographs
in my collection are postcard photos
of small groups of military servicemen
enjoying an off-duty "relaxed" moment
with their mates.
The majority of these photos
are of soldiers and sailors
from the time of the German Empire,
often posed as if
they were in a pub or cafe garden
savoring a glass of beer
while listening to a musical comrade.
Today I have three photos
on this theme
to exhibit.

The first image was clipped from a postcard photo of a group of German soldiers seated in a photographer's studio that is staged to look like a romantic forest beer garden. Arranged around a small table are ten soldiers, most holding beer steins. Two enlisted men sit on the "ground" floor strumming two musical instruments. One has a pear-shaped mandolin and the other a similarly shaped but larger lute-guitar. They are the only men whose regiment numbers, 23 and 70. are visible on their shoulder bars. One soldier wears a distinctive Pickelhaube headgear of the Imperial German Army. His helmet plate or Wappen is an eagle, the symbol of a Prussia soldier, but the spike on top is not pointed. Instead it is a round knob that signifies an artillery regiment. The small table has a card with the number 144 which may be connected to their army division. I don't think any of the soldiers are bandsmen, but are just regular enlisted men.

The soldiers' expressions are a bit wistful, even melancholy, as if this was their last round before closing time. While the mandolin and lute-guitar might be studio props, the two men seem to hold them expertly enough. Musical instruments appear so frequently in soldiers' photos like this that I think they represent the German love of music. It's as if the men are sharing a song and a beer with the distant recipient of the postcard.

The postcard was sent from Saarbrücken on 10 July 1910 to a Fräulein Zimmer(?) in P...(?) Rhineland(?). Saarbrücken is located in western Germany, right on the chin of the border with France. However in 1910 it was several kilometers inland of the western region of Alsace-Lorraine which was then part of the German Empire.

* * *

The second clip shows another group of eight German soldiers with beer steins, this time outside under a striped pole with a sign that reads: Nach der Heimat noch 175 Tage ~ 175 days after home. One solider is astride a wooden hobbyhorse and brandishes a short sword. Next to him is a cutout figure of a smiling ape drinking a frothy glass of beer while sitting on a keg. Presumably the mascot of the brewery. On a slate in front is another sign that reads: Treue Freundschaft beim Commiss geht über jedes Hinderniss ~ Loyal friendship at the Commiss(?) goes beyond every obstacle.

But on the left is a soldier seated with a simple accordion or concertina. At his feet is a slate that reads: Nun seht bles diese alten Knochen, die haben nur noch 25 Wochen. Reserve 1914 ~ Now just see these old bones, they only have 25 weeks left. Reserve 1914. This better explains the reason for their celebration. The soldiers are serving their year of military obligation, maybe in basic training, and look forward to going home soon.

But before those next 25 weeks finish the men will wish they were back in the beer garden. The soldiers' postcard was sent from Darmstadt, Germany on 25 March 1914. In less than 18 weeks they will be marching through Belgium on a line to Paris.

* * *

The third image shows a concertina player knelling in the center of a group of 23 men dressed in striped pajamas and holding beer steins. They are German soldiers too, but their casual attire is the uniform of a wounded warrior. One soldier on the far right wears a long apron and I think he is a medical orderly. The picture was taken at the Reservelazarett or Reserve hospital in, appropriately enough, Weingarten, Württemberg. The postmark is dated 29 November 1915, nearly one year and three months since the beginning of the Great War.

There are few smiles on the faces of these men. They look reasonably fit and whole, and probably expect to return to duty soon. All the more reason to enjoy a glass of beer with their mates. The bonds of friendships during wartime are like no other.

Over the past few weeks of self-quarantine, my wife and I watched the series of seven Harry Potter films. My wife, a big fan of J. K. Rowling's novels, had recently re-read them and wanted to conclude with the complete cinematic experience. However, I have different literary interests and have not read the books, but I will grant that the movies are exciting and distracting enough with their complicated fantasy stories and imaginative characters.

But after seeing the films again in close succession I was struck by J. K. Rowling's theme of memory that connects the series. In Harry Potter's struggle against the evil Lord Voldemort, he encounters several magical devices that reveal old memories, often linked to love and friendship. It's a similar notion to a talisman, an object imbued  with secret human feelings and actions known only to the bearer.

These photographs of German soldiers are also mysterious devices of memory, charmed with hidden powers of remembrance. How did they manage to be preserved for over 100 years though times of war and revolution? What names and stories were recalled by these photos? Who protected these postcards, safeguarding the simple messages on the back for posterity?

We can never know the true meaning of these images, but like the fictional Harry Potter learned, the most powerful magic is found in friendship and love. In the end those are the enchantments preserved in these photos that will always overcome hatred and misery.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where we always wish
"To Your Good Health!"


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