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 }

Man and Machine and Music

07 November 2020


It was an age of machines.
Factories across the nation
turned out everything
from watches to cornets
using the industrial power
of countless machine tools.

It was an age of ingenuity.
Enterprising inventors took advantage
of modern manufacturing methods
to mass-produce new improvements to domestic life
like better mouse traps or adjustable chairs.

It was also an age of folly.
Not all innovations
were solutions to real problems.
Some newfangled designs
were just crazy contraptions
designed to entertain.
This is a story about a creative musician
from late 19th century North America
who contrived a musical novelty
hoping that people would pay money to see it.

I present for your enjoyment,

Prof. McRae
King of all Musicians !

Richmond IN Item
29 December 1893

Prof. McRae
Michigan's Musical Wonder:

Who Represented Michigan at the
World's Fair in the Musical Line.

He Plays a Whole Orchestra Alone.
Viz: First and Second Violin, Bass Viol,
Cornet and Piano, all at once, making
a first-class string orchestra alone. The
Exhibition is for Ladies as well as gen-
tleman.(sic) At No. 19 north 8th st, E. B.
Lake Manager.   Admission 10cts.   La-
dies Free.                          

Seated on an upholstered piano chair atop a very large trunk, a man is engaged at playing simultaneously a cornet, two violins, a cello (or "bass viol"), and an upright piano. He does this by using an apparatus constructed out of wooden sticks and metal wire. His cabinet card photo has worn edges and has endured some abuse, but through the magic of digital imagery software, I have restored the contrast so we can better appreciate this remarkable performer.
The photographer was the studio of Kern Bros., Instantaneous Portraits, at 314 Second St. in New York City, and it's a typical entertainer's promotional photo from the 1890s. Many New York photography studios in this era did a very good business mass producing hundreds or even thousands of photos of theatrical celebrities and circus performers. For many entertainers, a good portrait was an invaluable investment easily worth more than a thousand words of newspaper reviews. Certainly this artist's picture instantaneously describes his musical act better than any written account.
Stamped onto the back of the photo is his name:

Prof. McRae
Musical Wonder

The Professor used a common honorific adopted by many musicians of this era, but it did not confer any academic degree. It was more a self-claimed appellation, like maestro, to denote special artistic mastery, which may or may not have attested to real skill. This was just the way show business works. Unfortunately I have not yet  discovered the professor's full name, only that on other examples of his promotional photos he left a signature, Prof. D. McRae. He also originally called himself Ontario's Musical Wonder, giving his address as Strathburn, Ontario, Canada. The earliest performances I could find were advertised in the summer of 1892. Shortly afterwards he must have moved to Detroit, Michigan, which is less than 100 miles west of Strahburn, and rebranded himself as the Michigan Musical Wonder.

Prof. McRae's invention was a kind of framework contrivance that positioned a cornet in front of his lips allowing him to hold a violin and bow in the standard way. Wires connected three levers atop the cornet let him control the instrument's valves with his feet. Attached to the sides of the wooden frame was a cello and another violin. More levers and wires moved their bows, also controlled by foot pedals. Roughly the width of an upright piano, the apparatus had even more intricate levers that were positioned above the keyboard permitting him to play the piano too. All of this assembly must have required careful adjustment and a high degree of physical coordination in order for Prof. McRae to make music on five different instruments at once. Sadly we can only imagine what he sounded like.
There are many photographs of Prof. McRae and his novelty machine that have survived into the 21st century, a testimony to the American public's abiding taste for anything strange and unusual. He would surely be amazed that his photos, which he probably sold for a nickle or a dime, can now command very high prices in the hundreds of dollars. Yet despite the number of different photographs, Prof. McRae surprisingly received very few newspaper reports on his performances, and most were obviously in his own of his agent's words. He presented his act mainly at fairs and vaudeville theaters from 1892 to 1894, with brief notices in 1899 and 1902. While it's possible that he joined a traveling circus or a dime museum where he was not given any billing, Prof. McRae essentially had only a very brief and unnoticed career in show business.
Yet McRae's musical wonder apparatus enjoyed a longer life on the stage.


This young clean-shaven man is not Prof. McRae, but he sits on piano chair in front of McRae's musical apparatus. He is turned toward the camera and holds a violin. A framework very like the one in the previous photo supports another violin, a cello, a cornet, and is placed in front of an upright piano. The only difference with Prof. McRae's photo is that here everything is at floor level. The position of the frame reveals a complex arrangement of wires and lever controls. It does not convey sturdiness.

This photo has no mark of the man's name, but many of this performer's photographs have also survived and are sometimes stamped or signed Prof. Wm. Chisholm. Beginning in 1893 he appeared in numerous small towns using nearly the identical words as McRae to announce his performances. This notice from East Liverpool, Ohio ran in June 1897 and describes Professor Chisholm as "the musical wonder, who represented Michigan at the World's Fair, playing a whole orchestra alone, viz: first and second violin, bass viol, cornet and piano, all at once."

East Liverpool OH Evening Review
30 June 1897

There are photos, which I do not own, which show Prof. McRae with a second man who looks very like this man. My guess is that McRae either sold his apparatus or had another one made for Prof. Chisholm  to produce a kind a franchise of his novel invention. The photographer was Wendt of Boonton, New Jersey, another studio that specialized in theatrical entertainers. In other photos of Chisholm, the apparatus is displayed very like McRae's photos, and Chisholm often has a top hat like McRae's. On a few copies of this same photo of mine there is a stamped name of Prof. W. A. Dobie, Detroit, Michigan.  However I have found no newspaper notices that have used that name. Prof. Chisholm's act appeared in just a few newspaper notices from 1893 to 1898.
At the top of my photo is a note written in ink, "Played all these instruments in Fair Ground." 

I rarely display photos that are not in my collection, unless they are from fair-use archives. But today I make an exception with this next image because it shows a musician posed before a very similar "musical wonder" contraption.

Source: the internet

This man sits on a piano stool in front of a mechanism very similar to those in Prof. Chisholm's and McRae's photos. Like them, he holds a violin next to a framework where a cornet, violin, and cello are attached and is next to an upright piano. The wooden struts here are more stout, and the levers are larger and fewer than McRae's device, but it is basically the same design. This photo is unmarked and the photographer is unidentified.
But the reason I include this image is that this fair-haired young man is a perfect match for the young man on a similar unmarked cabinet card in my collection. His photo was featured in my story from January 1914, The Multitalented Mr. Jensen and Mr. Johnson.

At the time I described him as a multi-instrumentalist and his second photo illustrates the reason why in my photo he is holding a cornet and violin with another violin, a crude cello, and upright piano arranged around him. Notice the top hat. I can't prove anything as his name is unknown, so I will call him Prof. Jensen until I learn otherwise. I think Prof. Jensen in another enterprising entertainer with sufficient skill, if not talent, to play cornet, violin, cello and piano. My suspicion is that like Chisholm, this man also bought the right to Prof. McRae's multi-instrument apparatus. He looks like another "musical wonder" too.

And yes, I did look for McRae under Google's search engine for U.S. patents and did not find his name.

Chicago Cottage Reed Organ
Source: Musical instruments
at the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893

The reference in Prof. McRae's advertisement to the "World's Fair in the Musical Line", was to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. This extravagant event, held from May to October 1893, was promoted as a celebration of Columbus' arrival to the New World. The festival was a grand and expansive affair with numerous exhibit halls which brought hundreds of exhibitors from around the world. There was one enormous building constructed just for the display of musical instruments from major manufacturers from around the world. Besides the United States, there were musical representatives from many countries including France, Great Britain, Austria, Germany, Russia, Japan, Argentina, and even Siam. 

Every exhibitor was included in a special book made for the exhibition entitled Musical instruments at the World's Columbian Exposition: a review of musical instruments, publications and musical instrument supplies of all kinds, exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, May 1 to October 31, 1893. In this 310 page catalog it seems that every exhibitor received some kind of award for merit. The exhibitors from Bangkok, Siam were given an award for "For an interesting historical and characteristic display."

Neither Prof. McRae or Chisholm was mentioned in the book. For that matter, neither Ontario or Michigan, had any official state representative at this exhibition of musical instruments. But there were musical wonders galore. Pictured above is a reed organ, or parlor pump organ, made by the Chicago Cottage Co. just one of many organs and pianos displayed at the Columbian Exhibition. The factory was described in the exhibition book.

The Chicago Cottage Organ Co. possess the most extensive reed organ factory in the world. The plant of this department occupies a whole block at the corner of 22nd and Paulina Sts. and embraces three immense buildings, besides dry kilns, small buildings, lumber yards, etc. The factory has several acres of floorage and gives employment to more than 400 men, who turn out more than 18,000 organs per year, or at the rate of one organ every ten minutes. To dispose of these instruments requires a staff of some twenty salesman and twice that number of office employees, in addition to the regular officers of the Company. Already more than 150,000 organs have been sold and the demand is increasing each year. This record surpasses all others in the line of manufacturing reed organs. No expense is spared to make them the best in the world. To produce this enormous output requires more than 100 different kinds of machinery, many of which are of special design and construction. The instruments have proved themselves to be as near perfection as human skill, ingenuity and money can make them. The great satisfaction they have given to purchasers and the unqualified endorsements they have received from eminent musicians determine their status beyond question. While building up this enormous business in the manufacture of organs, the company interested itself in the wholesale and retail piano trade which soon assumed immense proportions

Many years ago, in return for free room and board, I restored a reed organ very like this one. Beneath the ornate casework was an intricate control system of levers and pulls that used a foot-operated bellows to send air through several banks of small brass reeds like those on a harmonica. The instrument produced a marvelous variety of different sound textures.  A reed organ very like the Chicago Cottage Co. organ cost $27.45 in the 1902 Sears & Roebuck catalog. 

So from personal experience I can say that these popular home keyboard instruments were true marvels of craftsmanship and innovative musical design. The mechanisms used to actuate the organ reeds were far more complicated and made with more precision than Prof. McRae's device. Certainly his "musical wonder" apparatus required a lot of careful thought to build a working device. And all three performers surely had good musicianship to play recognizable tunes on such a contraption. But the novelty of a multi-instrumentalist who "plays a whole orchestra alone" only went so far. Audiences preferred a real orchestra with multiple musicians to a a one-man-band playing a crazy mixed-up musical gadgetry.

The Welte Columbian Exposition Organ
Source: Musical instruments 
at the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893

One of the German musical instrument companies exhibiting at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 was Welte & Sons which made pianos, organs, and a new kind of automated musical instrument. Among the several large instruments the company brought to Chicago was one huge organ-like instrument they called an Orchestrion. This type of music machine used perforated paper rolls to activate the machine's numerous sound producing mechanisms. It was capable of playing hundreds of different kinds of prepared music and needed no musical skill to operate. Though the larger Orchestrions used electric motors power the pneumatic blower system, the smaller ones had weight-driven clockwork spring motors. These musical machines marked the pinnacle of German engineering and industrial technology.  

In 1914 the  Ludwig Hupfeld company of Leipzig, Germany produced an instrument called the Phonoliszt Violina. Here is a video of this fantastic Orchestrion machine which could play three violins and a piano at the same time, as preserved at the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht, Netherlands. I'm sure the clever designers at the Hupfeld factory could have easily added an automated pneumatic cornet and cello too.


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where some sew what they also rip.


Barbara Rogers said...

A most enjoyable and educational post (as always!) I'm a fan of your dedicated research which you share here on Sepia Saturday. These instruments (or apparatuses) are amazing. I imagine the players had great imaginations to invent all they ways mechanization could be used to play them. I've enjoyed hearing reed organs being played also.

kathy said...

I wish we could hear these men playing their multiple instruments! The setup must have taken a good bit of time. Thank you for the interesting post!

Molly's Canopy said...

What a remarkable musical invention! Got me wondering whether this might be the origin of the term one-man band. Not only is this a remarkable, well-documented post, but I am equally impressed that you were able to restore a reed organ. Quite an accomplishment.


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