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 }

More Tinplated Brass, the Uniform Edition

13 August 2022

American musicians used to pay strict attention
to the gleam of their brass buttons,
the fringe on their shoulder boards,
and the frill in their shako.



 Collars and cuffs,
 aiguillettes and epaulets,
braids and buckles,
all required fuss and bother to assemble
into a proper bandsman's uniform.

Today I feature a selection
of ferrotype photos—tintypes
of musicians in their best dress uniform.
It's a continuation of my story from earlier this year
The Tinplated Brass.

As we admire these outfits and instruments,
all members of the low brass family,
let us appreciate that each musician
has either just finished, or is about to commence,
marching in a long parade with their fellow bandsmen.
It would not be an exaggeration to say
that 19th century America
was one endless parade
of scintillating music played by men
in seriously flashy uniforms.

{click any image for a closer look}


The first ferrotype is of a bandsman dressed in a fancy cutaway jacket with tails, triple rows of buttons, striped trousers, and a plumed shako hat.  His instrument has a kind of flugelhorn shape with a large bell, almost a bass trumpet in size. He stands in front backdrop with a fake interior scene painted with a very poor sense of perspective
A ferrotype, or tintype photograph captures light through a camera lens as a reflection onto a photographic emulsion that was painted onto a thin metal sheet. It was typically made of iron but despite its name, never of tin. The exposure creates a positive image much like the reverse image we see in a mirror. It's very similar to the grey-tone images made by daguerreotype and ambrotype photographs. But like those early photography mediums the ferrotype was a singular unique image that couldn't be duplicated. Nonetheless the ferrotype photo proved popular with the public in the 1865-1885 era because it required very little preparation by the photographer and the result was very cheap to produce.
Because these photos produce mirror image, I like to flip them with digital photo software to show the musical instruments as they would really be played. In this case, all brass instruments, with the exception of my instrument, the French horn, are designed with valve keys played with the right hand. Here is the same bandsman now reversed.

* * *

This next portrait shows a trombonist dressed in a similar uniform as the previous bandsman. However this man's jacket has two ornamental braided cords, the aiguillettes, draped over his chest. This military decoration has no practical purpose though its placement is particular to regimental traditions. 
The instrument is a piston valve trombone, possibly in E-flat as it looks shorter than the standard B-flat models. It also has engraved designs on the bell. The image above is what the tintype looks like without any digital correction. Here is how it looks flipped horizontally and with better contrast.

* * *

The next bandsman's picture once lived in a 19th century photo case. The light ovoid halo around the image is the stain from the paper or metal matte. Ferrotypes often have irregular edges because they were cut from a larger piece of sheet metal. Some were as small as a postage stamp called "gem", and were intended to be displayed in a locket. Others were very large, 11" x 14" which necessitated a larger camera and special processing. These were of course more expensive. This one came in the most popular size called a "Bon-ton", approximately 2-3⁄8" × 3-1⁄2" (60 mm × 89 mm). It's about the same size as the carte de visite, or CdV which was introduced to the public in the 1860s at the same time as the ferrotype. But unlike the ferrotype the CdV is made with a negative that could be easily and quickly reproduced to make more copies of a photograph.
The bandsman's uniform is  a variation of the others and I think it's a style from around 1876, the Bicentennial of the United States, which was an event when every band in America, at least those from the northern states, wanted to look sharp when it joined in the celebrations. The instrument is a type of saxhorn with three rotary valves. It's about the same length as the previous valve trombone, an alto, I think, with a bell that points up. Here the image is reversed to show the man's right hand in proper playing position.

* * *

This bandsman's portrait began my parade of ferrotypes and I have reversed it to show the difference between his tenor saxhorn and the previous alto saxhorn. Both have bells up but this instrument is longer with a larger bell so that it makes a lower pitched sound. It also has keys place atop the valves, called top action rotary valves TARV, where the other smaller saxhorn has side action rotary valves, SARV. Neither design is used on modern brass instruments.  

This fellow's picture is very clear and demonstrates how tintypes can have a very realistic quality despite the photo's dark appearance. Many early CdVs do not have this level of clarity where you can see the grain of the plume's feathers and the twist of the epaulet's fringe.
* * *

Most of my collection of musician ferrotypes are cornet players, the soloists of any band or orchestra in this era, roughly 1865–1890. But for this presentation I've chosen a selection of low brass instrumentalists. This tuba player's photo is originally fairly dark but when reversed and contrast corrected, we see his tuba the right way around, if upside down resting on the bell, and a pretty clear portrait with even a hint of rouge in his cheeks added by the photographer.

The uniforms are often misinterpreted as military type, which is only partly true. The styles and decorations resemble official army and sometime navy uniforms, but these were not musicians in the regular army. In the post-Civil War era, army regiments did not typically have full-time bands dressed like this. These musicians were not soldiers but represented semi-professional civilian bands that on occasion accompanied state volunteer militias, the precursors to the National Guard.


* * *

My last ferrotype is of a pair of young brass players. One holds an SARV B-flat trumpet and the other "wears" a tenor helicon over his shoulder. Their uniforms are equipped with white belts and harness to hold a music pouch. They also wear wide brimmed hats instead of shakos with one side turned up and a dark feather on the crown. The boys don't look much above 16 or 19 years old, but their hats give them a rakish debonair look that must have impressed the girls as they marched by. Look closely at the helicon player and you can see a small cluster of flowers pinned to his jacket.
When image correction and reversal is applied, the letters WCB are revealed on their belt buckles and one music pouch. There is also a hint of pink on their cheeks, again applied by the photographer after the ferrotype was processed.


Prices for the early daguerreotype and ambrotype photographs of musicians tend to reach hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Yet ferrotype/tintype photos generally go for much less while displaying more variety in subjects. Unfortunately it is very rare to find any clues as to where and when the photos were taken, much less the identities of the musicians, as there was no place to write a note on the metal. Scratches on the back would only ruin the image's emulsion on the front.
There are more tinplated musicians in my collection
so stay tuned for another sequel.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where no matter where you look
there's always something interesting to see.


Barbara R. said...

Incredible outfits they all wore, and I'm glad you reminded me that those musicians were not only playing their tunes, they had to march in parades for hours as well!

Kathy said...

I appreciate your explanations of things I really don't know or understand. Your alterations really enhance the photos. I especially like the one of the standing tuba player. He has a certain air about him.

Kristin said...

Who colorized all their strangely pink cheeks?
Amazing how the light changed when you flipped the picture.

Mike Brubaker said...

The pink coloring in all of these tintypes were applied by the original photographer. It was a common lifelike detail added to many faces in early photos. I'm not sure how it was done, but I think it was either a thin watercolor painted with a tiny brush or dabbed on with a pastel crayon while the immulsion was still wet.

Kristin said...

The pink cheeks look strange in the middle of a sepia or greenish cheek. Maybe they thought it made them look more alive.


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