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 }

Musical Marital Arts

13 August 2016

Single life on the stage can be lonely.
Better to have someone to share it with.
Someone who understands you
and can play along
with the ups and downs
of performing in musical theaters.

 And carry your instrument cases too.

The husband and wife entertainers known as 
Künstler-Duo Alberts –  Alberts Artist-Duo
must have traveled with a large trunk
to store all their musical equipment.
Frau Albert played violin and zither.
Herr Albert played guitar, harmonicas, and triangle
presumably all at the same time,
though not entirely from memory
to judge by the music lyre affixed
to his guitar's headstock.
And on the table behind them
are some other instruments that are unclear,
possibly tuned jingles and glass goblets.
Their German postcard is unmarked
but their style of dress,
especially Frau Albert's hair,
suggests they worked the music halls of the 1920s.


Here is another German husband and wife act
that needed a large padded trunk for their instruments.
The Lyras Chrystall - Musik - Act
performed on tuned hand bells and glass goblets.
Herr Lyras (if that indeed was his real name) holds
a button concertina as he looks toward his wife
who appears to be blowing two simple brass horns.
I believe they made a sound from a reed
not unlike an old-fashioned car or bicycle horn.
She probably kept several arranged
on the table, tuned to play a scale.
Their musical act certainly required
a lot of action when
each water goblet, hand bell, or horn
could only play one pitch.

This postcard was sent from Dresden
on 16 January 1909


This couple were featured in on my blog
back in September 2014 in a post
entitled Two Makes Three.

They called themselves
The celebrated Gouget's Fantaisistes
of 9, Rue des Petites-Ecuries, PARIS.
Their musical specialty also called for
large trunks and cases,
as the two performed duets on
piston cornets, French hunting horns,
and other unusual brass instruments.
On this postcard Madame Gouget
holds a simple hunter's horn
made from real cow's horn,
but capable of only two or three musical pitches.
Monsieur Gouget has a fantastic
long brass instrument
approximately 7 feet
from the mouthpiece
to the end of the bell.
But if its zig-zag twists were straightened out
it probably would measure close to 16 feet,
which is comparable to the length of an
orchestral horn using all the valve plumbing.
As this horn has no valves
Monsieur Gouget could play
only the natural overtones
of an alphorn, which has
a very limited scale of about 16 notes.

This postcard is also unmarked
but I've seen other cards of the Gouget Fantaisistes
that date from 1908-09.


And finally a married couple
who toured the German theater circuit
with costume trunks marked his and hers,
but not with the apparel you would expect.

Agnes and Hans Gossmann
strike an amorous pose on this postcard.
One spouse dressed in white tie and tailcoat,
the other in an elegant dress with a frilly fringed hat.
But I believe that Agnes is on the right
and Hans is on the left.
Cross dressers were a popular genre
of theatrical entertainers in earlier times.
The Gossmann's act probably consisted of
short musical comedy sketches,
with songs and dances,
interspersed with quick costume changes.
All while keeping the audience guessing
which was the man and which the woman.

This postcard dates from the war years,
postmarked 18 May 1917 from Bautzen,
a town on the Spree River in eastern Saxony, Germany,

This is another installment for Sepia Saturday's
month long celebration of love & marriage.

Love is Blind

06 August 2016

The bride wore white
and played a violin.
Her eldest sister
beat a big bass drum.
The younger squeezed an accordion.

They kept their eyes closed.

Her two bridesmaids blew fanfares
on cornet and trombone.

Their eyes were closed too.

And her maid of honor
took a collection
for the wedding.
Her sign said

Help The


Love is strange,
but rarely stranger.

This postcard has no marks
for time or place or names.
The best we can see
is that it's wintertime,
and someone,
perhaps the groom,
thought a photo
of the wedding band
standing in the snow
was appropriate.

Whatever is going on
with these six young women,
your guess is as good as mine.

Let's hope it was a happy day.

This is my first installment to Sepia Saturday,
where wedding photos are on display
the whole month of August.

What did you think it meant?

29 July 2016

It looks like a joke.
But the snare drummer,
he's not smiling.

His companions on bass drum,
bass and tenor saxhorns,
they don't seem
to see anything funny.

The rest of the brass band,
they're dead serious too.

It's right behind them
hanging in the store window.
But not one musician is laughing.
That sign in the window.
It says (snicker)

Ain't that a hoot?
Nudge, nudge.
Wink, wink.
Know what I mean?

The back of this cabinet format photo
has a penciled note.
Youngstown, Pa.
Town Band
(note wooden sidewalks)

I'm not convinced this note is contemporary with the photo's age,
as it looks like a description added by an antique dealer.
(An indifferent dealer too, that didn't know how to properly treat historic ephemera.)
This brass band of nine musicians,
two cornets, two altohorns,
two tenorhorns, a basshorn
and two drummers.
are holding a set
of top action rotary valve brass instruments,
a design of American brass band instruments
used from about 1860 to 1885,
and roughly equivalent to a consort of brass saxhorns.
The men are dressed, not in military style uniforms,
but in ordinary civilian clothing.
All are wearing hats
with a few in winter fur caps.

If the note is correct,
the photographer took this photo in
Youngstown, a borough (town)
in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania
about 45 miles east of Pittsburgh.
With a population in 2015 of 316
Youngstown's population has little changed from
when it was incorporated in 1831.
The band stands in front of a kind of general store
built in heavy stone block and unidentified.
The store's wooden boardwalk
may have seemed important to note,
but it is the single indecorous word
next to the kerosene lanterns in the window
that attracts a modern prurient eye,
and ironically helps date the band.

Trademark registered on March 31, 1874

Pittsburgh Post
15 June 1878

The ‘Vibrator’ was a threshing machine manufactured by the Nichols, Shepard & Co. of Battle Creek, Michigan. In 1878 it was advertised in the Pittsburgh Post as the Matchless, Grain-Saving, Time-Saving, and Money-Saving Thresher of this day and generation. Beyond all Rivalry for Rapid Work, Perfect Cleaning, and for Saving Grain from Wastage.

Nichols, Shepard & Co. Battle Creek, MI
Vibrator Threshers and Horse Powers

It was Perfectly adapted to all Kinds and Conditions of Grain, Wet or Dry, Long or Short, HEaded or Bound. 

Nichols, Shepard & Co. Battle Creek, MI
Vibrator Threshers and Horse Powers

Not only Vastly Superior for Wheat, Oats, Barley, Rye, and like Grains, but the ONLY Successful Thresher in Flax, Timothy, Millet, Clover, and like Seeds.

Two years later the Nichols, Shepard & Co. advertisements advised:   

CAUTION! The wonderful success and popularity of our Vibrator Machinery has driven other machines to the wall: hence various makers are now attempting to build and palm off inferior and mongrel imitations of our famous goods.

Be Not Deceived by such experimental and worthless machinery. If you buy at all, get the  “ORIGINAL” and the “GENUINE” from us.

New Bloomfield, PA Times
16 March 1880

The farmers in the Youngstown brass band
surely knew about the Vibrator.
It was heavily promoted
in Pennsylvanian newspapers
with illustrated adverts like these from 1874 to 1881
when the Nichols, Shepard & Co. sales strategy abandoned
its verbose marketing campaign
and The Vibrator disappeared
from the regional papers in the 1890s.

And as any farmer knows,
you reap what you sow,
and yet you still need to
bring in the sheaves and
separate the wheat from chaff.
What man wants to flail around
over old fashioned threshing,
When you can belt up
your steam engine
to a Vibrator.
That's the way to do it.

What did you think it meant?





This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where no one is ever in the dark about old photos.

Two Young Cellists

22 July 2016

Vintage photographs of
a child playing a cello are rare.
But surprisingly there were
a small number of young musicians
who played the cello professionally.
The traditional musical instruments for child prodigies
are violin and piano, but sometimes children
are attracted to other instruments.
This boy, dressed in a suit with short pants,
strikes up a tune on his cello for the photographer.
His name is written on the postcard's caption:

H. Serfling
Cello- und Xylophon- Virtuose
Ausgez. v. hoh. Fürstlichkeiten

The postcard was mailed from Berlin on 27-6-14.

His first name was Hans.
He is sitting on two cushions
and appears not much older than 9 or 10.
There are few adult artists with the talent
to master both string and percussion instruments.
He posed in a traditional sailor suit for another postcard,
this time with his brother. 

H. Serfling, Cello- und Xylophon- Virtuos
Ausgezeichnet von mehreren Fürstlichkeiten
(awarded by several Princely personages)

Gebrüder Serfling

I believe Hans is on the right, though his brother on the left, who seems about the same height, may be a fraternal twin. His name is Fritz Serfling and he played the piano, which I know from another postcard that I have yet to buy. Ensembles of family entertainers were very popular in Germany in the 1900s and often promoted the talent of the youngest children. Interestingly I have yet to see, much less find, a photo of a child playing a piano. String, wind, and brass instruments were far more photogenic in this era. 

Both boys in the lower photo seem older, perhaps 12 or 13, while the first photo of Hans playing his cello is surely a bit younger. The confusion of age between the two postcards is compounded by the postmark, 29-7-13 or 29 July 1913 from Hannover, a year earlier than the first postcard. Obviously the age of the boys does not correspond directly with the postmarks.

The same image of Hans Serfling holding his cello
was printed on a separate postcard using just his name as a caption.
Notice the medal on his sailor's tunic. That's likely one of those princely honors.

This postcard was sent in an envelope
but the writer dutifully added a date, 19/7/13,
just a week before the other postcard. 

Just behind Hans is a table with his xylophone. However it's not the familiar rectangular kind with bars arranged like a piano keyboard. This is xylophone is made in a trapezoidal shape with the bars arranged crosswise like the strings of a hammered dulcimer, or a cimbalom, as it is known in Central and Eastern Europe.

Recently I acquired a postcard of German wind and string ensemble called Serfling's Künstler - Orchester. The orchestra leader is the violinist with the grand mustache standing center. He directs a group of 14 musicians, all male, with three trumpets, two horns, a trombone, two clarinets, a flute, three violins, and a contrabass. And on the front right is a young boy standing in front of a trapezoid xylophone. (Note the herald trumpeter on the far left with a straight trumpet about seven feet long. There is an interesting curved handle to balance it when held out.)

This boy has short hair and is clearly only six or seven years old. He has the look of an accomplished professional musician. Is it Hans? The name Serfling and the unusual instrument leads me to think that it is, even though the resemblance is not close. Perhaps it is another brother. Or maybe just an entirely different family. Unfortunately this postcard has no postmark to date it. The printer was Verlag v. Max Kästner, of Bad Blankenburg in Thuringia, Germany. The small orchestra was typical of the kind of Germanic musical entertainment performing as the resident theater orchestra to accompany variety acts, or as the feature group appearing at a high class hotel or restaurant.


This next postcard of a young cellist and her look-alike violinist
might be mistaken as a kind of trick photography.
But these two girls are clearly identified as:
Yours truly.  The Twin Sisters Riponi.

The two girls are dressed in short white frocks with white stockings and shoes, and both have long Italianate hair tied with a white bow. They are obviously identical twins, one with a cello and the other a violin. Between them is small table displaying two mandolins, the quintessential instrument of Italian musicians, most often Naples. This is another pair of professional entertainers, perhaps age 9 or 10.

The name Riponi sounds Italian,
but the postcard was printed
by the Imperial Publishing Co.
of Longstaff, Staffordshire, England.
There is no postmark.

There were more sisters.

Dumfries and Galloway Standard
17 June 1914

On June 17, 1914 a Scottish newspaper, the Dumfries and Galloway Standard, reported on the show at the Electric Theater. There were two dramas, "Thor, Lord of the Jungle" and "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle", and two comedies, "Fooling Uncle" and "How Old are You". In between the silent films were several artistes beginning with The Sisters Riponi, vocalists and dancers.  They were followed by Rene, lady juggler; Vimp and Vera, assisted by Ena, in a smart comedy act.

And the Dumfries and Galloway Standard also reported on the number of washings, 171, at the Baths and Wash-House. 1st class baths, 113; 2nd class baths, 21.

Dublin Daily Express
19 April 1915

In April 1915, the entertainment at the Empire Theater of Dublin, Ireland was given a review in the Dublin Daily Express. Besides a few comic vaudeville sketches, there werre several pleasing numbers including:

The Four Sisters Riponi, instrumentalists, vocalists, and dancers, in a refined drawing room act, introducing violin, mandoline, piano, violincello, and banjo solos, should please everyone who cares for a really high class musical act.

Those who are fond of step-dancing are well catered for by the inclusion in the programme of the Eight Lancashire Lads, who will present several smart eccentric up-to-date dances; while Melville (vocalist) completes a bill that leaves nothing to be desired.

In September 1916, the Palace theater of  Yeovil, England advertised its weekly show. The film was "Cabiria", the unwritten masterpiece of Gabriele D'Annunzio. A Film Triumph – the £40,000 Production. The varieties began with the Four Sisters Riponi, charming vocal and musical act in a delightfull drawing room scena

Western Chronicle
18 September 1916

The Sisters Riponi toured the British Isles from 1914 to 1917. I've found very few references of their name in the newspaper archives, so I would judge that they had limited success and played only the small regional theaters. None of the theater reports or advertisements mention any first names, so it is impossible to make further identification. The coincidence of the name Riponi and the town of Ripon, England is suspicious. I think it is likely a made-up stage name with an intentional allusion to a familiar English place name. They might be daughters of an Italian bandmaster or they might equally be the talented children of a North Yorkshire farmer. In any case they were children of the stage and for a time made a musical career of singing, dancing and performing on mandolins, banjos, piano, violin, and cello.

I've emphasized the dates on these postcards because there is a strange coincidence that the first postcard of Hans Serfling was posted on June 27, 1914 and the Sisters Riponi performed at the Electric Theater in Scotland on June 17, 1914. Just one month later a terrible war set Europe ablaze in what would become a global conflagration consuming millions of people over the next four years. It is impossible to ignore the monstrous calamity that awaits the characters in these old postcards in the summer of 1914. What happened to the Serfling brothers? Did the Riponi sisters change their drawing room program to endorse the patriotic propaganda that swept the British Isles? Did Hans Serfling put away his cello to serve in the Kaiser's army? Did one of the Riponi twins fall in love with a soldier and split up the act?  It is unlikely we will ever know the answers, but I find imagining the questions to be the most valuable part of placing these obscure young children into a real historical context.
That last advert for the Yeovil Palace theater was printed right next to a long column on the latest reports from the war. In September 1916 the newest frightening threat to British civilians came from the bombing raids by German airships , the Zepplins. One recent raid involved 13 of these huge flying gas cylinders. Engaged by anti-aircraft guns and aeroplanes the German bomb attack inflicted only comparatively little damage. One Zeppelin was brought down by a brave pilot, Lieut. Wm. Leefe Robinson. of the Royal Flying Corps, who was awarded the Victoria Cross. The civil authorities considered their campaign of obscuration of lights in the countryside to be very effective in misleading the German Zeppelin pilots and minimizing casualties.

It was a terrible time.
Music helped ease the anxiety and anguish.

Western Chronicle
18 September 1916

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more bedtime stories.


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