Displaying items by tag: music

Wednesday, 28 June 2023 22:49

Hophni Van Fossen Johnson

This week we received a new addition to HSMC's portrait collection. This is a charcoal drawing of Hophni Van Fossen Johnson, who was from Norristown. He was a musician in the PA Reserves Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.

Hophni 2

Charcoal Drawing of Hophni Van Fossen Johnson, HSMC Portraits Collection, 2023.052.001

After being discharged, Hophni became a miller. He married Elizabeth Shrawder in 1864 against the wishes of her father Joseph Shrawder. According to family genealogy books, prior to their marriage, Hophni wrote to Elizabeth through a third party to prevent her father from realizing they were communicating.

In April 1868, Hophni bought two tracts of land including a grist mill from his father David Johnson for $2,000. In May of that same year, he bought another small piece of land from William Evans for $200. One month later he paid $1 for the water rights in the Skippack Creek above the grist mill. Unfortunately, Hophni was not good with finances, which ultimately caused his milling business to fail.

unidentified mill

Unidentified Mill, HSMC Photographs Collection, 2014.342.710

Hophni sold part of the land in October 1875 to Levi Shrawder for $4,520. He filed for bankruptcy the following year. At the time of his bankruptcy his assets were $543.91 and he had claims of $1,603.86. After the bankruptcy, all legal documents were in Elizabeth's name. Hophni transitioned to making watches and clocks.

In 1884 Elizabeth and Hophni purchased a house on Ridge Pike in Lower Providence. Their mortgage was $550 and was supposed to paid in one year with an interest rate of 5 percent. However, for many years Elizabeth only paid the interest payments. She did not start paying the principle until 1892. Their debt was finally paid in full on August 15, 1902.


Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 04 November 2021 19:14



This week, I’ve continued to work through the shelves of old books in our upper stacks. Yesterday, I found a large collection of hymnals from the late 18th century through the 1930’s. They come from a variety of denominations and are in both English and German.

Hymnals have a long history in the United States. The first book printed in North America was the Bay Psalm Book of 1640. It had English translations of the Psalms meant to be sung during worship services. Like the Bay Psalm Book, most of our hymnals don’t contain any music.


A common book for Mennonites was Die kleine geistliche Harfe des Kinder Zions (The Small, Spiritual Harp of the Children of Zion). This copy is from 1803. It gives a tune for the first verse of the psalm and then prints the rest underneath. Others only have the words with the notation, “in eigene Melodie,” that is “its own melody.” Not all of the psalms are included. The second part of the book contains hymns with no written music, just a note that the tune is “its own” or the same as another popular hymn. Indexes in the back helped the faithful find the correct hymn by first line or by topic.


A more recent example is this English language hymnal from Wentz’s Church. Published in 1883 by the Reformed Church Publication Board, it is organized around the liturgical calendar which begins in Advent (the season leading up to Chirstmas). The hymns are individually numbered as they often are today. There’s no music, but you can see the notation “C. M.” on this hymn by Isaac Watts.  It stands for common meter. According to Wikipedia, “Amazing Grace” and “Little Town of Bethlehem” are also in the common meter.


We have a few books written for more musically literate church goers, perhaps as part of a formal choir. Choral Harmonie is a German choir book published in Harrisburg by John Wyeth, an influential printer of hymns.

Vom himmel

The notes may look a little different than what you’re used to seeing. In 1801, William Little and William Smith of Philadelphia introduced a four shape note system to aid singers in sight reading. The practice caught on and remained popular for many decades, especially in the South. The shapes help to translate the notes to the do-re-mi syllables we all learned from Maria von Trapp.

shape notes


Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 11 February 2021 18:13

James A. Bland



You might not know the name James A. Bland, but you probably know a few of the 700 songs he wrote. Most famous in this area is “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” a minstrel tune that’s the theme of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade. He also wrote “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”

Bland was born in Flushing, NY in 1854. His father, a free man, was one of first African-Americans to graduate from college (Oberlin in 1845). It was his father who bought James his first banjo. As a teenager he began performing professionally, but had trouble making a living at it. He enrolled at Howard University, majored in the Liberal Arts, and graduated at 19. Still, success on the stage eluded him.

According to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Bland had trouble finding work in minstrel groups because they preferred to hire white musicians in blackface. Eventually he joined an all-Black minstrel band and toured the US. Bland played with several groups, while also writing hit songs. He traveled to England with a group called the Callender-Haverly Minstrels and played before Queen Victoria.

Many of his songs were popular in the nineteenth century including “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane” and “De Golden Wedding.” While he made a lot of money from his music, Bland died in poverty in Philadelphia in 1911. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Merion Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.


In 1940, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” became Virginia’s state song after petitioning by the Lions Clubs of Virginia. The Lions Clubs also conducted a search for Bland’s grave. In 1946, Governor William M. Tuck and members of the Lions Clubs of Virginia, as well as members of the Norristown Lions Club dedicated a new marker on the grave.

Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any recordings of Bland performing his songs, but many have been covered by other artists like Ray Charles, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong. This instrumental version on YouTube was my favorite.


Sources: Songwriters Hall of Fame,

Published in Found in Collection
Wednesday, 26 August 2020 18:53


We are pleased to share with you a new addition to HSMC's collection. This melodeon belonged to David Y. Custer, also referred to as D Chester, of Pottstown. David was a musician and piano teacher.


David Custer was born in 1866. This melodeon was passed down through the Custer family after David died in 1892 from kidney disease. His great granddaughter kindly donated the melodeon to us recently.

C Chester

The gold colored paint on the melodeon indicates that it was made by Earhart Needham and Company in New York.

melodeon 2

However, when we lifted the lid fully to inspect the bellows, we found a paper label.


David seems to have purchased this melodeon from A. P. Hughes Melodeon Manufacturer in Philadelphia, which was a sales company for Earhart Needham and Company. A. P. Hughes operated in Wareroom No. 258 on Market Street.


Published in Found in Collection
Wednesday, 05 August 2020 14:32


Does anyone know how to play the Pennsylvania Polka?


Concertina at HSMC

This lovely instrument is known as a concertina. A concertina is a free-reed musical instrument that uses bellows and buttons to produce sound. It was first patented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in London in 1829. A German model was developed independently by Carl Friedrich Uhlig in 1834.

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Bellows design on HSMC concertina

The original design had one row of five keys on each side of the instrument. It was eventually improved with the addition of more rows of keys. The English concertinas are normally shaped like a hexagon and play the same note when you press a key and pull or push the bellows. The German concertina can sometimes be square shaped and uses a diatonic scale. This means if a musician presses a key and push the bellows inward it makes a different note than if they press the same key and pull the bellows.

concertina 3

Black youth with early square-ended German Concertina, ca. 1864. From the online gallery of

The concertina was popular in the United States from 1840s to 1900. Unlike other instruments, the concertina was small and affordable for many people. A single row German concertina cost roughly $1 in the late 1860s. A two-row cost roughly $5 in the late 1880s, which would be roughly $30 in 2020. The German concertinas were the least expensive and were thus more popular with the middle and lower class. The English concertinas were generally more expensive and favored by the upper class.

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German concertina, mid 19th century C. Coule - New and Complete Method (or Self-Instructor) for Playing the German Concertinas. London: C. Coule

Seeing the popularity of the German concertinas, some English concertina makers started making their own hybrid models. This combination of English and German concertina designs is referred to as an Anglo-German Concertina. These typically have a hexagon shape and use a diatonic scale.

By the early 1900s, accordions replaced the popularity of the concertinas. Today, concertinas are still used to play traditional tango and polka music from countries such as Ireland, England, and South Africa.



Worrall, Dan. “A Brief History of the Anglo Concertina in the Unites States,” 15 April 2007

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 16 July 2020 15:55

"Hill-Billies" at the Norris Theater

This week we received two items that had me nostalgic for … February. They were handbills for local theaters. Remember theater? Remember going out and doing things?


The first handbill is from about 1931, when the Norris Theater was less than a year old and showed both live vaudeville acts and movies. Both shows illustrate trends in American entertainment in the early 1930’s. The first is hillbilly music, a phrase coined in the 1920’s for what we now might call bluegrass, folk, or Americana. Groups like the Blue Ridge Ramblers toured the country on the vaudeville circuit and recorded 78rpm records. They played traditional songs like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “Golden Slippers.” Radio shows also featured groups like this, as the advertisement points out at the bottom, “You’ve heard these Hill-Billies on the air – now see and hear them in person.”

The show is combined with the movie, Svengali, starring Hollywood megastar John Barrymore. Svengali was a horror movie about a singing teacher who hypnotizes a tone deaf milkmaid (people’s idea of “scary” has changed). Horror was a popular genre in the early sound days of film. Universal Studio’s monster movies are probably the best remembered examples. Svengali was released in May of 1931.


The other handbill is from 10 years later and features Norristown’s three theaters: the Norris, the Grand, and the Garrick. The three theaters were all owned by the same family so they advertised together. The Norris still seems to be the premier theater, showing the biggest movies, in this case A Yank in the RAF with Tyrone Power and Nothing but the Truth with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. The other two theaters show “B” movies, like The Smiling Ghost, an example of the horror comedies popular in the 1940’s.

Hopefully we’ll all be back in theaters someday soon whether it’s for a movie or clog dancers or whatever “Spark Plug – the 16 year old boy wonder” is. If you’re curious to hear what the Ramblers sounded like, you can hear some of their songs here.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 15 December 2016 20:19

H. M. S. Pinafore

As part of my job, I often receive emails asking if the historical society has a certain resource or asking for a small amount of research. Most of these requests have to do with family genealogy or the history of our fine county. Last week, I received an unusual request. An independent researcher was looking for the original appearance of the following story:

“A horse ran away at the railroad depot, in Philadelphia, yesterday, and knocked down seventeen persons, each one belonging to a different Pinafore company about starting on a country tour.”

The short little joke appeared in newspaper across the country and was attributed to Montgomery County’s very own Norristown Herald and Free Press (today known as the Times-Herald). The researcher, Russ Sype, an expert on Gilbert and Sullivan who’s working on a book about H.M.S. Pinafore in the U.S., wanted to find the original appearance.

So, I went to our microfilm collection and loaded the 1879 reel onto our microfilm scanner. If you’ve never had an opportunity to read a nineteenth-century newspaper, they were little different from today.


You’re probably not surprised that there are no photos or even drawings, but there are also no headlines. Headlines start appearing in newspapers at the end of the nineteenth century when the number of newspapers increased, when they had to compete for readers.

In fact, there isn’t even much news on the front page. There are several fictional stories on this front page and part of a continuing series on ancient mythology. On the right hand side is news from the literary world and a section called “Editorial Etchings.” Page 2 usually contains national news and often more Editorial Etchings, while local news, including train schedules and social announcements appear on page three. The back was mostly advertisements for ready made clothes, patent medicines, and anvils.

I while searching for the story, I concentrated on the Editorial Etchings, since most of the items there were short and humorous.


Sorry about blurriness; the microfilm is old and the original type is very small (I should also apologize for reproducing such awful jokes). It took me a while to find the piece I was looking for, but in the meantime, I found nearly a dozen other references to H. M. S. Pinafore. The editors at the Herald were obsessed with it. According to Sype, all of America was obsessed with Pinafore. He explained that the operetta debuted in Boston in late November of 1878 and in early 1879 “an armada of touring companies” worked their way around the United States. It was even translated into Pennsylvania Dutch for a performance in Reading.
Here are some of the quotes I found:


Pinafore April 5 1879      Pinafore Feb 19 1879 2


This one was from the "Philadelphia News" section:  

Pinafore Feb 19 1879


And my personal favorite:

Pinafore March 11 1879 2

I suspected right away that many of these touring companies weren’t paying royalties for their performances, and according to Wikipedia, that’s correct. The U.S. generally didn’t recognize international copyright, and Americans often pirated European works.

With all of this obsession, I was hoping to find evidence of a performance here in Montgomery County during this initial period of enthusiasm, but so far no luck.

I did find evidence that the enthusiasm for Pinafore did not wane. We have in our collection a scrapbook kept by Margaret Blackfan, an avid theater-goer from Norristown. She kept programs from all the performances she attended and clipped newspaper articles about the theater in Norristown and Philadelphia. These two articles, about two different productions of Pinafore, appeared in the same newspaper. The article is undated, but the scrapbook was produced between 1896 and 1899.



Now, I think I'll go home and reaquaint myself with H.M.S. Pinafore.

Published in Found in Collection