Friday, December 11, 2015

The Stonewall Brigade Band helicon

In poking around the internet recently, trying to learn more about the history of the helicon, I stumbled upon the following claim at the website of the Stonewall Brigade Band of Staunton, Virginia:
In 1893 the band was engaged for a two-week period at the Columbian Exposition, World's Fair, Chicago, where the band acquired the first-ever manufactured over the shoulder bass horn, called a helicon. This was the precursor of the famed Sousaphone. The Helicon is still in the band's possession and is used by the brass ensemble for performances of period music.
Below this statement is the following photo:

In communicating with some of the leaders of this historic community band, they admitted that they needed to do some "weeding out of fact and folklore," and I offered to help them do so regarding their wonderful, old helicon. They graciously sent me some photos, and what I have been able to conclude is noted below.

Roger Ergenbright, one of the the band's longtime tuba players

Roger, along with band president Donald Dollins and music director Bob Moody (taking the photo of the bell).
The engravings on the bell tell us just about everything we need to know about the horn:

First of all, right smack in the middle we find "Ch Missenharter." This refers to Karl Moritz (Charles) Missenharter (1829-1899), who had worked in his father's brass instrument factory in Ulm, Germany, until he moved to New York in 1869 to start his own branch of the family business.

Missenharter horns won various awards over the years, and that explains what is stamped above the name on the bell. "Medaille 1st Class" refers to an award at the Exposition Universelle of 1855 in Paris; "Philadelphia" (the first time it appears) refers to an award from the International Exposition of 1876; "London" refers to an award at the International Exhibition of 1862; "Paris" refers to an award from the Exposition Universelle of 1867; and "San Francisco, American Institute" cannot be positively placed, but surely refers to yet another award.

Below his name it says, "Excelsior," which is simply the line of band instruments that Missenhalter built and sold in the U.S. Here's a page from the April 1885 edition of S. R. Leland & Son's Band Journal showing various horns in that line:

Courtesy of Jon Patton
Below "Excelsior," it says "Harry Coleman, Manf'r, Philadelphia." In the summer of 1891, Missenharter sold his company to Harry Coleman, a Philadelphia-based music publisher (who, by the way, published some of Sousa's marches in the 1880s and early 1890s - including Semper Fidelis and The Washington Post). Coleman continued producing Missenharter instruments in New York, until he moved the whole operation down to Philadelphia on October 21, 1892. Here are the notices about these changes found in The Music Trade Review at those times:

From the August 5-20, 1891 edition (vol. 15, no. 1, p. 278)
From the October 29, 1892 edition (vol. 16, no. 12, p. 251)
Now we can begin to hone in on the date of the helicon in question. With "Philadelphia" on the bell, it had to be made after Coleman moved the factory there, which is late 1892. And the style of horn matches the helicon we see in the page from 1885 above, which means that the claim by the Stonewall Brigade Band that their helicon was the "first-ever manufactured over the shoulder bass horn" cannot be true (unless, perhaps, this is referring to the first Coleman produced Missenharter helicon that came out of the factory in Philadelphia; but that cannot be confirmed at present).

And what about the claim that the horn was acquired in Chicago at the World's Fair of 1893? That may very well be the case. The serial number, 8789, which is the last thing stamped on the bell, fits that time period. And Missenhalter horns built after the Fair typically had "Chicago" added to the list of places where awards were won. There is no "Chicago" on this bell, so the horn was almost certainly made right before or during the six months of the Fair.

We know that Harry Coleman had a small band instrument booth at the Fair, located in the southern end of the massive Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building (section I), which was right on the lake:

Looking at the layout of the room, Coleman's booth was right above the J. W. Pepper booth - which was right across from the C. G. Conn booth. All three are to the right of the Mason and Hamlin room:

From Musical Instruments at the World's Columbian Exposition, published in 1895 and available online
I have yet to find any more information about Coleman's presence at the Fair (although I did learn that he died a few years later, in March 1895, of heart failure; he was only 52). But according to the guys in the Stonewall Brigade Band, the helicon was purchased there for $175, although it was not able to be picked up and taken home until after the Fair. They had originally thought it was purchased at the Conn booth, but that is almost certainly incorrect, given that it is a Missenharter/Coleman horn.

I'd love to hear how it sounds!

Advertisement in the May 1895 edition of the Musical Record

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