Wednesday, September 17, 2008


It's customary to explain the popularity of Victorian theatre by saying, "Of course, there was no television at the time." This always seems to me a patronizing and unsatisfactory comment. The 19th century was not simply our century without electronic entertainment. And theatrical drama was not popular just because there was nothing else to do. Just off the top of my head I can think of: torchlight parades, political speakings, circuses, street musicians, horse races, puppet shows, patent medicine salesmen, cheapjacks, Chatauqua lectures, camp meetings, church socials, public trials and performing dogs. Therefore, I'm inaugurating a weekly post, showing or explaining the other varied things our ancestors had around them as spectacle and sport.

The first photograph is of the main street entry of the Peak Family, c. 1867. Note this wonderful custom-made carriage, the horses decked out with plumes and advertising banners, the band including drum and brass instruments -- imagine walking down the street and having this marvelous moving festival come into sight! The next photograph is of the bellringers advertised on the horses: this was a famous touring family show, the Peak Family Swiss Bell Ringers, who performed for over thirty years. Lastly we have the Peak females and their brass instruments (probably played because the most unexpected and attention-getting choice for a Victorian girl). Horace Greeley wrote of them:

The Peak family...have become famous for their bell-music. So skilful are they in the use of bells, that they will change from one to another with the greatest rapidity. The bells vary in size, from a large cow-bell to the smallest dinner-bell, each with a key differing from that of the rest, and as many as forty-two are used by a company of seven.

Quoted below is an 1870 poster from Concord, New Hampshire:

World-Celebrated Peak Family Swiss Bell Ringers, Vocalists, Harpists, and Pianist. The Only Company of Bell Ringers in the United States. Organized in 1839by William Peak, Sr. … 240 Silver Bells Manufactured expressly for, and imported from London by William Peak, Sr., in 1861, and the only two set Peal or Chime of Silver Bells ever manufactured - the largest weighing twelve pounds, and the smallest four ounces, a perfect Chromatic Scale, making the sweetest sounds conceivable; acknowledged by the entire press and public of the United States, Great Britain, France, Spain, West Indies, New Mexico, and wherever the Company have appeared, to be a most astonishing performance, and the Most Superior Corps of Bell Ringers in the World. Also, Two Beautiful Chimes of Silver Staff Bells, 40 in Each, the Only Pair Manufactured, Played by Mrs. Fitz, (formerly Fannie Peak,) and Mast. Eddie Peak. Embodied in the Troupe Are Mrs. Wm. Peak, Soprano, Mr. Wm. Peak, Composer and Pianist, Mast. Albert Peak, the Unrivalled Balladist, Mast. Steve Young, Comic Singer, La Petite Lizette Peak, the Wonderful Contralto, Mrs. Fitz, (formerly Fannie Peak,) Vocalist and Staff Bell Player, Mast. Eddie S. Peak, The Beautiful Staff Bell Player. Little Addie Peak, the Child of Song. The Peak Family Will Be Assisted by the Following Artists: Mr. J.F. Spaulding, Solo Violinist, of Boston, Mr. A.J. Whitcomb, Solo Harpist … The Evening’s Entertainment will embrace new Bell Music upon the Table Bells; new Solos upon the Staff Bells, arranged by Mr. Peak, played by Master Eddie; new Songs, Ballads, Duetts, Humorous and Characteristic Pieces by the Five Juveniles Always Received with Unbounded Applause. Laughable Quintette, the “Smith Family,” Master Eddie, Frank, Lizette, Albert and Addie. Programme … A Splendid Set of Photographs of the Troupe may be seen at the Post Office, three days in advance of the Company. Tickets for sale at the Book and Music Stores. Admission 35 Cts. Reserved Seats 50 Cts. Children 25 Cts. Doors open at 7 - To Commence at 8 o’clock.

Notice the photographs displayed in advance of the performance, a contemporary form of advertising. The group photo above may have been one of them. These would have been sold at stationery and music stores and at performances.