Happy Birthday, Joan of Arc, You Fashion Icon You!

On January 6th, Joan of Arc – arguably the most famous patron saint of France – would have celebrated her 611th birthday. Known for her visions that led her to request Charles VII let her “lead” French forces in order to stop the English and assure his coronation during the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453), and for her famous death (she was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431 at the tender age of nineteen), Joan is also famous for her defiance of gender norms. She spoke her mind (pretty brave for a woman in the middle ages), wore what were traditionally men’s clothes, and cut her hair short in what may have been history’s most famous bobbed haircut.

While some people argue there is no evidence Joan of Arc truly sported this haircut, artists throughout the years have famously depicted her with the short hairdo. In 1911, one of Paris’ most famous hairstylists known as Monsieur Antoine or Antoine de Paris (born in Poland, his real name was Antoni Cierplikowski), gave 40-year old actress Ève Lavallière – who was going to play an 18-year old in a play – the shortened hairdo to make her look younger. Audiences were amazed! Had Antoine discovered the key to everlasting youth? Claiming Joan of Arc as his inspiration, the hairdo began to be called “à la Jeanne d’Arc.”

Monsieur Antoine: the first modern “celebrity” hairdresser (from godsandfoolishgrandeur.com)

In 1915, famous dancer Irene Castle – half of the Vernon and Irene Castle duo – cut her hair short as a mere manner of convenience prior to an appendectomy; the hairstyle then began being called the “Castle Bob.” The bob didn’t truly take off until the 1920s, however. In May, 1920, the Saturday Evening Post published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story about a shy girl who is tricked into getting her hair bobbed and is then quickly shunned by boys and society. (If you haven’t seen the 1976 TV movie by the same name starring Shelley Duvall as Bernice, you’re missing out!) 1920 was still a time when femininity was judged by a number of “criteria” including long hair.

Shelley Duvall in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” (from Wikimedia Commons)

At first, hairstylists resisted requests for the haircut driving many women to barbershops where barbers were more than happy to comply. By 1925, hairdressers had given into the fashionable trend sought by women eager to break societal norms. This one, simple hairstyle drove up profits for the beauty industry! Soon, there were accessories to compliment the bob such as hairbands and the iconic cloche hat. Attitudes of women donning the do – that were just as controversial as the haircut itself – also pushed the limits: they drank, smoked, showed off their knees, and wore makeup … scandalous! Actress Mary Gordon was quoted in a 1927 issue of Pictorial Review as saying, “I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom. Whatever helps their emancipation, however small it may seem, is well worth while.” [Victoria Sherrow, Victoria. Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Westport, CT, London: Greenwood Press, 2006.]

Woman in the 1920s making a bold statement in the barber’s chair. (From Pinterest)

The bobbed haircut – or some version of it – has transcended well beyond the 1920s into today. The right haircut can sometimes make a career. In 1988, a then “up and coming” model, Linda Evangelista, had her hair cut by stylist Julien d’Ys into what can be described as a “grown-out pixie.” The hairstylist admitted to cutting Evangelista’s hair on a “whim,” and wasn’t sure how he was going to cut it until he actually began snipping. Although nervous about her new look at first, Evangelista’s new look was a hit and, she admitted, her modeling rates “quadrupled.”

Linda Evangelista before and after the haircut that sparked her career. (From Marieclaire.com)

Celebrities like Halle Berry, Emma Watson, and Jennifer Lawrence – just to name a few – have all made fashion statements by cutting their hair short. “When you have short hair, there’s just a feeling of here I am. What you see is what you get,” said Halle Berry in the February 11, 2015 issue of Glamour magazine. “And there’s a confidence that comes with wearing short hair and I like the way that makes me feel.” If Joan of Arc did indeed bob her own hair, she then most certainly felt that confidence described by Halle Berry – assertive enough to lead French forces to victory! Perhaps when you look and feel good, anything is possible. Thanks, Joan!

A well dressed woman, even though her purse is painfully empty, can conquer the world! — Louise Brooks

Silent film actress and 1920s fashion icon, Louise Brooks. (From Wikipedia)

To see more versions of the famous “bob” – like the “Moana” and the “Coconut” – click here.

Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part 6

Doug Daye’s second to last post covering Black inventors and innovators is here for your reading pleasure! (All featured images are from Villa Finale’s collection.)

Doug Daye

Hairbrush

On November 15, 1898, Lyda Newman received the patent for the first hairbrush with synthetic bristles. Her design for an improved hairbrush was inspired by her own experience as a Black woman and a hairdresser. Prior to her invention, hairbrushes had been made of animal hair which were soft and not sufficient for treating the thickness of African American hair. Newman’s design included synthetic fibers which were more durable and made cleaning easier. The brush used evenly spaced rows of bristles to clear away debris into a compartment that could be opened with a button and cleaned out. Newman’s invention changed the hair care industry and paved the way for two other notable Black female inventors – Madam C.J. Walker and Marjorie Joyner – to revolutionize hair care.

Automatic Fishing Pole

George Cook received a patent for his improved Automatic Fishing Device on October 10, 1899. His device featured a trip lever that was triggered by tension. When fish would nibble at the bait, the rod would be set to tip up to hook the fish automatically. A spring-loaded carriage would be released that would immediately slide back on short rails in the frame of the device. It also included an alarm gong that would ring by releasing a spring-operated striker. Cook’s invention contributed to sport fishing and outdoor leisure.

Telephone System and Apparatus

Granville T. Woods made many contributions to the advancement of communications and railways. He was born to free African Americans and held various engineering and industrial jobs before starting his own company. His most notable invention was an apparatus that combined a telephone and telegraph which was called the “induction telegraph” or block system. Woods’s design allowed for railroad workers to communicate by voice to one another through telegraph wires. This made communication faster and prevented accidents. He received his patent on October 11, 1887. He was called “Black Edison” after defeating a lawsuit by Thomas Edison that challenged his patent and after declining Edison’s offer to become partner.

Look for the last and final part of Doug’s “Black Inventors and Innovators” series next month!

Victorians and Egyptomania: Enter King Tut, Stage Right – Part Six by Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor

TUTMANIA

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb came at a time when the world was in desperate need of some good news. World War I had just ended as had a global pandemic. This boy-king whose glittering tomb had sat nearly untouched for thousands of years captured the imagination of the public. Journalists descended upon Carter and Carnarvon to see the priceless artifacts, as did royalty and celebrities of the day.  Advertisers saw the advantage of the public’s interest in Tut and started plastering Egypt on everything.

Even magic shows!

(From VintageHolidayCrafts.com)

Egyptian revival style had remained a staple in the architecture of the day and was a major influence on the Art Deco style that we think of when we envision the early 20th century taste – bold lines, bright vivid colors, and repeating patterns incorporating stylized florals. We didn’t see this influence just in buildings, like the Empire State Building, but into clothes and jewelry as well. Cartier and Tiffany produced Egyptian inspired jewelry, some of which looked like it came right out of Tut’s tomb instead of being inspired by it! Egyptian inspired décor once again became all the rage!

Laurelton Hall (from Wikicommons)

The famous symbol of the 1920 and 1930s, the Flapper, drew inspiration for her iconic hairstyle from Egypt as well with her Cleopatra-like bob. Make-up was marketed with Egyptian inspired ads and logos.

(From AdvertisingArchives.co.uk)

The 1932 movie “The Mummy” starring the famous Boris Karloff was directly inspired by the discovery of Tut’s tomb and the “mummy’s curse” since one of the screenwriters had been a journalist covering its initial discovery! He even used the name of Tut’s wife Ankhesenamun as the love interest for the priest Imhotep. During the golden age of Hollywood, mummies and Egypt were a favorite subject, with dozens of films and shows made.

Modern Day

In 1932 Tut’s tomb was finally cleared of all its contents and all the objects were documented and sent to the Cairo Museum. Howard Carter continued to work in Luxor and as interest in Tut waned, he found work as a dealer for private collectors and museums. For his discovery he was awarded the Order of the Nile from King Fuad I of Egypt. He died in 1939 of Hodgkin’s disease.  

In 1976 interest in Tut was reignited when Tut’s Treasures traveled through the US on a seven-stop tour. It was the first blockbuster exhibit, and it is believed that over 8 million people saw the boy-king’s treasures, including his iconic death mask. Steve Martin, in 1978, first sang “King Tut” on Saturday Night Live, which went gold.

Tut’s treasures have since toured the world several times and currently reside in the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which is scheduled to open later this year. The boy-king himself has never left Egypt and besides some trips to be x-rayed by archaeologists and researchers has never left his tomb.

Tut and ancient Egypt continue their hold on the public imagination and in pop culture today. Villa Finale’s collection contains many Egypt-inspired collection pieces, can you spot some of them on your next visit?

As an extra bonus, hear how English researchers recreated the voice of a mummified priest using a 3-D printer to bring his vocal cords to life.

Victorians and Egyptomania: Enter King Tut, Stage Right – Part Five by Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor

The Curse of the Mummy

On April 5th 1923, five months after opening the tomb, Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning caused by an infected mosquito bite that had progressed to pneumonia. According to popular legend, the moment he died all the lights when out in Cairo (though power outages were not uncommon at the time) and Carnarvon’s dog howled mournfully at the exact same moment before dying itself. This account was given by Carnarvon’s son, though it is worth noting that he was far away in India at the time of his father’s and the dog’s deaths.

Lord Carnarvon (from Wikipedia)

Speculation about what might have been the exact cause of his death was fueled by newspapers, some of which had been denied exclusive coverage of the tomb, threw more fuel on the fire by claiming it was the “Mummy’s Curse.” Depending on who you talk to, anywhere from four to eight deaths were attributed to Tut’s curse.

The idea of a “mummy’s curse” or a “curse of the Pharaohs” wasn’t a new one and its origins could be traced back to the mid-19th century and Victorian fiction writers, such as Louisa May Alcott, who drew upon this idea that Egypt was a mysterious and mystical place, which went back all the way to antiquity. In 1903 Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, published a book called The Jewel of the Seven Stars which told the story of an archaeologist suffering from the curse of a disturbed mummy.

When the Titanic sank in 1912, rumors of a mummy of an Egyptian priestess being the cause of the sinking resulted in the British Museum publishing flyers for the general public stating that no such mummy had even been on the Titanic. 

So, by the time Tut was discovered in 1922, the general public were more than primed to expect supernatural experiences with anything associated with Ancient Egypt. 

While Egyptian tombs and sarcophagi were covered in protective spells and prayers to ensure a successful journey to the afterlife, curses such as we think of them did not exist in Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians thought it was bad luck to even write down the possibility of tomb robberies and so these formulaic sayings were more along the lines of, “the robber will suffer from a disease that no doctor can diagnose” than “death floats on silent wings to those who disturb the pharaoh’s rest.”

Sarcophagus (British Museum)

Carter himself thought the whole business of “the mummy’s curse” was “tommy-rot” and of almost 58 people who were at the tomb at the time of its opening, its documentation, and the opening of the sarcophagus, only eight or nine deaths were attributed to the mummy’s curse and none hold up under further inspection.

Victorians and Egyptomania: Enter King Tut, Stage Right – Part Four by Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor

At the turn of the century, the world was changing. The Victorian era had just ended and Edward VII now ruled the British Empire, on which the sun never set. By 1901 Egypt was a de-facto British protectorate under nominal Ottoman control and there was a growing nationalist movement. In 1914 the British government established the Sultanate of Egypt and a growing interest in preserving Egypt’s pharaonic past grew among native Egyptians.

In 1908, American lawyer turned Egyptologist Theodore M. Davis, who had been excavating in the Valley of the Kings for years, announced that he feared “The Valley of the Tombs is completely exhausted.”

Oh, how wrong he was.

Carter with sarcophagus (from Wikicommons)

The Tomb of the Century

While many feared the Valley of the Kings had been exhausted of its tombs and treasures and that nothing more could learned from it, British Egyptologist Howard Carter and his financial backer George Herbert, the 5th Lord of Carnarvon, were not so convinced.

Since 1894 Carter had worked and studied under some of the greats of Egyptology including our friend Flinders Petrie.

Carter started working for Lord Carnarvon in 1907 and in 1922 Lord Carnarvon, who was dissatisfied by the lack of results, agreed to fund one more season of excavation.

In November of that same year, Carter returned and began excavating near some abandoned huts. Not long after that, a water boy named Hussein Abdel Rasoul stumbled upon what later turned out to be part of a stairway. Immediately Carter sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon and by the time Lord Carnarvon and his daughter arrived two weeks later, the stairway was clear, revealing the still sealed door stamped with the cartouche of the pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Hussein Abdek Rasoul (from Pectorial, BBC.com)

The Young King

Tutankhamen came to the throne circa 1332 BCE at the tender age of nine, and reigned until circa 1323 BCE, after the turbulent reigns of his father Akhenaten and his immediate successors, Smenkhkare and Neferneferaten.

Akhenaten, whom most Egyptologists agree was likely Tut’s father, turned away from the traditional worship of the Egyptian pantheon, attempting to wrest power from the powerful high priests at the temple of Karnak and moving the capital to an isolated region, now known as Amarna, away from Egypt’s traditional religious and economic centers.

While scholars still debate to what extent Akhenaten’s attempt at monotheism really disrupted the lives of every day ancient Egyptians, it was enough that Tut and his advisors had to issue several declarations re-establishing the old traditions, restoring several temples, and re-asserting Egyptian military power.

When Tut died after reigning a mere ten years he was buried in a small tomb that was not meant to be his. His cause of death was likely a combination of malaria and a broken leg. His short reign after years of turmoil, followed by the succession of a new Dynasty, helped ensure his tomb remained relatively undisturbed until 1922.

Face reconstruction of what King Tut may have looked like (with a modern rendition on the right) by @royalty_now_ (Left Image: © reconstruction Elisabeth Daynes, Right Image pieces: iStock Photo & Pixabay.com)

In the middle of the night before the official opening of the tomb Carter, Carnarvon, and Lady Evelyn sneaked to the tomb and chiseled a small opening in the door and after putting a candle through, Carnarvon asked Carter “Can you see anything?” And Carter replied, “Yes! Wonderful things!”

The tomb was crammed with artifacts that the Ancient Egyptians believed that the pharaoh would need in the afterlife – chariots, bows, jewelry, and offerings of food. His tomb also contained a favorite tunic he had worn as a child, embroidered with ducks, and the small remains of Tutankhamen’s two daughters.

Tut Death Mask (from Wikicommons)

Carter and the Egyptologists he recruited to help catalogue all the artifacts in the tomb were very meticulous even for the standards of the day, but even so it would take them another ten years to fully clear the tomb of all its contents!

If you’d like to read Howard Carter’s notes on the excavation check out the Griffith Institute’s website below.

http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk

Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part 5

It has been a while but here is Doug Daye with part five of Black inventors and innovators.

Doug Daye

Air Conditioning Unit

Villa Finale has central air now, but back when it was first built transoms helped with air flow to keep the rooms cool.

Accomplished inventor Fredrich M. Jones was led to research refrigeration techniques in order to store blood serum and medications during World War II. He created an air conditioning unit to be used in military field hospitals as well as a refrigerator to be used in military field kitchens. Jones was also awarded 60 other patents for various inventions in his lifetime which included, window air conditioning units and ice cream making machines. He was the first African American elected into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers and was also a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Bureau of Standards. Jones received his patent for the air conditioning unit on July 12, 1942. (Thanks to Jones, we have a way to cool off in the Texas summer heat!!!)

Photo Print Wash

Photos of Walter Mathis’ maternal grandparents located in Villa Finale’s Green Bedroom.

Clatonia Joaquin Dorticus created an improved photographic print wash machine which he received his patent for on April 23, 1895. In the process of photo developing, Dorticus created a method that would eliminate over washing that would make the photograph too soft and stick to the sides of the tank. His design included an automatic register and automatic water shut off to conserve water. Also, a removable false bottom was used on the washer, in order to protect the prints and negatives from chemicals and sediment that remained in the tank. His design went on to be cited in five other patents for photographic film and print washers filed over the next 100 years!

Doorknob

On December 10, 1878, Osbourn Dorsey patented the design for the first modern doorknob at sixteen years old! Not much is known about his life other than that he was possibly born into slavery in 1862 but was freed before his first birthday. Most of the information on Dorsey and his inventions comes from examining his patents. Prior to his invention, people would open and close doors by using leather straps or latches which were not the most effective. Dorsey’s “door holding device” as he called it, allowed for a more effective way to secure a door. It was also the first doorknob design fit for manufacturing. While the general public was slow to adopt the doorknob, it eventually became a significant device in public and private spaces that is still used to this day!

Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part 4

Doug has returned with part four of his blog looking at Black inventors and innovators. Do enjoy!

Doug Daye

Horseshoe

From Villa Finale’s Collection.

Oscar E. Brown received his patent for the improved horseshoe on August 3,1892. He produced

a double or compound horseshoe that involves an upper shoe that is attached to the animal and a

lower auxiliary shoe that is irremovable. The point of Brown’s invention was the provision of a

stable and reliable lock for fastening the lower shoe to the upper shoe. This would allow the

lower shoe to be promptly applied and removed from the upper shoe whenever the lower shoe

needed to be renewed or the calks needed resharpening.

Horse bridle bit

Print by Mary Bonner (from Villa Finale’s Collection).

On October 25, 1892, Lincoln F. Brown patented his horse bridle bit invention while residing in

Xenia, Ohio. His invention consisted of a feather or gag plate within a mouthbar, with long lever

arms where the reins were attached, and snap loops so that pulling back on the reins would apply

pressure to the horse’s tongue. This would cause discomfort to the horse’s mouth in efforts to stop the animal when trying to run away.

Horse Riding Saddle

From Villa Finale’s Collection.

While serving as a Buffalo Soldier, William D. Davis invented an improved model of the riding

saddle on October 6th, 1896. Davis, along with 5,000 men, served in the all-Black 9th and 10th

Cavalry that guarded the Western frontier in the last quarter of the 19th century. They were given

the task of making a 600-mile-long expedition to drive the Cree Indian tribe out of their

settlements for deportation to Canada. Since black soldiers were given the roughest stock,

Davis had the idea of inventing a saddle to make the ride more comfortable for riding on hard –

trotting horses. The saddle contained more durable springs under the seat and at the top of the stirrups. His invention made riding easier for calvary, cowboys, and male riders.

Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part 3

Doug has more fascinating information for our readers in part three of his series, “Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators.”

Doug Daye

Corn Planter

Majolica pitcher in the shape of a corn husk (from the Villa Finale Collection).

Henry Blair was a farmer and inventor who became only the second black man to receive a U.S. patent for the mechanical corn planter in 1834. Though there is limited information about his early life, it is known that he was never enslaved (which determined his eligibility to apply for a patent since slaves could not apply for a patent with the U.S. government). He also ran his own commercial farming business despite the fact that he could not read or write. He received his patent on October 4, 1834 in Glen Ross, Maryland.  His design for the corn planter favored a wheelbarrow with a compartment that dispersed seed. Rakes attached to the back were dragged over the seed covering them with soil. Blair’s invention produced a more efficient way to plant crops and made labor easier for farmers.

Baby Buggy

Mathis family convertible high chair (from the Villa Finale Collection).

William H. Richardson made improvements to the baby buggy, for which received a patent on June 18, 1889, producing the first reversible baby carriage. Opposite of the original baby carriage design by Englishman William Kent in 1773, William’s design allowed for the bassinet to be turned facing the person operating the carriage. Changes were made so that the wheels would be able to turn individually, allowing the carriage to turn at a smaller radius of 360 degrees. He also designed the carriages to have the shape of a basket instead of a shell, like it was originally. Thanks to Richardson, strollers became more affordable and middle-class families were able to acquire them in the 1900s. He definitely made things a bit easier for parents and babysitters!

Lawn Mower

Villa Finale’s rear lawn.

John Albert Burr worked as a field hand in Maryland during his late teenage years after he was freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation. His talent was recognized by wealthy black activists who made it possible for him to take engineering classes at a private university. He then went on to use his mechanical skills to service farm equipment and ended up moving to Chicago to become a steelworker. Later, in 1898, he filed his patent for the rotary lawn mower while living in Agawam, Massachusetts. His design helped limit clogs of grass and made it easier to cut closer to walls and fences. He also designed instruments for mulching, sifting, and dispersing grass clippings. His patent was finalized on May 9, 1899.

Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part Two

Ready for part two of “Celebrating Black Inventors”? Here’s Doug with more!

Museum Interpreter, Doug Daye

Guitar

Watercolor of man with guitar by artist Wayman Adams (from the Villa Finale Collection).

Robert Flemming Jr. a former civil war veteran and former slave, had the guitar patented on March 3rd, 1886. He also received a Canadian patent on April 5, 1887. Flemming’s guitar, which was called the “Euphonica,” produced a louder and more resonant sound than the traditional guitars. With the success of his guitar, he went on to become a music teacher and run his own guitar manufacturing business. Flemming’s guitar design is still used to this day!

Player Piano & Arm for Record Player

Villa Finale’s 1957 Decca HiFi record player can only be viewed during our special “Music for Your Eyes” tours (from the Villa Finale Collection).

Joseph Dickenson was a musical instrument designer born in Canada in 1855. He moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1870, where he joined the very prominent Clough and Warren Organ Company designing his own successful line of reed organs. He also developed new devices to improve the function of the previous player pianos. Dickinson’s new piano could begin playing at any point in the musical roll and did not have to start at the beginning. His new player pianos became highly sought after. His invention was patented on June 11, 1912.

He received a number of other patents for his musical inventions, including the arm for the record player which he received a patent for on January 8, 1918.

Electric Lamp

One of the many lamps with lusters found throughout Villa Finale (from the Villa Finale Collection).

While Thomas Edison is credited with the invention of the light bulb, it was Lewis Latimerwho had the idea to create the electric lamp with his partner Joseph N. Nichols. After fighting briefly in the Civil War, Latimer went to receive work as an office assistant at a patent firm where he fostered his skill for drafting and was soon able to do blueprint work. This gained the attention of Alexander Graham Bell who had him draw blueprints for the telephone. He went on to work for Hiram Maxim whose United States Electric Company was in competition with Thomas Edison. Latimer supervised the installation of the electric light bulb in various locations but came up with the idea to create a longer lasting bulb which used carbon filaments, resulting in the creation of the electric lamp. He and Nichols patented the electric lamp on September 18, 1881 and went on to work for Edison himself.

To learn more about Lewis Latimer, check out this article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation!

https://savingplaces.org/stories/a-new-york-city-museum-shines-a-spotlight-lewis-latimer#.YkWx2ijMLIU

Stay tuned for Part 3!!

A Tribute to Scott Joplin: More Than Just the “King of Ragtime”

I remember hearing ragtime for the first time at age five during my first trip to Disneyland, along Main Street where they pipe in early 20th century music and I have been a fan ever since, particularly of Scott Joplin, the “king of ragtime,” one of the greatest American composers in history.

Scott Joplin (from Wikipedia)

Early Life of Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin was born in either 1867 or 1868 in Texas to Giles, a former slave, and Florence Joplin, who was born a free woman. By the time he was five, Scott Joplin’s family had moved to the Texas side of Texarkana. Both of his parents played music, so it was little wonder the young Joplin showed musical brilliance. He would practice piano at the homes where his mother, who cleaned houses for a living, worked. Joplin’s father knew being a musician would mean a rough life for his son, especially being Black, so he was completely against his musical education while his mother encouraged it. This led to the end of the Joplin’s marriage.

Scott Joplin mural in Texarkana. (From arkansas.com)

There are a lot of holes in Scott Joplin’s life story. However, we know he eventually taught music in Texarkana until the late 1880s when he began traveling as a musician playing in bars and brothels. These were some of the few places where Black musicians could find steady work. He traveled to Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Fair and eventually moved to Sedalia, Missouri in 1894 where he studied at George R. Smith College. Here, he learned to write music and became a piano teacher.

Ragtime: The Rock-n-Roll of Its Time

Ragtime was not invented by Scott Joplin but he did popularize it with his clever and upbeat compositions. Ragtime was born out of African folk music which had syncopated rhythms, that is, music that has unpredictable beats. This was revolutionary at the time. The name “ragtime” is due to the music having “ragged time.” Ragtime as a genre had been around for some time but it didn’t become nationally popular until the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 when it became “main stream.” Young people, especially, loved the music and doing the Cake Walk to ragtime. More traditional audiences believed Ragtime was corrupting the minds and morals of American youth.

“The Cakewalk” (from pages.stolaf.edu: Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music )

Joplin’s Rise to Fame

According to one account, while playing at The Maple Leaf Club a man named John Stark, who was a publisher and owned a music store, approached Joplin to ask if he was interested in selling sheet music of his original compositions. Joplin agreed but only if he received royalties from sales, not a flat-out fee as was the custom at the time. The men agreed at a 1% royalty per sheet music sold, a very smart move by Joplin who insured himself a somewhat steady source of income. His first published piece with Stark, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” sold over one-million copies in 1899 making it one of the first – if not, the first – hit song in American music history.

The First All African-American Opera

Scott Joplin was more than a ragtime musician and composer, and he wanted to prove his talents beyond the genre that made him famous. He apparently wrote a piano concerto, a symphony, an opera called “A Guest of Honor,” and a musical. Sadly, the manuscripts to these works didn’t survive so we will never know the joys of hearing this music. However, his dream project completed in 1911, an opera he called Treemonisha was published, but not with a lot of financial and emotional pain.

(From the Library of Congress)

Treemonisha was seen as controversial at the time for its social message: it was the story of a Black woman who leads her community out of ignorance through knowledge and education. Joplin could not find anyone interested in publishing the work, so he paid for it himself, a very costly endeavor. Further, getting the opera funded proved impossible as it was an expensive undertaking, and there was very little interest in sinking money into an all-Black opera. The most Joplin could manage was a read-through performance in 1915 in Harlem, with Joplin playing the score on the piano: no costumes or sets. The performance did not impress possible financial backers who attended.

Heartbroken, financially ruined, and suffering from syphilis induced dementia, Joplin died on April 1, 1917 at the age of 48. The king of ragtime, one of the greatest American composers to ever live, was buried in an unmarked grave.

Revival

The 1970s saw a ragtime and Joplin revival. Composer and musician Joshua Rifkin recorded and released Scott Joplin Piano Rags in 1970. In 1973 the soundtrack for the movie The Sting featured multiple Joplin compositions. Although the film took place in the late 1930s, not at the height of the genre’s popularity, ragtime was used due to the lightheartedness and humor expressed in the songs. Joplin’s “The Entertainer” hit #3 on the Billboard pop charts in 1974, seventy-two years after it was first written.

The Sting soundtrack (from calendar.songfacts.com)

In 1972, sixty-one years after Joplin’s death, Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra joined forces for the first full staging of Treemonisha. This truly American opera is a magnificent musical blending of spirituals, folk, and ragtime. For his contributions to American music, Joplin posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. His unmarked grave was finally given a marker in 1974.

The pre-performance of Treemonisha in Atlanta, 1972 (from syncopatedtimes.com)

If you haven’t taken the time to truly listen to Scott Joplin’s music, play it and let your ears capture all the wonderful dancing notes as they take you through a captivating musical journey. Scott Joplin was an American genius, one who should be celebrated, studied, and listened to year-round.

(Below you can see a clip of the Houston Grand Opera’s staging of Treemonisha. This is the final number, “A Slow Rag.” One can hear the clear sounds of Americana in this piece. A full performance is available on YouTube. Keep scrolling for a bonus video.)

Villa Finale’s collection contains several mechanized musical instruments, a couple of them contain rolls featuring ragtime. This is Villa Finale’s reproducing piano playing “Egyptian Rag” by Percy Wenrich, 1910.)