A Tale of Two Morris Chairs

Editor’s Note: This week’s post is by our guest contributor, Lary Shaffer. I discovered Lary via the Internet earlier this year, and immediately came to respect his almost encyclopedic knowledge of Morris chair design. He’s quite a character as well; a former filmmaker and college professor – a “recovering academic” as he puts it – who moved to Maine a while back to craft custom furniture; Lary also just happens to be a huge FDR fan. Read the excellent article below, and I think you’ll agree he’s the perfect person to build the Morris chairs for the FDR Suite.

“I have written to Paine.  I wonder if you have your Morris Chair and if the cushions are high and fit well.” Sara Roosevelt to Franklin, October 8, 1900

An ad for a period Morris Chair

A period ad for an American Morris Chair

Mention the term “Morris Chair” to the average person these days, and chances are you’ll draw a blank stare. But a hundred years ago, everyone would have known precisely what you meant;  by 1900 the Morris chair had become the preferred type of easy chair for sitting in formal parlors or for relaxing in front of the fire. The FDR Suite, in fact, had two: one for Franklin, and one for Lathrop Brown, his roommate.

My name is Lary Shaffer, and I have the pleasure of being the craftsman selected by Michael Weishan of the FDR Suite Foundation to reproduce two Morris chairs for the Restoration. Michael’s brief to me was simple: build two chairs of slightly varying designs that were historically accurate while at the same time able to stand the wear and tear of modern use. Not surprisingly, this produced a considerable amount of back and forth, and we both thought it would interest you to learn how I go about recreating a bit of furniture history.

First though, a little background:

The Morris chair derived from an example discovered about 1866 by Warrington Taylor at the country workshop of Ephraim Coleman in Sussex, England. Taylor was an administrator at Morris and Co., a firm founded by the famous designer William Morris, whose Arts and Crafts aesthetic derived its inspiration from the forms found in nature. Morris very much looked down on what he considered to be an excess of Victorian adornment, and above all espoused “honest” (meaning hand) craftsmanship over industrial production. The chair Taylor found in Sussex must have fit this bill precisely, as he was impressed enough to recommend that a similar piece be included in his company’s furniture line.  His hunch proved correct; the version of this chair produced by Morris  and Co. was soon wildly successful, in fact so successful that it was widely copied and adapted both in Britain and North America.  The prototypical Morris chair has a wooden frame with little or no applied upholstery and loose boxy seat and back cushions.  Its defining characteristic is a reclining back.  Most often the back reclined against a bar that could be placed in four or five different positions.

It is likely that hundreds of thousands of Morris chairs were made in America from about 1890 to 1930.  The Paine Furniture Company from which Sara Roosevelt obtained FDR’s Harvard Morris chair operated an expansive store in Boston.  They manufactured some furniture but also sold a vast array of furniture from all over the world. They probably carried many different designs of the Morris chair.

legsrakinglightI have been making Morris chairs in my Maine workshop for seven years, continually improving a basic design that I derived from the measuring many original chairs.  I found that most antique Morris chairs fall within a few inches of each other, even though they were made by many different makers.  I use the arithmetic mean of those measurements as the design base for the Morris chair I make.  The result is a seat that is very comfortable for most people.  Even though the two chairs for the FDR Suite will be quite dissimilar to represent the different ownership of the originals (Lathrop presumably bought his own chair from a different source) they will both have these antique measurements in their basic structures. One of the chairs will be quarter-sawn white oak and the other will be black walnut.

fdrwalnutFor months I have been looking for the kind of beautiful boards that should be used to build these chairs.  All of the wood I purchase is appropriately dry and rough-sawn.  Initially I lay out the major parts of the chair by sketching them on the wood, paying particular attention to the grain and color match of the wood.  I plane two sides of the boards so that they have a square edge and then let them sit around for a few days to permit them to bend and twist if that’s what they want to do.  I then plane the boards again to touch up the square edges.  If these edges remains square, then a few days later I will square and flatten the other sides of the boards.

tracearmSeven different thicknesses of wood are required for each Morris chair.  Once the appropriate thicknesses and widths are achieved, I mark and cut the mortises and tenons that will hold the main frame together.  Next, I trace non-linear shapes from patterns, and saw them on a bandsaw to eliminate as much scrap as possible.  I finish them on a high speed shaper, clamped into a jig that assures the correctness of the final shape.  spindlesI make the side spindles for the chair by hand on a small lathe.  With lots of practice and a full-scale outline as a reference, I have found that I can produce sets of spindles by eye that appear to be identical.

dryfitsideOnce the parts are formed and sanded, I dryfit the chair: that is, I assemble it without glue.  I check every joint to be sure that it fits tightly.  I wish I could say that everything always goes together perfectly but, in fact, various fittings often need a minor shave or other adjustment.  Once a satisfactory dryfit has been achieved, I take the chair apart and reassembled it with glue.  One side of a chair has eleven separate parts.  The assembly of a side requires me to focus and, at the same time, scamper because woodworking glue begins to set within a few minutes.  Gluing a chair side is the most difficult part of building a chair.

Next, I install the hardware allowing the entire chair frame to be set up for the first time.  Following this, I wipe the wood with multiple coats of linseed oil and rub it down with very fine steel wool between coats.  This time-tested finish produces a deep satin sheen that wears very well and, in the event of damage, is easy to repair.  A coat of paste wax can add gloss to the satin finish if desired.

weldhingeI forge the hardware for my Morris chairs myself, using rather primitive blacksmith methods.  The hinges that permit the back to recline are of a special configuration that I believe is only found on Morris chairs. They resemble a miniaturized pin-and-eye gate hinge and permit the chair back to function like a gate, enabling it to swing freely over a very wide angle.  I also make the steel bar against which the back rests.  backracksThis bar is supported on hooks by two metal brackets. I normally make these hooked brackets for my chairs. However, in order to preserve the historical appearance of the FDR chairs I salvaged brackets from two antique chairs that were damaged beyond redemption.

springsThe cushions of the FDR chairs will be covered with fabric appropriate to the period, and chosen to blend with the decor of the FDR study as Sara no doubt would have seen to, as she helped select the furnishings of her son’s Harvard suite.  (Though you often see modern Morris chairs covered in leather, that’s not at all  correct for this period.) The seat cushion of each chair rests upon coil springs that I build into a rigid oak frame and hand tie eight ways.  The springs are covered with several layers of bonded Dacron and a top cover of denim decking material.  The cushions are filled with down that is pillowed around a soft foam core.  These cushions hold their shape and I believe that they closely approximate the seat-feel of a new Morris chair in 1900.   Of course, I want to be certain that Sara’s desires are met and that “the cushions are high and fit well.”


A white oak chair in my shop ready to ship. The two FDR Suite Chairs should be ready in December.

George Washington Lewis

porcelliangateI’ve been doing a bit of research on the Porcellian Club, in advance of the architectural walking tour I’m leading this November for the Harvard Alumni Association entitled Presidential Pathways: Tracing TR and FDR at Harvard (More on that later.) My interest springs, of course, from the fact that TR was a Porcellian member, counting his admission among his proudest achievements, and that FDR tried and was blackballed, counting this among his life’s greatest failures  – a memory made even more galling by the success of TR’s sons a few years later. It’s hard today to understand precisely what all the fuss was about; it is, after all, just a club, with pleasant, though unremarkable facilities. (The rooms were published a number of years ago by the Crimson, for those of you wishing to take a look.) The appeal of the Porcellian however, was never the building: exclusivity was the lure, that and the fact that once admitted, you gained a dedicated group of friends for life. Apocryphal tales  of Porcellian loyalty abound: the old line that “any member who failed to earn a million by age 30 was simply given one by his fellows” is typical.  But there are many real life glimpses of the Porcellian’s reach that are quite telling: for instance, when H.H. Richardson, at the start of what would become a meteoric architectural career, submitted plans to build Trinity Church in Boston, the untested architect was given the commission over many more experienced competitors. The reason? We’ll never know for sure, but the fact that five of the eleven members of the deciding committee (not to mention the rector, Phillip Brooks) were fellow Porcellian alums certainly didn’t hurt. Membership in the Porcellian was the passport to many coveted things once you left the ivy-covered halls of Harvard, and you can begin to see why a forward-looking (and status conscious) young man like FDR was so disappointed at not getting in. Within the University of course, there was no question of the club’s official stature: you immediately appreciate the position the Porcellian held in that gilded age when you realize that it’s the only institution at Harvard to have its own entrance to the Yard. Donated by the club in 1901, and accepted without a moment’s hesitation by the College, the elaborate brick portal is technically dedicated to Professor Joseph McKean, who founded the Porcellian in 1794.  The large boar snout keystones on either side of the gate, however, proclaim otherwise:  this is a thinly veiled memorial to the power of wealth and privilege at 19th century Harvard, made all the more ironic by the democratic nature of the gate itself. Unlike the locked clubhouse door across the street – also marked by the sign of the pig – this gate is the only porcine threshold that the vast majority of Harvard students were ever allowed to pass.

May I hazard to guess that FDR regularly took an alternate route?

The Steward (Lewis of the Porcellian) Joseph DeCamp 1919

The Steward (Lewis of the Porcellian) Joseph DeCamp 1919

The Porcellian does contain one treasure though, amongst its collection of usual clubhouse bric-a-brac: the portrait of George Washington Lewis, painted by Joseph Rodefer DeCamp in 1919. This masterpiece of the Boston school celebrates the club’s most famous employee, whose 45 year tenure at the Porcellian spanned both TR’s and FDR’s time at Harvard.  Mr. Lewis appears to have been a highly unusual character for his day, a gentleman’s gentleman who very early on learned the art of the polite smack-down to keep his uppity charges in place, as Reverend Gomes once related in a 1996 New Yorker interview:

“It seems that when Elliot Perkins, the great-grandson of John Quincy Adams, was an undergraduate at Harvard, he decided to become better acquainted with George Washington Lewis, the formidable black steward of the Porcellian Club. So one day Elliot began to make conversation and asked, ‘Mr. Lewis, when did your people come up North?’ To which Lewis replied, ‘Mr., Perkins, my great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Bennington, which is in Vermont, as you may know.'”

Ouch. Game, set, and match to Mr. Lewis.

One can but wonder, if only he’d been allowed in, how FDR might have fared….

FDR and Harvard’s First Great Social Experiment: The Union

To whom the conception of a Harvard Union is due is beyond my knowledge; but we owe the fostering of the idea to many men, and we owe the grounds to the Corporation. As you see, it is the result of Harvard team-work, of mutual reliance, the future abiding place of comradeship; and therefore let it never and in no place bear any name except that of John Harvard. We will nail open the doors of our house, and will write over them: –’The Harvard Union welcomes to its home all Harvard men.‘”    The conclusion of the dedicatory speech given by Henry Lee Higginson October 15, 1901 and attended by FDR.

The Harvard Union, from a period postcard. Note that the breakfast room on the far right was originally open to the air. The Crimson Offices are on the far left, on Quincy Street

The Harvard Union, from a period postcard. Note that the breakfast room on the far right was originally open to the air. The Crimson Offices are on the far left, on Quincy Street

In my day (that’s to say the mid 80s) when one mentioned the Union, the immediate impression was of a rather run-down dining hall where Freshmen trudged three times a day for meals. Well, perhaps “rundown” is a bit of an exaggeration, but certainly “dowdy” seems fair –not to mention a bit strange. I remember sitting there the fall of my first year, admiring the grandiose decor: the baronial stone fireplaces on either end, one now stuck incongruously behind the salad bar; the ornate wood paneling; even the immense antlered chandeliers – given by TR someone said – and reportedly the last of over 30 moose heads and other trophies that once graced the room. (Truth be told, my appreciation of the fixtures was dimmed somewhat by the pads of butter that were routinely lobbed into the antlers by smart-aleck jocks, just waiting to melt on unwary diners.) Later, wandering around the many nooks and cranny’s of the basement and upper floors, I discovered a warren of rooms, most of which were locked and obviously unused. The whole place had a melancholy, lost-in-time ambience, sad in a way I could never quite understand.

Henry Lee Higginson, painted by Sargent. This portrait still hangs in the Barker Center.

Henry Lee Higginson, painted by Sargent. This portrait still hangs in what is now called the Barker Center.

It certainly didn’t start out that way: the 1902 Union, designed by the illustrious firm of McKim, Mead and White with a $150,000 gift from Major Henry Lee Higginson, was erected as a shining example of social reform through architecture. Conceived as a gathering place for students unable to afford the luxuries of the final clubs, the Union was intended to be literally just that – a unifying force where “pride of wealth, pride of poverty, and pride of class would find no place.” Its very location was, in fact, a symbolic compromise: constructed on the former site of the Warren House, which was moved next door, the building sits precisely equidistant from the wealthy digs of the Gold Coast and what was, at the time, the poverty of Harvard Yard. Membership was open to all, without the elaborate initiation rituals of the clubs, and annual dues were kept deliberately kept low – from $10 for current students, to $50 for lifetime privileges for alumni, all in order to encourage active use. The building, a triumph of Georgian Revival design, was equipped with an amazing array of features: a massive Great Hall (then used as a club room, but later the Freshman dining hall); a full restaurant (open to ladies on weekends – they had their own special dining room other times); a lunch counter for a quick bite; an athlete’s training table; a barber shop; cigar and news stands; billiard rooms (where students could obtain free instruction “from a well known professional”; a library with 6,000 volumes; meeting rooms and other social spaces; as well a guest rooms for visitors. It was in fact, a final club for the masses. The only thing the Union lacked was the ability to provide its general membership with that favorite collegiate brew, beer. Cambridge was officially dry at the time, and to be served “exhilarating beverages” one needed to belong to either a private final club, or cross the Charles into Boston. FDR attended the Union’s “impressive” opening ceremonies in October of 1901 – without, of course, surrendering his memberships in other, more exclusive, not to mention more liquid, clubs. Later that year, he joined the Union Library committee, writing Sara to tell her he had spent $25 of the check she had sent to buy the  library “a complete set of St. Amand’s work, and also a Rousseau, both of which we needed.”

The TR chandelier, now in the Barker Center

The TR chandelier, now in the Barker Center

Most importantly in the Rooseveltian context, however, the brand new Union was the brand new home of the Harvard Crimson. McKim had taken pains to design a custom space for the College newspaper, after officials had convinced a reluctant Crimson management to occupy a suite of offices in the basement of the new building. (The Harvard Monthly and the Advocate had already agreed to move in upstairs.) Previously, the Crimson had rented a dingy series of private rooms on Massachusetts Avenue that had become obviously inadequate, and the paper had been considering a new site for some time. When the College’s offer arrived however, it wasn’t greeted with the enthusiasm one might have expected. According to published accounts, the Crimson management feared that accepting space from the University might mean surrendering editorial integrity. Reading between the lines, however, it also seems that, given the dry nature of the building, the Crimson staff feared that the College might seek to limit the historically bibulous aspect of publishing the College daily. Clearly however, an arrangement suitable to both parties must have been concluded, because the final plans detail a special series of rooms for the paper, including an ornately fireplaced Sanctum replete with beer steins. The Crimson moved in as soon as the building was completed, and it was here FDR had his office when he became President of the Crimson in 1903.

The following views, with the exception of the plan and FDR’s own pictures from Hyde Park, come from The Harvard Crimson, 1873-1906

The is the McKim plan for the basement of the Union, showing the Crimson offices.
The is the McKim plan for the basement of the Union, showing the Crimson offices on the right.
The reporters room
The reporter’s room
The composing room
The composing room
FDR as Crimson President
FDR as Crimson President with the other officers.

The officers offices: the door to the left of the table was FDR's; the editor next to the right; and the counter was for the business manager.

The officers' offices: the door to the left of the table was FDR's; the editor, next to the right; and the counter was for the business manager.

The Sanctum, looking west. Again, this was FDR's picture. Note the beer steins, and the piano at the far right.

The Sanctum, looking west. This was FDR's own picture, which still hangs today in Hyde Park. Note the beer steins, and the piano at the far left: obviously not all was about reporting! Courtesy the National Park Service, and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum

NPS crimson office

Another picture from Hyde Park. The Sanctum, looking east. Courtesy the National Park Service, and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum

This unmarked entrance was the door to FDR's Crimson offices on Quincy Street.

This unmarked entrance was the door to FDR's Crimson offices on Quincy Street.

After FDR left Harvard, the Union continued on, though as years passed, it became clear it would never fulfill its initial promise. (Click here to read about the early high hopes for the Union in a 1902 article from the New York Times). As the administration discovered to its dismay, many of the men at Harvard in the early 20th century didn’t particularly desire social equality, and despite a heady start, Union membership began a steady decline after 1908, putting the organization on a shaky financial basis almost immediately. A movement to make Union membership mandatory, and term-bill the annual expense, never succeeded. The Crimson decamped for its current quarters on Plympton Street in 1915, and by the late 1920’s the facility was largely vacant. Higginson’s noble experiment had failed. When the House system was organized in 1930 (itself an even grander attempt at integrating the student body) the Union became the freshman dining hall, its original purpose almost – but not quite – forgotten. It seems the University had contemplated the relative merits of continuing to use Memorial Hall as a dining facility – as it had been since its inception – or adapting the old Union for the freshmen. In making the decision, College officials “had looked carefully into Major Higginson’s will,” to quote a 1957 Crimson article, and “discovered that the benefactor had made allowances for failure of his institution as a club, and promptly decided to name its new freshman dining hall the Harvard Freshman Union.” Shades of Mrs. Widener and “touch not one brick!”  Ultimately however, either the penalties contained in the will expired, or else the University simply decided to accept the loss and move on, as the Union was finally closed and controversially remodeled in the late 90’s. The building is now the Barker Center for the Humanities, and the rooms where FDR inked articles and cried for copy, a series of bland office spaces.

FDR’s Harvard Through The Brush of Edward Penfield


A line from Vergil: "One day this too may be happy to recall" graces the entrance to the Coolidge Room in Adams House. Note the pipes and beer steins, an integral part of 19th century Harvard.

Many of you may not be aware (as I was not, despite 3 years residence) that Adams House possesses a tremendous artistic treasure built into its walls, one that gives us a fascinating glimpse of what FDR’s Harvard must have looked like. I’m referring to the incredible series of murals in the Coolidge Room, the former breakfast room of Randolph Hall. This building, another one of Harvard’s fabled Gold Coast dormitories, has a fascinating history of its own. Built in 1897 by Archibald Cary Coolidge (later Harvard Professor and Head of the University Library System) this luxurious Flemish Revival edifice was state of the art when constructed: electric and gas lighting, private bathrooms, swimming pool, concierge entrance – all the trappings of a 5th Avenue Mansion. FDR himself originally thought to live there alone in a single, until Groton chum Lathrop Brown agreed to room with him;  the pair eventually spurned Randolph for digs in Westmorly Hall, 2 years newer and even more palatial.

Somewhere during the construction process, Coolidge must have convinced penfieldEdward Penfield to paint a series of murals for the breakfast room of his new building. How this occurred, and what precisely their connection was, is entirely unclear. Penfield at the time was a nationally known artist, made famous by his covers for Harpers magazine. 1897, the year he painted the murals in Randolph, was also – perhaps not coincidentally – the year Penfield wed. It’s possible that the newly married artist, never rich, decided to moonlight for additional funds. Or perhaps there was some personal connection to Coolidge, or to Coolidge’s brother who was the architect of the building. Whatever the case, Penfield surely warmed to his task, perfectly capturing the aristocratic, upper-class image that Harvard very much wished to portray (and did portray) during that era. Interestingly, these scenes of College life, though lovingly conserved at Adams for over one hundred years, have languished in scholarly obscurity: they don’t appear in many published canons of Penfield’s work, and are rarely mentioned even in Harvard art circles. That’s a real shame, because as you’ll see, they are spectacular. While FDR never mentions the murals in his College correspondence, undoubtedly he knew of them: Coolidge, who himself lived in Randolph, was FDR’s tutor, and it’s highly likely that Roosevelt had many acquaintances among the smart set living just next door. In any event, these pictures, painted just three years before FDR arrived in Cambridge, constitute a remarkably preserved window into the Harvard our 32nd president knew intimately.

The following pictures, by the way, are just a selection of the several dozen panels that circle the room at head-height. Unfortunately, my amateur photography doesn’t do them full justice. With any luck we’ll get the complete cycle professionally photographed next year.

The ball. This image is not distorted; the panel actually curves to meet the fireplace.

The ball: FDR was invited to attend the exclusive Saturday Evening Dance Classes (really soirees) at the Somerset Hotel, where the scene must have looked much like this. The image, by the way, is not distorted; the panel actually curves to meet the baronial fireplace just out of sight to the right.


The track race: our Harvard boy seems momentarily behind, though soon to break out, no doubt! Other panels show scenes from football, hockey, and baseball.


Tally-ho and all that! Watching polo at the Myopia Club on the North Shore was a common pastime for undergraduates.


On the Way to the Big Game


This is John the Orangeman, a cherished College character for decades. (You may be wondering how we know who this is, considering none of the panels bear labels. The fact is, the old boy had been totally forgotten until this past year, when I, by pure chance, discovered pictures of John and his donkey in several of the student scrapbooks now in the Harvard University Archives.) Once identified, the image becomes clear – according to Lucius Beebe in his 1935 work, Boston and the Boston Legend, recalling his own Harvard days not long after FDR's : "The Yard swarmed with personalities... Most beloved was John the Orangeman, who greeted all Freshmen cheerily with the same exclamation: 'I knew y'r father, fri'nd!" Welcome back, John!


This is the old Harvard boat house, which FDR would have rowed from, located where the Weld boathouse now stands. Notice the rather run down buildings to either side – the University wharves – as well as the still tidal nature of the Charles. The riverfront would not look like today's for many more decades. Note, too, Penfield's amazing treatment of the water, with an almost deco feel to the waves.


A soothing country ride on one's "Wheel." FDR kept a Columbia Chainless while at College.

The Music of FDR’s Harvard

For those of you interested in learning more about what music was like in the early years of the past century, this fascinating excerpt from the 1910 Encyclopedia of American Music details the state of affairs quite thoroughly. To make the article more enjoyable, I’ve edited the text, added the illustrations, as well as provided Wikipedia links where possible to clarify period references. (The complete original text may be found at parlorsongs.com, and a hearty thank you to them for finding and publicizing this lost work.)


The Rise of Vocal Music
Among the popular song writers of recent years the name of Chas. K. Harris of Milwaukee has become best known, owing perhaps first of all, to the fact that he has more surely gauged the public taste than has any contemporary writer in the same field, and also because he is his own publisher. Mr. Harris was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1865. He early began his career as a popular song writer, composing songs to order for professional people. After the Ball (1891) was the song which first brought him into prominence. Indeed it may be said that it was this song which really, started the popular song craze as we know it today. Over $100,000 was realized by the composer from the sale of this one song alone. As will be remembered, After the Ball is a song of the ballad character and tells’ a complete story. It was first presented to the public by May Irwin in New York City, afterward being introduced in Hoyt’s A Trip to Chinatown.

Mr. Harris has stated that he received many suggestions from the stage for the subjects of popular songs. He writes: “For example, about twelve years ago such plays as The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and The Crust of Society were in vogue. I then wrote Cast Aside, Fallen by the Wayside and There’Il Come a Time Someday. Over 300,000 copies were sold of each. Then came the era of society dramas such as Belasco’s Charity Ball and The Wife. I wrote and published While the Dance Goes On, Hearts, You’ll Never Know and Can Hearts So Soon Forget; which had enormous sales.” Military dramas such as Held by the Enemy and Secret Service called out such songs as Just Break the News to Mother and Tell Her that I Loved Her, Too.

Among the many successful popular song-writers of today are William B. Gray, who made a small fortune by his Volunteer Organist; H. W. Petrie, whose name is associated with the child song I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard; Charles Graham, who wrote Two Little Girls in Blue” Other familiar names are those of Raymon Moore, Paul Dresser, Felix McGlennon, Mabel McKinley, Edward B. Marks, Gus Edwards, Egbert Van Alstyne, Harry Von Tilzer and Nell Moret. Modern popular songs have been classified as follows: Coon Songs (rough, comic, refined, love or serenade); Comic Songs (topical, character or dialect); March Songs (patriotic, war, girl or character); Waltz Songs; Home or Mother Songs; Descriptive or Story Ballads; Child Songs; Love Ballads; Ballads of a Higher Class; Sacred Songs; Production Songs (for interpolation in big musical productions, entailing use of chorus, costumes, and stage business).

In the popular song of today the chorus is of most importance, for upon this part of the song usually rests its ultimate success or failure. The words of the chorus usually are applicable to every verse. In the descriptive song, the writer aims to tell a complete story in as few words and as graphically as possible. The success of the comic or topical song rests on the “gag” introduced into each verse and made apparent by the first or last line of the chorus. In the several classes or divisions of popular songs those of more serious character strive to make their appeal equally through both words and music; in the march song the music is of most account, while the comic song depends largely on the words.

Many reasons may be given for the ever-increasing vogue of popular music. Not the least of these is to be found in the presence of a piano or some musical instrument in nearly every home. Such was not the case a quarter century ago. The advent of the pianola and other mechanical players, together with the phonograph and gramophone also have tended to create a demand for popular music. Again, the teaching of the rudiments of music in the public schools has served to bring the art more closely before the public, with the result that nearly every girl in the country, whose parents can afford it, is receiving music lessons as a part of her general education. In homes where very little music of any kind previously had been heard it is but natural that music of a popular style at first would be most acceptable, this serving to satisfy until the taste be elevated so as to desire something of a better nature.

The appearance of singers of the first rank in musical comedy and in vaudeville undoubtedly has become a factor in forwarding the cause of popular music. While the presence of such singers in the vaudeville ranks has been deplored, the fact that they have made their appearance there has to some extent raised the standard of popular music in this country; for the class of music which they have sung has been in advance of that generally produced. There is no question but what the purveyors of popular music have shown more enterprise in the production of music that will please their patrons than have those who cater to a class with higher artistic perceptions.

Of the quantities of popular songs published in the last thirty years (ed. 1880 – 1910) but few have attained any lasting popularity. Songs of which hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold now are completely forgotten. The reason for this is hard to ascertain. It is not because the later songs are of inferior merit, for a steady advance has been made in all popular music. The public now readily accepts harmonies which but a few years ago would have been looked upon as too difficult and complicated.

homesweetIn the matter of the text of our present day popular songs, however, the same advancement has not been made. There rarely is shown the same simplicity and wholesome sentiment seen in our earlier songs, such as Home, Sweet Home and Old Black Joe. Popular taste now looks for words touching on the events of the moment rather than those dealing with emotions and feeling which are common to all and which always are in evidence.

For short periods the majority of compositions written in popular style will be very similar. Take, for instance, the introduction of ragtime melodies. At first the words of such songs dealt almost exclusively with negro characterizations. Later came songs in a quasi-Indian manner. Mexico, Japan, China were all used as ragtime suggestions. Ragtime has been much abused and its incessant use decried by many people, yet it has done much in educating the public to an appreciation of the more complicated rhythms used in music of a higher grade. The tendencies all are favorable for the production of popular music of an even better character. What would have been listened to with delight by the public a generation ago now would be looked upon as decidedly flat and uninteresting. In the light operas and musical comedies of such composers as Victor Herbert and Reginald De Koven many numbers will be found which are of real musical worth. And yet they rarely last beyond two or three years at the most. As before suggested, the inanition of the text probably is responsible for the short life of the songs, while the nervous desire of the public for something new gives to the best of the popular instrumental music of today but an ephemeral existence. Doubtless as time goes on we shall revert to the ever passing stream of popular songs and the best will be saved, until finally they become incorporated into our folk-song literature. It is only in rare cases that a tune has any lengthy existence when separated from words of universal context…

Two special classes of songs, which, in a way, may be termed popular, are college songs and gospel hymns. Of the two, the hymns more properly may be classified as popular music, insomuch as they are sung by all sorts and conditions of people, while the college songs are somewhat limited in their employment, although some of them have come into general use. Many of the latter did not originate as student songs but have been appropriated from various sources until now they are conceded to be the especial property of the undergraduate.

An early photo of the Harvard Glee Club to which FDR belonged

An early photo of the Harvard Glee Club, to which FDR belonged

The college glee club, for which many of these songs originally were indited, is patterned after the German Männerchor, though the singing and the selections hardly attain to the dignity of those of the Teutonic choruses. Nevertheless excellent musical and dramatic effects, though often of an exaggerated order, are obtained by the college men. The songs themselves, with which most of us are familiar, contain as their most salient feature a sharply marked rhythm, thus making them especially effective when given in chorus. The melodies and harmonies are pleasing and catchy, while the words usually are sentimental or humorous, certain of them being elaborations of Mother Goose rhymes. All of the larger and older institutions have their own individual songs which are looked upon as the special property of the student body, both graduate and undergraduate.

Among the songs most popular with all the colleges are Gaudeamus, Integer Vitae, Vive l’Amour, Bingo, Mary had a little Lamb, Tarpaulin Jacket, The Dutch Company, Spanish Cavalier, Good-night, Ladies, Soldier’s Farewell, Nelly was a Lady, Old Cabin Home and scores of others. It will be seen that many of these have been appropriated from the repertory of popular music in general, until they have become recognized by the public as essentially “college” songs. A special feature of student life which has given rise to many songs has been the amateur theatricals conducted by the various societies and fraternities; for in many of these productions, which often are written by the students themselves, and given elaborate presentations…

The Instrumental Song in America
oldblackjoePopular instrumental music in America dates practically from the period following the Civil War. True, the dance tunes of England, Ireland and Scotland previously had been used to display the musical attainments of the maiden of the period, but it was not until recent years that any effort was made to satisfy the growing demand for instrumental music of a popular style. As piano playing became more general (for the piano is the true “home” instrument, following the cabinet organ, which was not adapted to music of a showy character) several writers came forward with compositions gauged to appeal to the average musical intelligence. This music usually is formed of a simple and pleasing melody set to elemental harmony and brightened with arpeggios and similar stock passages, the whole capable of being performed, or executed, by players of small attainment. The variation pieces by A. P. Wyman, T. P. Ryder, and Chas. L. Blake, together with the operatic arrangements of James Bellak and ethers, are representative of this class of music. Well-known melodies such as Old Oaken Bucket, Nearer My God to Thee, Old Black Joe, Suwanee River, Sweet Bye and Bye and others of like character were arranged with variations. There were again other pieces, of which Silvery Waves and Maiden’s Prayer are typical of the class, which had an immense sale and which went to form the repertory of many an amateur pianist. At a later date came the various waltzes and marches and still later the two-step and pieces of the intermezzo character.



Foremost among the successful American writers of popular instrumental music stands the name of John Philip Sousa, the “March King.” It has been said that Sousa writes with the metronome at his elbow running at one hundred and twenty clicks to the minute. Sousa’s marches never have been surpassed and rarely equaled. They are without doubt the most typical music which this country has yet produced, for they are indeed deeply imbued with the American spirit.’ Sousa above all others has caught the true martial swing; his music also has the stamp of his own distinct individuality and he practically has revolutionized march music. No other composer, not even Johann Strauss, has attained such world-wide popularity as has Sousa. His music has been sold to thousands of bands in the United States alone and has been heard in all parts of the civilized world. It has been very aptly stated that Sousa’s marches contain all the nuances of military psychology, the long unisonal stride, the grip on the musket, the pride in the regiment and the esprit de corps. They also have served as dance music, and the two-step was directly borne into vogue by them.

John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, D. C., on Nov. 6, 1859, his mother being a German and his father a Spanish political exile. At eight years of age Sousa was playing the fiddle in a dancing school and at sixteen led anorchestra in a variety theatre. Two years later he became director of a traveling theatrical troupe, composing music for the members and also appearing in negro minstrel roles. At nineteen he toured the country as a member of Often-bach’s Orchestra, and shortly after he became director of the Pinafore Opera Company. For some years after this he directed the United States Marine Band and in 1892 formed his own Concert Band. His career from this time on is familiar to the American public. Sousa’s chief claim to fame lies in his marches, from which he has derived a princely income. The most popular of these are Washington Post, Liberty Bell, High School Cadets, King Cotton, Manhattan Beach, El Capitan and Stars and Stripes Forever. As will be seen, the titles are derived either from patriotic subjects or from some subject-matter of national import or interest. Sousa’s efforts in the comic opera field receive mention elsewhere in this chapter.

Marked advancement in the public taste for instrumental music has been shown in recent years and many compositions of an artistic nature have been adopted into the repertory of popular music. Pieces such as Handel’s Largo, Rubinstein’s Melody in F, Nevin’s Narcissus and even Schumann’s Traiumerei may now be classed as popular music. The concert bands have done much in familiarizing the public with music of this character, and it is no uncommon thing to find the public making special requests for the works of Wagner and Liszt. Another feature which has tended to elevate the popular taste for instrumental rather than for vocal music is the general study of the piano by the young. The teaching material of necessity is of higher grade than the songs commonly sung and America has gained much from the general introduction of the piano into the home.

Light Opera and Musical Comedy
In light opera and musical comedy is seen the most elaborate phase which popular music has assumed. Of late years the country has been deluged with musical plays until their effect has been felt on the legitimate drama. These productions are the natural sequence of the decadent minstrelshow, and while they lack the dignity, if such a word may here be used, of the comic operas of the European peoples, the American public has wafted them into favor until they have become the most popular form of entertainment presented on the stage.

The better class of American light operas is built somewhat after the style of those of Gilbert and Sullivan, while the “near” operas or musical comedies are simply a series of solos, concerted pieces and choruses held together by a mere thread of a plot. Several of the better sort have become standards and bid fair to remain for some years to come; but the vogue of the vast majority is fleeting, lasting at the best but for a few years.

pinaforeLight opera first sprang into favor with the American public in 1878, in which year James C. Duff, a brother-in-law of Augustin Daly, brought from England Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M. S. Pinafore and produced it at the Standard Theatre (now the Manhattan) in New York. The success of the charming opera was remarkable, and as there was no copyright on the work different managers at once took it up and within a short time five theatres in New York alone were playing it to full houses. Such was the furore which “Pinafore” created that soon it was being produced in all parts of the country and by all sorts of companies–children’s, church-choir, and even negro.

When the “Pinafore” craze struck Boston a Miss Ober decided to form a company composed of the best church and concert singers of the city in order to produce the popular operetta in the most adequate manner possible. She was successful in bringing together an excellent organization which took the name of the Boston Ideal Pinafore Company. The outcome of this was the famous Bostonians, which survived the “Pinafore” craze and which for so many years maintained undiminished popularity. From this company came many of the best light opera singers which this country has produced, among them being Jessie Bartlett Davis, Adelaide Phillips, Marie Stone, H. C. Barnabee, Myron W. Whitney, Eugene Cowles and Tom Karl. No other company of American singers ever has achieved such lasting success as did the Bostonians. For twelve years they toured the country, season after season, until they became a national institution. Their repertory included all the popular light operas of their day, but DeKoven’s Robin Hood became the especial favorite, this opera receiving over a thousand performances at their hands.

The name of John A. McCaull for many years was associated with the production of light opera in New York. When, in 1880, Pirates of Penzance was brought out by Gilbert and Sullivan, precautionary measures were taken to prevent American pirates from appropriating the score and an alliance with Mr. McCaull was formed to produce the new work at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. About this time Rudolph Aronson instituted the Casino, and for several seasons McCaull supplied the company in which Francis Wilson was the principal comedian. Mr. McCaull then took charge of Wallack’s Theatre, and it was in this house that he made his best productions. The stock company which he formed was of unusual excellence and included De Wolfe Hopper, Jefferson de Angelis, Digby Bell, Laura Joyce, Marion Manola and Eugene Ondine. So successful did the company become that its very success led to its downfall, for the best talent too soon followed Francis Wilson into the world of star productions, and as a result the organization suffered a decline.

The “star” system largely was responsible for the decadence of light opera of the better class, for good general ensemble was allowed to suffer in order to exploit the “star” or “stars.” Instead of the opera being written as an exposition of suitable music and libretto, such as contained in the Gilbert and Sullivan and earlier DeKoven operas, it became merely a vehicle to bring forward this or that “star” with his or her peculiar limitations, vocally or histrionically skil-fully concealed. Thus it was that light opera degenerated into musical comedy, for undoubtedly it is a degeneration, and the productions of recent years are no longer properly to be classed with light opera.

The musical comedy of today partakes of the character of the old German singspiel or song-play, in which the spoken dialogue was interspersed with musical numbers. As before stated, it is a decadent form of comic or light opera and its forte is dramatic rather than musical, for the music is brought in rather as incidental than as an integral part of the performance. Many of the popular musical comedies were first brought out by organizations or clubs connected with well-known societies and colleges prominent among which are the “Cadets of Boston,” the “Hasty Pudding Club” at Harvard, “Monk and Wig” at University of Pennsylvania, and “The Strollers” at Columbia. The Boston “Cadets” particularly have placed many hits to their credit, 1492 and Jack and the Beanstock being especially successful.

DeKoven in 1904


Among all the American light operas those of DeKoven and Herbert are intrinsically the best, for they are cleverly put together and show the evidence of musicianly treatment. America. however, has never produced a writer of librettos to at all compare with W. S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, and without the requisite of a good libretto no opera, no matter what its musical value, can attain to lasting popularity. The operas of Reginald DeKoven, of which he has written fifteen, have achieved wide popularity. Robin Hood alone has been enacted more than three thousand times, while The Fencing Master, The Highwayman (which is considered his best work), Foxy Quiller, Red Feather, Maid Marion, The Little Duchess, Rob Roy, and others have all had successful runs. Mr. DeKoven also has written two ballets The Man in the Moon and The Man in the Moon, Jr., as well as many songs which have had a large sale. More than a million copies of Oh, Promise Me alone have been sold. DeKoven now stands at the head of our writers of popular music of the better class. He was born in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1859, and now is a resident of New York.

Victor Herbert, an American by adoption, is another writer who has made a reputation for himself in the light opera field. Although he has composed more serious works and has been associated with musical matters of a higher order he is best known by his lighter creations. Mr. Herbert is a native of Ireland and first came to this country in 1886, when he joined the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. He for several seasons was first cellist of the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, later became the conductor of the Symphony Orchestra in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, which position he held for a number of years, and then formed an orchestra of his own in New York. His operas and musical comedies, while possibly not of quite as high an order as those of DeKoven, are extremely tuneful and pleasing and always show the touch of the musician. Among the most popular are The Wizard of the Nile, Serenade, The Idol’s Eye, The Fortune Teller, Babes in Toyland, Babette, It Happened in Nordland, The Red Mill, Mdlle. Modiste, which latter has served to perfect the establishing of Fritzi Scheft as a light opera singer.

Three American teams of light opera and musical comedy writers, Smith & DeKoven, Barnet & Stone, and Pixley & Luders, have become well known; for the joint works which they have produced have been among the best of their class. With the work of the librettists we are not especially concerned, notwithstanding the fact that on the libretto depends to a large extent the success of an opera. The music of DeKoven as well as that of Victor Herbert, who perhaps is his nearest competitor, already has been noted. R. A. Barnet’s best works undoubtedly are 1492 and Jack and the Beanstock, which latter work developed into one of the best extravaganzas ever produced on the American stage. Gustave Luders has many successes placed to his credit, such as Prince of Pilsen, King Dodo and Grand Mogul.

George M. Cohan in 1908


Edgar Stillman Kelley wrote a comic opera Puritania,which was excellent musically, but which suffered through the libretto. Sousa has brought out several operas, El Capitan, The Charlatan, The Bride Elect and The Free Lance, as well as an extravaganza, Chris and the Wonderful Lamp, each of which had some success. The youngest and one of the most typical of musical comedy writers is Geo. M. Cohan. Mr. Cohan was born at Providence, Rhode Island, on July 4, 1878, and it is most fitting that his contributions to popular music should catch the American spirit. The “Yankee Doodle Boy,” as he has been called, very aptly describes both him and his music. Little Johnny Jones, Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, George Washington, Jr. and Fifty Miles from Boston have won fame and fortune for him while he is still under thirty.

It is almost impossible to judge of the composer of our current musical comedies, for so many songs by writers other than the originator are interpolated that the name of the initiatory writer becomes lost in the hodge-podge finally produced. The musical comedies of today recall the “Ballad Operas” of more than a century ago, and it is seen that we thus have reverted to the tastes of our forefathers. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. The only difference to be seen is in the character and make-up of the music itself, for the structure of musical comedy is very similar to that of the Beggar’s Opera.

In the true comic or light opera the librettist aims to form either a consistent farcical story or a clever satire, but in musical comedy this unfortunately is hardly considered necessary. So long as there are two or three acts of more or less amusing dialogue, striking stage pictures and taking music, nothing more is regarded as of importance. Although not an American production Franz Lehar’s Merry Widow, which has taken the world by storm, may be cited as a typical light opera of today, while Victor Herbert’s Red Mill is characteristic of musical comedy. The difference in general make-up easily may be noted and compared.

Edna May


The enumeration of the musical comedies, writers of such works, and singers and players appearing in the same within recent years, is out of the question, for new writers and performers are continually coming forward and the existence of the works themselves at the best is but a matter of a few years. As representative writers of musical comedy, beside those already spoken of may be cited Richard Carle, Gus Edwards, Raymond Hubbell, Joe Howard, A. B. Sloane, Jean Schwartz, Alfred Robyn and M. Klein. Numbers of adaptations of English, French and German musical comedies and’ extravaganzas” as well as our own products have been successfully exploited in this country within the last few years. From the time when Francis Wilson first was brought forward as a star there has been a steady stream of singers of the lighter musical works who have won fame for themselves in this field. Some, such as Alice Nielsen, have used the light opera roles as stepping stones to more ambitious achievements, while there are again others who have reversed the process. There are many names beside those already enumerated which have become closely associated with the more popular musical productions of the American stage. It will suffice to mention the following as representative of their class: Lillian Russell, Virginia Earle, Fay Templeton, Madge Lessing, Marie Cahill, Camille D’Arville, Marie Tempest, Edna Wallace Hopper, Lulu Glaser, Edna May, Jeff De Angelis, De Wolfe Hopper, Richard Carle and Frank Daniels. It will be seen that the laurels in its field rest with the fair sex. Williams and Walker occupy a unique place through their excellent presentation of musical plays by a company composed wholly of negroes.

What will be the next phase to be assumed by popular music in this country is impossible to state. However, it appears highly probable that within a few years there will come a revulsion of feeling against the inanities of musical comedy, and the more legitimate forms of light opera again will assume their place in public favor. Despite the outcry heard in some quarters against the popular music of the day, it is serving its purpose in educating the public to desire something better. Popular music in its various forms alwayswill have a place, for it is music which the musically uncultured can enjoy. Just as art music continually is changing its character and structure, so is popular music undergoing the same evolution, and the last word has not been said in either field. From the fact that musical culture ever is becoming more general, it is but natural to assume that the increased familiarity of the public with music of the better class must have its effect on the popular productions. An unbiased investigator will find marked improvement in the general trend of popular music produced in the last twenty-five years, and we still are advancing.

The Crimson Garter

While 110 years isn’t that long ago in relative terms, in many ways FDR’s Harvard existed in an entirely different world than the one most of us knew. As an amusing example, here’s a clipping I found preserved in one of the student scrapbooks now in the Harvard University Archives:

crimson garter

Courtesy Harvard University Archives

Cambridge Damsel Causes Riot at Harvard by Removing Circlet and Hurling it From Gallery Into Dining Hall

Throws Crimson Garter in the Arena, Outdoing Sir Francis’ Storied Lady


A crimson garter, thrown from the gallery of Memorial Hall by a pretty Cambridge damsel last night at the dinner hour, caused a perfect uproar amongst the thousand or more undergraduates and came very near putting the dining hall out of business.

Only recently the gallery was reopened to visitors, after several months of “closed during meal hours” The members of the hall were put on their good behavior, and visitors in the gallery of late have been treated with the greatest respect by the Harvard boys. Last nights escapade in the gallery was more than the average undergraduate could stand, however.

About 6 o’clock, the busiest part of the dining hour, a young woman, stunningly dressed, and unattended, appeared in the gallery. She marched boldly to the railing on which she place her foot, and, removing her crimson garter from its accustomed resting place, threw it into the midst of a crowded table below here.

All eyes had been watching her, but such an unprecedented proceeding for the moment stunned even the Harvard boys. It was only for a moment however, and then it looked for awhile as though there was going to be a wrecked dining hall to tell of the visitation.

There was cheering and yelling and clattering of dishes, and finally several hundred of the students made a rush for the door through which it was necessary to pass in order to gain the street from the gallery. They were too late however, and all that the first one to reach the outer door was able to see was the young woman dashing into a carriage, which was in waiting outside of Memorial Hall, and which clattered down Quincy Street so rapidly as to afford no encouragement of pursuit.

University officials were not so easily amused by the incident. The following notice (also preserved in the scrapbook) was sent to each and every member of the Harvard Dining Association:

Last night’s disorder resulted in damaging  numerous tables, chairs and place settings in the hall, not to mention three valuable oil paintings. Several members, and waiters, were painfully hit in the tumult. So large a number forgot their obligations to fellow members and guests that the Executive Committee will be obliged to close the gallery, if further disorder on account of visitors occurs. Furthermore, the Committee wishes to remind all members that ungentlemanly conduct in the Hall is cause for immediate expulsion.

H.L. Blackwell

J. Reynolds, for the Committee.