Pam’s Pictorama Post: Last week I wrote from my mom’s home in New Jersey as I occasionally do. Shortly after pressing the publish button on that post I decided to take on the task of going through some things that were unearthed and put aside for my examination during their move a little more than a year ago.
Numerous emotionally packed things spewed forth in that exploration, many small sentimental items of my father’s – his penknife, passports and driver’s license among them. I am pleased to have them and over time I may eventually write about those, but there was also a box of my sister’s jewelry, mostly small things she wore when she was younger, and in most ways least really of all is a tiny item I am writing about today.
This button intrigued me in part because my sister Loren was not a collector of buttons. To the extent there was a designated button collector and wearer in my family it would have been me. I was the keeper of the political buttons my father gathered on the endless Presidential campaigns he trailed from start to finish as a news cameraman; I had a collection of early smiley buttons. Remember those? (I was a collector of things as I hatched out of the womb evidently. All these early collections have vanished incidentally. I didn’t really learn how to latch onto things until I was older.) Even in college I was still pinning interesting buttons to the old army jacket I wore, and on the labels of the thrifted men’s jackets I favored in 1986. (A friend’s Instagram post of her in college sporting one she bought when we were together in Red Bank, NJ reminded me of that.)
So I was surprised to find this early button saved with Loren’s things, except that it is of a woman violinist and she played and loved the violin. Few things take me back to my childhood faster than certain violin solos which my sister would have practiced endlessly, usually picking up her violin to practice starting around 10:00 pm, after finishing her homework, and playing well into the night. We all learned to go to drift off to her playing since Loren herself never needed more than a few hours of sleep. For years after she died I found I couldn’t listen to violin music without crying.
As it turns out, Maud Powell is not a footnote figure in the history of American classical music. She was a top drawer, famous musician, internationally ranked, and according to Wikipedia the first American violinist of either sex to claim that distinction. Powell was also the first instrumentalist recording star of the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Born in a suburb of Chicago in 1867 she was a child prodigy discovered at the age of 9. When she was 13 her parent’s sold the family home to fund her studies and career which took her to Europe, and where she first debuted before returning to the United States. Several online sources site her as an advocate for music by black and women composers, including having commissioned a composition by Sierra Leone-English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. She made a point of playing for underserved communities routinely. However, in 1919 she collapsed on stage with a heart attack and died the following year, age 52 while on tour, after a second attack.
A biography of her was published in 1986 and there is a Maud Powell Society which has an online presence. NPR did a short piece on Powell receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2014. She was the first female instrumentalist of any instrument or genre to do so at the time. (A distinction I assume stands today, but I am sketchy on the Grammy awards.) Peru, Illinois sports a statue to her according to a Youtube fan of one of her recordings posted there. The Youtube selection of her music appears slim (you can sample it here) although several albums appear to be available in an online search.
The back of the pin helped to confirm that it was indeed old and not a later reproduction. you cannot easily read it in the photo here, but this pin was made by the Whitehead and Hoag Co…buttons, badges, novelties and signs Newark, NJ. (The company was extant until 1959.) I found it interesting that this company, established in 1892, in 1896 introduced and patented the pin back pin. For those of you who thrill to pin back or NJ manufacturing history and wish to explore it more deeply I refer you to a fellow blogger, Newark’s Attic and the post The Whitehead and Hoag Company.
I will never know how Loren stumbled on this item as she was far less likely to meander through flea markets and antique shops than I was. However, it is easy to understand the appeal and why I would find it, tucked away, saved and waiting for me in a time capsule of her things.