Brass instruments and Victorian trade cards

Prior to the advent of cigarette cards, and subsequent food product collectors’ cards (e.g. tea, bubble gum), Victorian companies often included trade cards advertising their wares with various pictorial images. The introduction of colour lithography in the 1870s led to a golden age of such cards which lasted until the early 1900s when newspaper and magazine advertisements became more economical. A wide range of topics and images were featured on the cards, some of which were in the form of a series or group of similar items. Occasionally images were directly related to the products being offered, while others had no apparent connection whatsoever. Indeed, some were very strange and disturbing, to say the least, and certainly would not pass modern advertising standards!


In the paper below, I have collected together a range of such cards that featured brass instruments and brass players – most of the time with no connection to the products or businesses being advertised. Nonetheless they are a fascinating insight into the advertising practices of the 19th century.

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High and low pitch

As instruments became standardised, they had to be manufactured and/or tuned to similar frequencies so that they would play in tune. It appears that in the 19th century most brass instruments played at a pitch not far from the current standard of A = 440 Hz. Levels of pitch rose during the century generally, with brass bands keeping in line with other instrumental and orchestral ensembles, arriving at the “Old Philharmonic” pitch of A = 452.5 Hz. Towards the end of the century pitch standards dropped again for orchestras, followed later by military bands. The latter adopted A = 439 Hz in 1929, and the former finally fixed on the international standard A = 440 Hz in 1939, led by Germany. It has to be said that it took many more years to get full international agreement, and the occasional country, ensemble or instrument were still at variance with the standard (either significantly up or down) in the early 1970s.

Brass bands, however, remained in high pitch, around 453 Hz until the early 1960s when there was a gradual conversion to low (standard) pitch. The decision by the brass instrument manufacturers to cease production of high pitch instruments (e.g. Besson in March 1965) accelerated this trend. The makers followed these decisions with the provision of tube and slide extensions to enable the conversion of existing high pitch instruments to low pitch. A by-product of this change was to open up the British brass band market to foreign instrument companies, who quickly started to make inroads into the brass band scene.

The full story of pitch changes, standards and the conversion of instruments is complex and includes many changes of direction and compromises. I am not aware of a “standard text” on the subject, but it is partially covered and referenced in many publications and online resources.

In 1969 Boosey and Hawkes were still trying to persuade bands to convert (hopefully by buying new instruments) – though their advert of that year might raise a few eyebrows today!


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Books, books, books and more

The latest version of the Brass Band Bibliography is now available, with 7,200 books, articles, journals, and theses – some 460 added since the previous edition. Covering the world of brass bands, musicians, brass instruments, methods and the music itself. Also with sections for the wind/concert/military bands and ensembles that feature brass instruments. Suggestions for inclusion in future editions are always welcome.


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The works brass band

One of the reasons for the enduring success of the brass band movement in the British Isles is the support provided to bands by various industrial and corporate sponsors. From the 1850’s onward business owners have recognised the benefits of investing in brass musicians and supporting their workers and communities at the same time. The colliery bands were by far the most numerous of those industrially sponsored (537), followed by the railways (244), then iron & steel manufacturing (187). There were few areas of industry or commerce that have not supported bands over the years, and I have categorised most of them in the document below – around 2,200 of the 20,000 that have existed over the last 200 years. Here is a photo of just one of them: Brantham Xylonite Works Brass Band (the company produced celluloid products (an early form of plastic based on cellulose nitrate), originally at Homerton, then later near Manningtree where they built the new village of Brantham to house the workers, the band being established in 1893. Another “Xylonite” band was the Hale End Xylonite Works Band, based at Hackney which was formed later, in 1920).


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Brass on postage stamps

How is your knowledge of brassy philately? Mogens Andresen, a Danish conductor, composer and author, has produced a website which contains an extensive history of brass instruments from ancient times to the 20th century. An additional feature is a collection of postage stamps from around the world which feature brass instruments, players and ensembles (see examples here). If you know of any such philatelic items that he does not show, I am sure he would be pleased to hear about it.



As an aside – did you know that the placement of your stamp(s) (should you choose to ignore the “official” positioning) indicates certain messages? Something like the “language of flowers”, but with perforations and gum, and long before the emoji …



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Rabbits and antimacassars: raising money for band funds

Concert fees, contest prizes (where lucky), carol playing and busking, and sponsorship (either through corporate patronage or individuals’ subscriptions) have always been the traditional main sources of income for brass bands. Many other mechanisms have been used over the years – merchandising (postcards, badges, mugs etc.), events (such as dances, balls, benefit concerts, bazaars, fetes), raffles and prize draws, more recently sponsored activities (e.g. play-a-thons, silences!). Here are few examples from the past – a larger selection of items will feature in a future paper of mine on brass band ephemera.

Hartlepool Temperance Band held two prize draws in 1895 and 1896, which featured some magnificent prizes – e.g. a 10 stone bag of flour (63.5 kg in “new money”), a woollen shirt, a gent’s felt hat, half-cwt [hundredweight] of Best Pilot Biscuits (25 kg), 1 cheese, couple of rabbits, a pair of antimacassars, a piece of cloth. All for a penny a ticket.

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Another raffle, in 1894, by the Newtown Cornet Band of Pennsylvania, offered a slightly better prize – that of a gold watch – but this would cost 10¢ a ticket.

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Two bazaars, or sales of goods, were held by the Mealsgate Rechabite Brass Band in 1890 and the Penmaenmawr Silver Band in 1902.


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A benefit concert on behalf of the Tapanui Brass Band (New Zealand) was held on 12 April 1889 at the Athenæum Hall.


Fund-raising dances or balls feature in these following items – the Schaghticoke Brass Band (New York) held its second annual ball on 27 December 1855, while the Canal Ironworks Band held its Carnival Dance at Saltaire on 9 November 1929.

The Mandurama Brass Band (NSW, Australia) held a Grand Ball on 16 November 1906, and the Sand Bank Cornet Band (New York) held its fourth annual ball on Christmas Day, 1891 – tickets 50¢ and supper an extra 50¢!

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Busking and carol playing was a key way to raise money for a band, some even announced their intentions in advance – e.g. Grimsby Borough Band’s Christmas season offering in 1906.


Finally, one of the more peculiar merchandising products sold by bands is this Phul-Nana Perfume “Bouquet of Indian Flowers” on behalf of the Pendleton Old Prize Band. The card itself was perfumed, to persuade the recipient to buy the product. The perfume was launched in 1891, containing notes of bergamot, orange, neroli, geranium, tuberose, ylang-ylang, patchouli, benzoin, cedar, sandalwood, opoponax, tonka bean and vanilla. It paved the way for oriental fragrances today – and is still available…




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Brass and tobacco

While there is a clear link between brass bands and alcohol – either in the various bands that supported the temperance movement, or the enjoyment of beer, in particular, that slaked the thirst of players – a similar association with tobacco products was not so evident, though many bandsmen smoked cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco or took snuff.

I am only aware of five British brass bands that were associated with tobacco companies:

  • Wills Tobacco Factory Brass Band (Bedminster, Bristol) – Founded in 1888, conductor G.A. Webb. Still active in 1900.
  • Cope Brothers and Co. Brass Band (Liverpool) – Founded in the early 1880s. Still active in 1887. Conductor J.B. Ridge in 1885. Cope Brothers were tobacco manufacturers.
  • CWS Tobacco Factory Band (Manchester) – A group of workers from the CWS Tobacco Factory got together to form a band in 1900, one which quickly made a name for itself on the concert and contest circuit. In September 1901 Mr J C Cragg, the manager of the CWS tobacco factory, built the ad hoc band of his employees, stumped up £300 for some second hand instruments and made himself bandmaster. It later changed its name to the CWS (Manchester) Band – either in 1937 or 1946 [reports differ]. The band enjoyed considerable success until the Co-op dropped the sponsorship in 1985. A short period as City of Manchester Band followed before finally disbanding in 1993.
  • Hignett’s Tobacco Works Band (Liverpool) – Founded in 1888. Active through to the 1900s.
  • Ogden’s Tobacco Works Band (Liverpool) – Active in 1893.

In the early days of cigarette packets, card were inserted to stiffen the paper packs, these were originally printed with advertisements for the tobacco company, but gradually changed to portray pictures of actresses, sports stars and other popular images. Eventually most manufacturers adopted these cards and produced different sets that people could attempt to collect as they consumed the products. Some of these cigarette cards featured brass instruments, and some examples are given here.

This example is from a set of “Musical Instruments” by Duke’s Cigarettes in the USA around 1898 – portraying a lady tuba player. Other brass instruments featured in that set included a bugle, cornet, coaching horn, french horn, herald’s trumpet, hunting horn, trombone, as well as a selection of drums.


z2 (4)Gallaher’s Tobacco Company issued a set of cards in 1923 entitled “British Champions”. Among these was “Luton Red Cross Band” (number 42 of 100). “Winners of the 1000 guinea trophy at the Crystal Palace in Sept. 1923. Our illustration shows the bandmaster Mr F. Mortimer, with the trophies won by the band.”


Churchman’s Cigarettes (and also Edwards, Ringer & Bigg), both part of Imperial Tobacco, included the set of 25 “Musical Instruments” in 1924. Brass instruments that featured included:

No. 4 “The Bombardon” – “These large valved instruments are indispensable in military and brass bands, to which they contribute the mass of the bass tone. Bombardons or tubas are built in two forms – circular, so that they pass over the shoulder with the bell directed forward; and upright like a large euphonium. These instruments are often regarded as Bass Saxhorns, though strictly speaking they belong to another family; the bore of the Bombardon being wider in proportion to its length, its lowest note is an octave below that of the Saxhorn.”


No. 6 “The Cornet” – “The modern Cornet or Cornet-à-Piston, which was evolved from the Post Horn early in the 19th century, is a brass valve instruments with cup-shaped mouthpiece, intermediate between the Trumpet and the Bugle. Its mouthpiece is larger than that of the Trumpet, and its tone rather less brilliant. The simplicity of its mechanism, and its great technical possibilities have given the Cornet great popularity as a solo instrument. It is often employed in brass bands and occasionally in orchestras in place of the Trumpet.”


No. 21 “The Slide Trombone” – “The earliest Draw or Slide Trumpets were known in England as Sackbuts; the more modern name Trombone being of Italian origin. The Trombone is essentially a simple form of Trumpet, in which the cylindrical tube is lengthened by means of a slide in order to vary the pitch of the note, the instrument being at its highest pitch when the slide is closed. The characteristic big brassy tone of the Trombone is rather more solemn that that of the Trumpet, the difference being chiefly due to the larger mouthpiece.”


Lambert & Butler (from London) merged with Imperial Tobacco in 1901 but retained its own brand name. The “London Characters” set of cards from 1934 featured “The Cornet Player” (number 8 of 25). “A character never lacking in London streets is the Cornet Player, who provides a type of music that draws dogs like a magnet to him. He relies chiefly upon licensed houses for his living, and can usually be recognised by his bulk. Cornet players may be divided into amateurs and professionals, the latter being readily recognised by their superiority in breathing. They receive many requests for an encore of their most popular number “Home Sweet Home” which they so regularly play. Why a bowler or hard felt hat should be part of their uniform, no one has ever been able to discover!”


Two companies produced cigarettes branded “Bandmaster”. The first was Cohen, Weenen & Co. of London, the second Major Drapkin & Co. (also of London).




w1John Player & Sons produced a brand of cigarettes called “Drumhead” – more military in association than “Bandmaster” perhaps, but they should have appealed to all drummers in bands!








Finally, all these tobacco products (apart from snuff) are no good with out a suitable flame to light them. Here are three “trumpet” branded matches – two from Belgium and one from Sweden.


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