Billboard Magazine from 100 years ago: Minstrels, vaudeville, burlesque and more…

(January 11, 2020).  The world was a different place a hundred years ago.  

Our wars were different, our entertainment and technology were different, and, of course, American society was, too.

And the way music was recorded and played-back was different…as was the music itself, clearly. 

All of these things factored into how Billboard magazine reported relevant events back in 1920, and this blog had an opportunity to explore an issue from exactly 100 years ago this week to see how the world of entertainment and news influenced what has since been deemed the “bible” of the music industry…long before music became the trade publication’s main focus.

Billboard magazine from exactly 100 years ago this week.

In the early 20th century, Billboard magazine was a reflection of the times – as it still is today.  While we had not yet seen many of the changes that would later come to define American entertainment, January 1920 marked the beginning of a decade that would bring significant change to America and the world. The decade would eventually be branded the “Roaring Twenties” as America would see an economic expansion unlike ever before.

During the 1920s, there would be changes not only in musical styles like the development of true jazz, but in how the music industry prospered with technological advances.  The 1920s also saw prohibition – and the resultant flourishing of speakeasy clubs, where much of the music was played – and later the beginning of the Great Depression, sparked by the stock market crash of 1929.

But all of that was later in the decade.  In January 1920, the country had not yet experienced any of the above – and it wasn’t apparent that those things were even imminent. 

Back then, the nation was just 14 months removed from the First World War ending.  It was a war that was farther reaching and far deadlier than any wars we’ve fought in the 21st century, with clearer enemies and better defined endings.

Twentieth century world wars were fought between nations, not just ideologies.  And they usually ended with peace treaties signed between heads of state.

In fact, by January 1920, the just-ended world war was so fresh that treaties between the U.S. and key European countries had yet to be signed, although they would be within a couple of years.

Although the war was over, it still factored heavily into the entertainment industry – mostly via relief groups and service organizations who traveled abroad to entertain “the boys.” Some of this was covered in Billboard, which this article will touch on further below.

History: Billboard celebrates 125th anniversary with top 125 artists list!

Socially, things were different, too, especially back here in the USA.

During the heart of the Jim Crow era in America, black people who were the descendants of slaves didn’t yet have the rights that white citizens did.  After all, we were still just over a half-century removed from the nation’s ugliest institution of slavery, which had only officially ended with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865.

As for technology, the way we traveled was also different.  The gas-fueled, internal combustion engine-powered automobile was less than 35 years old, with there still being less than half-million in production by 1920.  The nascent airline industry had just gotten off the ground and the first non-stop, transatlantic flight had only occurred months earlier (something this issue of Billboard actually touched on in a bill post). 

As for how we communicated, the telephone was also less than a half-century old, and it was far “dumber” than the smart phones we use now, which pretty much run our lives and serve as the platform for much of today’s music consumption.

This article in the Jan. 17, 1920 issue of Billboard covered a new way of marketing songs, by using movie credits.

And speaking of music consumption, forget about the CD, digital downloads and streaming.  Heck, even the 12” vinyl record as we know it today – the first lasting medium for playing back commercially available music – was not yet fully developed.

Instead, there were 10” vinyl records played on gramophones, mostly at 78 rpm.  As far as music sharing went, people did that via sheet music, piano rolls, and live shows, not by digital song files.

The Billboard magazine issue dated January 17, 1920 provided a time capsule of the dawn of a decade and a glimpse into how Americans were entertained and how trade publications covered that entertainment.

“The Billboard,” as the magazine was still known after its inception in 1894, was mostly a platform for companies to post “bills” advertising their products, services and performing arts, or their needs in those areas. Dubbed as “America’s Leading Amusement Weekly” and the “Show World Encyclopedia,” there were far more ads than editorials in the trade magazine back then.

At the beginning of the decade, as reflected in this Jan. 17th issue, many of the ads, as well as the editorials and show reviews, involved outdoor carnivals, fairs, expositions, the circus, and the theatre. These were all major sources of entertainment for those who could afford them (or those who were allowed to attend).

The “allowed to” part was important during this era where racial division and institutionalized segregation were still high, as was illustrated in this issue in an article simply dubbed “Interesting Decision.”  

A news article from the Jan. 17, 1920 issue of Billboard

Beginning on page 17 and continuing on 92, Billboard ran a news item about a “colored” man who had been awarded ten dollars damages plus costs by the courts after having been ejected from the Loew Theatre in Montreal, Canada some time earlier.  The latest news development was that the Court of Appeals had just reversed the earlier decision, stripping the man of his ten dollars and the court costs…and likely his dignity.

Though some parts of this article were illegible, the reverse ruling appeared to be based on the premise that the Loew company reserved the right to hold the man’s seat as “reserved” for someone else even though it hadn’t been sold to another patron, and that the man’s refusal to abide by that policy forfeited his rights to reimbursement. 

Whether or not the reversed decision (or the ejection itself) was racially motivated, the story evoked race in terms that were used back then.  Blacks – or “colored” people – were clearly in a different place then, socially.  And our status in the world of entertainment wasn’t much better.  

Take, for instance, minstrel shows – basically those depicting blacks as stereotypically dimwitted, lazy slaves or servants who were content with their plight in life and always willing to serve their masters. These had thrived from the 1800s through the turn of the century, and minstrels were still around in the 1920s, although to a lesser extent.

An ad in the Jan. 17, 1920, issue of Billboard advertising for all-white minstrel musicians.

Ads seeking minstrel acts were present in this Jan. 17, 1920 Billboard issue, including one seeking musicians for “one of the best framed ALL-WHITE (emphasis not added) Minstrels on the road.”  The white actors in minstrels famously depicted African-Americans by wearing blackface with exaggerated features.

One such actor was Lew Dockstader, a popular blackface performer who traveled as a solo act and in his own minstrel troupe.  He was past his prime by January 1920 but was the subject of a bizarre news article in this issue of Billboard after a fire had broken out in his Long Beach, Long Island, NY home while the body of his wife, who had died the night before, had to be lowered from an upstairs window.  It was reported that Mr. Dockstader refused to leave the home until his wife’s body was safely taken out.

An article about the Dockstader home fire from the Jan. 17, 1920 issue of Billboard

Mr.  Dockstader, who died four years later, was the leader of a minstrel troupe that famously included blackface performer Al Jolson, who by 1920 had become the biggest star on Broadway and would later become America’s top entertainer overall.  

Blacks were not to be left out, however.  

In this same issue of Billboard, an ad appeared for “Sixty Colored Musicians For Piccaninny Band.”  The bill post stated that preference would be given to men who can “double strings and brass; also sing and dance.”  Applicants were told to state their lowest salary and experience and to “make it low because it’s sure,” using 1920s vernacular for job security.

This ad ran in the Jan. 17, 1920 issue of Billboard

Of course, while lower pay for similar services may still be a thing for black people today, the term “pickaninny,” with its various spellings and use as a derogatory reference to small black children, is not.  However, the term would continue to appear in film and entertainment in the 1920s and for the next two decades to come, most notably in later films like Gone With the Wind and the Our Gang series (specifically in the latter to describe the young black character Buckwheat).

Minstrels and pickaninny were clearly still a thing in 1920, but the art forms and references were slowly fading from popularity.  In their place was vaudeville, the increasingly popular variety form of entertainment that included everything from singing to circus acts, with some minstrel still thrown in for good measure.  

Billboard had devoted a full section to covering vaudeville, which included reviews of shows in New York and Chicago.  The Jan. 17th issue contained a review of the matinee show at the Chicago Palace Theater on Jan. 12, 1920, which included eight acts ranging from “12 dogs of various nationalities” to a comedy act of “two girls with funny figures.”

Also still a major thing were burlesque shows.  Not only were the shows themselves covered in the magazine, but several ads for “chorus girls,” “showgirls” or just “girls” in general were posted.

Aside from burlesque, women were prominently featured in the magazine, which was surprising for the times.  One such woman, Maud Powell, who had recently died of “acute indigestion” (of all things), was given an obituary in which she was called “America’s Greatest Violinist.”  In a progressively written piece honoring her contributions, The Billboard stated that “no musician had done more to help the cause of music in the United States.”  Powell had notably made her first appearance at the New York Philharmonic in November 1885.

Maud Powell, a famous violinist at the time, was eulogized in the Jan. 17, 1920, issue of Billboard

And speaking of music, while there were no Billboard charts chronicling the popularity of songs back then – and albums as we know them now did not yet exist – The Billboard did post many ads for new songs.  

These mostly took the form of sheet music ads, with an occasional invitation for potential customers to visit a local store to hear a song played on a phonograph, if they were so inclined.

The music was mostly blues and jazz then, as composed by Caucasian artists who took traditionally African-American music styles and popularized it for white audiences, a phenomenon that would continue to play out over the next 100 years to the present day.

Some of the songs advertised in the January 17, 1920 issue of Billboard, including the famous tune “Swanee.”

A prominent song receiving an ad in this issue was the classic George Gershwin and Irving Caesar tune “Swanee,” which actor/singer Al Jolson would popularize (in blackface) in the play Sinbad.  “Swanee” wound up becoming the biggest song of Gershwin’s career, selling a million sheet music copies.  Jolson would go on to officially record the song for Columbia Records that same month (Jan. 1920).

Al Jolson’s recording of “Swanee,” a song he popularized in Sinbad and would later re-record several times in the next 3 decades.

Just check out some of these other song titles that were advertised in this issue of Billboard: “Mammy’s Coo Coo,” “You Didn’t Want Me When You Had Me,” “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me,” “Then You’ll Know What It Means to be Blue,” “Oh! My Lady,” “You Were Made Just to Order for Me,” “Yellow Dog Blues,” “Think of Me, Little Daddy,” “Floatin’ Down to Cotton Town,” “My Sugar-Coated Chocolate Boy,” and “Pickaninny Blues.”

Several of these tunes obviously capitalized on the continued popularity of pushing negative black imagery to American audiences.

The term “mammy” was a derogatory term used to depict black women in an unfavorable light. This tune was advertised in Billboard in the Jan. 17, 1920 issue.

The Billboard also received letters back then (as it has since).  What had been a way for fans, including soldiers, to post letters for their favorite stars to see, the publication also received commentary from readers on relevant topics that Billboard covered. In January 1920, they were printed in an “Open Letters” section that included the caption: “That the profession may know; for oft-times VIEWS are the livest NEWS” (emphasis, again, not added).

Other interesting items in this issue included a paid cover story by the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, a labor union that had been chartered only months earlier with the AFL-CIO (on Aug. 28, 1919).  A branch of The A.A.A.A., known as the American Artistes’ Federation, had just been established as the “Vaudeville, Burlesque, Chautauqua, Circus, Carnival, Fair, Concert, and Cabaret” leg of the Union.

The American Artistes Federation paid Billboard to print this item in the Jan. 17, 1920 issue.

The story, subtitled “Its Babyhood and Its Boyhood,” appealed to the need to protect such industry workers from their employers. The union notably thanked Billboard for being the only trade mag willing to run the piece, which had been turned down or ignored by other important publications like Variety and the New York Clipper.

Other ads were run for everything from circus dolls and carnival tents to ventriloquists and magicians’ goods; and from breathing and singing coaches to nose fixers (and you thought it started with MJ?).

A nose-fixer ad from the January 17, 1920 issue of Billboard with “before” and “after” depictions

Remnants of the war were still splintered throughout the issue as well.  A public service announcement was run by the Service Women’s War Relief, an organization setup during WW1 by actresses and other women of the theatre to assist in the war effort, namely by entertaining the homesick, or even “lovesick” wounded boys upon their return from overseas.  

Elsewhere in the issue, Billboard ran a very positive review of a revue by Elsie Janis and her Gang.  It was one of four pieces run under the caption “This Season’s New York Productions.” The review for Janis, who was a singer/songwriter/actress famous for faithfully entertaining the troops during WW1, concluded, “only the hardest of hard-boiled eggs could find fault with the show and the gang.”

The war clearly had an impact on American entertainment and what Billboard covered at the time.

Hot 100 60th Anniversary: The 60 Most Amazing Chart Feats in Hot 100 History!

What did not yet exist in January 1920 were any Billboard charts, the institution for which it is mostly known today.  The modern music industry as we know it now didn’t really begin until later in the 1920s with changes in recording technology from acoustical to electrical. Those changes made recorded music more appealing to listeners and lead to the creation of various independent record labels, which bred competition and unprecedented growth.  

The advent of publishing companies like ASCAP and the expansion of radio later in the decade led to the further popularization of jazz, blues, show tunes, and dance bands.

But that was later.

For now, in January 1920, the entertainment industry and the magazine that covered it were only beginning to thrive, while vestiges of a war just-ended, as well as the racial divide that permeated America in the immediate wake of slavery, were still evident.

But, boy, have we come a long way since then.

Right?

Some Fast Billboard Facts:

Billboard was founded by William Donaldson and James Hennegan in 1894. The first issue was called Billboard Advertising and was dated November 1, 1894.  The magazine changed its name to The Billboard in 1897 and was just over 25 years old by January 1920.

Donaldson took over sole ownership in 1900 and in May of that year changed Billboard from a monthly to a weekly publication, which it has been ever since.

An annual subscription to the magazine in January 1920 was just $3.  The 100-page January 17, 1920 issue had a cover price of 15 cents.

Billboard hired its first black journalist later in 1920, a decision that was met with controversy at the time.  The writer’s name was James Albert Jackson whose weekly column was devoted to African-American performers.  According to Wikipedia, Jackson was the first black critic at a national magazine with a predominantly white audience.

Billboard’s increasing focus on the music industry led to the creation of its first charts in January 1936 (the “music hit parade”).  It’s first true pop chart happened in July 1940, and the Hot 100 was established in August 1958.

The Billboard changed its name to Billboard Music Weekly in January 1961 before finally adopting its current name of just Billboard in 1963. 

DJRob

Future “hits” advertised in the Jan. 17, 1920 issue of Billboard

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

You can also register for free to receive notifications of future articles by visiting the home page (see top for menu).

(include pics of ventriloquist dolls ad)