Category Archives: Society

Love Letters in War and Peace

Faded Old Love Letters‘, published by Keith Prowse & C° in 1922, illustrated by Holloway.

The Museum of Fine Arts MSK in Ghent recently showed the exhibition Love Letters in War and Peace. It followed the visual traces of ‘famous and lesser-known romances’ in different times: the prude Victorian society, the fin de siècle and the roaring Twenties, in war and in peace. This has inspired us to browse our collection of sheet music for songs about love letters.

Sheet music cover illustrated by Ixus (partition musicale illustrée)
Lettre à la première‘, composed by Gaston Maquis (ca 1895), illustrated by Ixus and brightly coloured ‘au pochoir’.

The ‘Letter to the First One’: what can be more difficult for a timid young man than to write a beautiful love letter to make his first object of desire swoon and reciprocate his tender feelings?

Le Camée‘, by Pierre Dupont, published by A. Fouquet in 1890, illustrated by Steinlen.

Théophile Steinlen borrows from mythology to illustrate the theme of postal romance. The two doves in the background and the young lady in negligee leave no doubt that the ever mischievous Eros is bringing – together with a precious gift – a love letter for a (probably) illicit love affair…

Discreetly exchanging sweet notes. Left the French version by Roger de Valerio (‘Les femmes mariées‘ by J. Szulz, published by Salabert in Paris, 1925). On the right, the Austrian version (‘Da fängt man wieder ein neues Verhältnis an‘ by Weiss & Schick, published by Mozarthaus in Wien, 1921) with a pernicious smile (unknown illustrator).

And yes, there are lots of songs about unfaithful lovers and spouses. These two covers make it clear how easy it is to contact ‘the other one’ with surreptitious letters. But does not the blatant naivety of the cheated husband in ‘Camouflage‘ add spice to the fun and thrill of swapping secret messages and furtive words at the theatre..?

Camouflage‘, music by Bodewalt Lampe, published by Salabert (Paris, 1917) — unknown illustrator

Sometimes the illustrator only has to draw Eros with an envelope  to make his point that love letters are the sweet accompaniment of every true courtship.

Eros as the deliverer of sweet messages. Left a drawing by de Valerio (‘Les Lettres d’Amour’ by José Padilla, published by Salabert in Paris, 1925). On the right a valiant postman-of-the-heart by Van Caulaert (‘Lettre à Toi‘ by Tutelier and Demaret, published by Office Musical, Bruxelles, 1923).

These love letters are clearly well protected from prying eyes by five wax seals (a custom used for official papers until well into the 20th century…).

brief cachet

The drawings by Clérice are more equivocal. Did his mysterious Belle-Epoque ladies receive good or bad news? Or are they brooding on a shrewd reply…

brieven amerikaans 2 copyIn general American sheet music share the drawing style of comics. In these four examples, writing or receiving a love letter brings visions of the loved one, be it in candle smoke or cloud, or in an  (ahem) arabesque.

billets d'amourThe French illustrator Donjean used the same technique: the smoke of burning love letters symbolises the man’s consuming pain at the end of his marriage.

brieven mannen copyPain is also very present in ‘Tout est Fini!‘. The worried man drawn by Jacques Wély seems inconsolable. The melancholia of the fin de siècle oozes from this song cover. The man on the right, by Pousthomis, seems better armed against the setback of receiving the farewell letter (or is he amusingly rereading his own prose?).

brieven hollandse copyBoth these Dutch covers by J. N. Buning are about love letters during the Great War.

brieven zeeman copy
Left: ‘Adjöss mé den!‘ illustrated by Granath (Sylvain, Stockholm, 1929). On the right: ‘Det finns ingen jag älskar‘, illustrated by Bauer (Barding, Stockholm, 1934).

We close this post with two Swedish cartoonish covers of seamen who are known to have lady friends all around the world, sweethearts who all need emotional relief and postal attention…

The Dolly Sisters: Art Deco Gold Diggers

Gold Diggers illustrated by Boullaire
Gold Diggers‘, a foxtrot by Raoul Moretti, published by Salabert (Paris, 1923) and illustrated by Boullaire

Gold Diggers is an appropriate title for the foxtrot danced by the Dolly Sisters. They surely knew something about gold digging, not as in ‘gold mining in Klondike’ but as in sweet-talking sugar daddies. The Dolly Sisters were hot during the jazz age and everybody wanted to be seen with them, even royalty.

The Dolly Sisters in their flamboyant costumes

Jenny and Rosie Deutsch had immigrated from their native Hungary to America where they began performing on stage at an early age. They were identical twins and they accentuated this by synchronising their movements and by wearing identical costumes. The Dolly Sisters soon became famous both in Europe and in the States. They had a penchant for plumes, jewellery, money, and older men but above all for gambling.

dollies gypsy
The Dolly Sisters in gypsy costume.

The best known of their sugar daddies was Harry Selfridge, who founded the first ‘shopping is fun’ department store in Oxford Street, London: Selfridges. In his later life he became so besotted by the Dolly Sisters that he catered for their every wish. He bought them diamonds, flew over their favourite food and sat next to them at the gambling table, his wallet wide open. This would eventually hasten the downfall of Harry Selfridge: he lost his entire fortune and his beloved department store.

The Dolly Sisters’ exuberant partying lifestyle came abruptly to an end when Jenny was injured in a car accident. She never recovered from it and sadly hanged herself in 1941. Rosie retired from public life and also tried to take her own live. She passed away in 1977.

The Dolly Sisters were wildly famous during their heyday, but it was not an enduring fame. Now this is interesting. We still know Greta Garbo, Maurice Chevalier or Charlie Chaplin, but not the Dolly Sisters. Maybe long-lasting fame has to do with persistence and talent. The Dolly Sisters’ career span was rather short. As for their talent we can get a glimpse of that in a recently published YouTube fragment. They are performing in a pantomime of a traditional children’s tale Babes in the Woods, although not in their usual identical costumes.

In an iconographic way the Dolly Sisters simply breathed Art Deco. Their ornate costumes and lavish acts are the quintessential image of the Roaring Twenties as can be seen in some of our Dolly Sisters sheet music covers.

Dolly Sisters, illustrated by de Valerio
Dolly Sisters‘, foxtrot by Samuel Pokrass, published by Salabert in Paris (1927), illustrated by de Valerio
Charleston Dolly, illustrated by Jack Roberts
Charleston Dolly‘, by Howard Mc Knight. Published by Lucien Brulé (Paris, 1926) and illustrated by Jack Roberts
dolly sisters maurice chevalier
Three covers illustrated by Loris with Maurice Chevalier between Jenny and Rosie. ‘Steppin’ in Society‘ (1926), ‘Sweet Georgia Brown‘ (1926), and ‘Waitin’ For The Moon‘ (1925), all published by Francis-Day, Paris.

Furthermore statuettes, porcelain figurines and boudoir dolls accompanied the Dolly Sisters’ rage and success. In 2012 a bronze and ivory statuette of the twins by Chiparus sold for almost 350.000 € .

Large bronze and ivory statuette of the Dolly Sisters, by Demetre Chiparus
figurine dolly sisters
Goldscheider figure group, the Dolly Sisters, 1925


Boudoir dolls of the Dolly Sisters, courtesy of Frau Wulf,

The twins also inspired László Moholy-Nagy for his modernist photomontage Olly & Dolly Sisters. Moholy-Nagy transforms their normally cheerful disposition by a vast emptiness using light, monochromatic colours and simple geometric shapes.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy olly & dolly sisters
Olly & Dolly Sisters by László Moholy-Nagy, circa 1925, Gelatin silver print (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

The Hippopotamus Polka: A Royal Affair

Sheet Music - The Hippopotamus Polka
The Hippopotamus Polka‘ by L. St. Mars published by Charles Jefferys (London 1852) and illustrated by Brandard.

In February two giant pandas arrived in Belgium from China with a lot of pomp. On their journey they were accompanied by a team of two animal handlers, a veterinary physician and a plentiful supply of 100 kilograms of bamboo. Their panda house was inaugurated by the Chinese President Xi Jinping and Belgian King Philippe, along with their lovely wives. The pandas are called Hao Hao & Xing Hui.

In 1850 the first hippopotamus arrived in England from Egypt with a lot of pomp. On his journey he was accompanied by two snake charmers, a keeper and a plentiful supply of fresh milk, provided by cows travelling on the same boat. Queen Victoria, along with her lovely children, visited the hippopotamus at the London Zoo. The hippopotamus was called Obaysch.

The British people got The Hippopotamus Polka, composed in honour of Obaysch. The Belgians are still waiting… for The Panda Hop?

Obaysch (1852) – Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Chinese President Xi Jinping, his wife Peng Liyuan, Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde visit the panda house at the Pairi Daiza zoo in Brugelette, Belgium March 30, 2014.