Calithumpian bands serenaded newlyweds

By Bob Wood.

In the old days, a young couple was hardly thought to be properly married unless they were serenaded on their wedding night or soon thereafter by a Dutch Band. Also called bull bands or “calithumpian” bands, these racket makers were usually men and boys from the neighborhood. The “instruments” of the band were such things as horns, bugles, bells, dishpans, old steel farm machinery parts that clanged when struck with a hammer—in short, anything that made a loud and nasty sound.

But the central piece of the orchestra was the sei-geik (si-gik) or pig fiddle. The sei-geik was the pig scalding trough over which several wires were tightly stretched. A piece of two-by-four became the fiddle bow. When the bow was scraped over the wires it made an ear-splitting bellow. If set on a wooden porch, the porch floor acted like a sounding board and made it even louder. The whole house shook.

Two members of a bull band practicing the pig fiddle for the Kutztown Folk Festival; Morning Call, June 24, 1956.

Of course, the young couple couldn’t get on with the business at hand of the wedding night with that din going on outside, so the party were invited in for food and liquid refreshment. It was a sort of blackmail, but it was all among friends; in fact, the more well liked and popular the groom was, the larger the bull band. Someone who was not liked would probably not be Dutch banded. A large band was a compliment to the bride and groom.

As time went on it became the custom to Dutch band the young couple anytime after the wedding—sometimes months later. The key thing then was the suspense and the element of surprise. The newlyweds knew the band was coming sometime…but when? Sometimes it became a cat-and-mouse game with the couple set to flee out the back door, so that the band was serenading an empty house. Ah, but sometimes the band split up with some in the back and some in the front.

Dutch banding seems to have been practiced in the culture into the mid twentieth century. Carl Lightcap of Pottstown recalled that he was treated to a Dutch band in 1946. He gave them ten dollars and told them to go have a good time. He told the story of one woman who said to her Dutch band, “All I have for you is this bucket of lemonade.” It was one lemon floating in a bucket of water.

Interestingly, Pottstown historian Mike Snyder has found at least two newspaper references to female calithumpian bands. The first was in the Daily Pottstown Ledger of September 7, 1874: “Mr. Jesse Geist, of Fagleysville, this county, has been a widower for some years until about two weeks ago. When he led to the hymenial alter a blooming widow, very much to the disgust of the many Fagleysville belles, who had been endeavoring to ensnare him into the meshes of their nets. They were determined to have revenge upon him. In accordance with this notice they armed themselves with the most improved instruments known to calithumpians and proceeded to the hotel where the newly married couple were sweetly reposing in each others arms. The first screech of the instruments awakened the groom from his slumbers and with fear and trembling he appeared at the windows. He was not long in taking in the situation, and after repeated calls, donned his clothing and proceeded meekly to the front door to ascertain the wishes of the fair ones. The ladies concluded that if he would ‘stand treat’ they would go home. Mine host was called up, and the ladies, after surfeiting themselves with ice cream, cakes, sherry cobblers, mint julips, and other little etceteras, bid their victim good-night, and took their departure.”

Interestingly, the treats listed above that the hotel had on hand are remarkable. Like the Swamp Hotel, the Fagleysville Hotel in the late 19th century was an up-scale establishment and a summer destination for the urban well-to-do.

William Hogarth, “The Industrious ‘Prentice out of his Time, & Married to his Master’s Daughter”; British Museum. This image depicts an 18th-century European “calithumpian serenade” similar to the Pennsylvania Dutch experience.

The second example is from the same newspaper dated May 21, 1909, and bears the headline, “GIRL SERENADERS MADE NOISE GALORE LAST NIGHT”:

A novel serenade was last evening tendered to Mr. And Mrs. Irwin Hunsberger who returned from the honeymoon trip after being married on Wednesday last in Schwenksville. The serenade was conducted by girl friends of the bride who was Miss Blanche Skean, daughter of Harvey Skean, Chestnut Street. Early last evening the residents of that section were surprised to see a large number of young girls coming down the street in a body. The girls were supplied with all kinds of tin utensils, guaranteed to make a noise. One girl who lives in Stowe carried a big shovel and a hammer. When the Skean residence was reached there was soon a horrible din. The girls kept the racket going merrily for many minutes and were then invited into the house. They had much fun and noise which was continued in the house. The girls who did the serenading were girls who worked in the factory in which Mrs. Hunsberger formerly was employed.”

A Dutch band event that made the front page was recorded in the April 11, 1908, Town and Country. Its headline reads “SERENADERS CLASHED WITH BRIDE’S FATHER” and subtitled “Noisy demonstration continued for hours because they got no money”:

The article begins: “Despite efforts to invoke aid of the law, Mr. and Mrs. James W. Undercoffler, who were married last Saturday, were subjected to the noisiest and most protracted ‘serenade’ administered in this borough in many years…

On Monday evening a large party of serenaders appeared and proceeded to manufacture the dismal din that is suppose to be desirable in ushering young people into the state of matrimony.

It is the custom on such to keep up the racket until the bridegroom appears and gives the serenaders a sum of money, which the then devote to the purchase of refreshments, usually of a liquid kind.”

The article goes on to state that Mr. Undercoffler refused to contribute anything on the grounds that the whole thing was little short of blackmail, and furthermore any money he gave them would go for strong drink to which he was opposed. He refused to pay the tribute and the racket continued until 11:00 at which the mob disbanded, so to speak.

“On Tuesday evening the serenaders again appeared with augmented forces. Fully eighty persons came, provided with tin cans, bells, horns, horse fiddles and anything else that might be utilized in making a noise. When the demonstration broke loose the reverberations could be heard a mile away. Staid elderly citizens who would not be suspected of such frivolity lent their aid and worked as hard as the boys in making the night hideous. Several hundred spectators also gathered, the crowd filling Main Street in the vicinity of the East Greenville Borough line.”

The bride’s father, Mr. Delong who lived next door, was “greatly vexed” and summoned the constable, Mr. A.J. Dressler, and asked him to disperse the crowd. Thinking the better of it, the constable refused to intervene unless it could be shown the noise disturbed sick persons.

“When the uproar was at its height, the Citizen’s Band of East Greenville arrived for the purpose of tendering the couple a bonafide serenade, but when they attempted to play, the rival “band” intensified its efforts and the musicians retired in disgust without being able to finish a selection.”

It was now past 10:00, sleep was out of the question, and both sides remained obdurate. Finally, the neighbors took up a collection among themselves and raised $2.50 which satisfied the serenaders and they departed. So, all sides could claim victory: Mr. Undercoffler held on to his principles yet the serenaders got their money. Peace returned to the valley.

A different twist on calithumpian bands

By Candace Perry.

Bob’s article describes the very common (and unfortunate) appearance of calithumpian bands on wedding nights throughout our Pennsylvania Dutch areas. Our local traditions, however, are a small part of noisemaking folk customs and downright harassment that were popular among many ethnicities in Europe. And most had unpleasant motivations.

The French word charivari meaning “rough music” that comes down to us as the word shivaree here in the United States, and skimmington ride in England, describes the type of raucous parade by townspeople, and generally young men, not to celebrate a wedding, but to impose some sort of moral judgment. If you were marrying someone of whom your neighbors disapproved or were seeing your neighbor’s wife or husband on the side, or abusing your spouse, woe might befall you in the form of a loud, embarrassing, charivari. The groups were akin to gangs of Belsnickels or the mummers of earlier times in Pennsylvania. (The “skimmington” is the large wooden spoon wielded by the female figure on the horse in this illustration by William Hogarth.)

William Hogarth, “Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington,” ca. 1725-1726; British Museum.

One of the popular ways to harass targets of the charivari was to parade effigies to accompany the noisemaking. As depicted in the Hogarth illustration, what looks like a nightshirt on a staff topped with cuckold’s horns, a petticoat, a hat, gloves, and spurs, were paraded in the street, probably stolen from the couple in the window that the mob is tormenting. Though not effigies in strictest sense, meaning a figure made up to look like a specific person, the clothes and other items were representations of the charivari victims.

A depiction of a wagon carrying a married couple, which sometimes was part of a shivaree, from a sampler by Regina Heebner, Worcester Township, Montgomery County, 1794; Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center.

The following narrative was written by Joseph Barr Schlatter (b. 1830), a native of Philadelphia. He wrote several narratives about life in Philadelphia and adjacent counties in the 19th century that are a part of the Kiefaber collection at the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center. One of the most engaging is his description of “paddies” as a part of a shivaree/calithumpian serenade (or dutch band, in Schlatter’s terms). The paddies seem to be actual effigies, wearing the clothes of the just married couples, and echo the imagery in the Hogarth engraving. The transcription that follows is verbatim as taken from the original manuscript, and was transcribed by Elizabeth Kriebel, a student at the University of Colorado, in 2020.

Before and at the time I was living at Germantown, some of the young men of the neighborhood, made a practice of setting up (Paddies) when any of them married. They were or the most of them supposed to be made at the old Grist Mill, as many of the young men went there to spend their evenings. In 1844 When J.W. Willingham, and Maryann Leech were married, Mr. Leech had an Irishman living with him, he hearing them talking about Paddies, thought it was making fun of him and he watched, late at night the party came and set the Paddies up in the old oak tree that stood at the entrance of the lane, after they had gone he got them down and destroyed them so nobody saw them and they had their trouble for nothing. When Ira Tyson was married, they dressed up a couple and put them on top of his barn, in the rear of his shop. She being a very particular and tidy woman, they placed a scrubbing brush in her hand. This made Ira Tyson angry and he blamed a certain man but he blamed the wrong one, and they were never friends after. When William Birchell was married a pair were put up in his Apple Orchard, which fronted the Old York Road. They were found before anyone saw them, and they knew the clothes, and saw them, saying some good comes of every thing, hung them out to dry and that night someone stole them. These three cases happened before I came there to live and were told to me. When Charles Patterson and Sarah Myers were married 1846 her Father Michael Myers, said he would watch to see that no Paddies were put up but someone knowing his failing played a mean trick on him. They got the storekeep who sold Porter to pour the most of the porter out of one bottle and filled it up with Whiskey, this doing its work, (I never knew who the parties were) They late at night got Charles Shoemaker’s long ladder and put the Paddies on the peak of Richard Shoemakers Barn. (then they hid the ladder). The barn stood next to the road and they were there all day every body going up and down the road saw them. They were dutchbanded, I being young and foolish borrowed Joshua Paxtons long dinner horn and blowed along with the rest but I soon tired of it and went home.

A long dinner horn like the one Schlatter blew at the Pattersons’ dutchbanding. This photo by H. Winslow Fegley is of Jacob Ritter blowing a dinner horn, circa 1905-1910; Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center.

When Benjamin Dungan and Mary Livezey were Married 1847 she was married at her Uncle’s George H. Hellers a party from the Fox Chase, Brought a Paddy. They set it up in a tree opposite her Uncles lane. They were dutch banded, they coming from Jenkintown. Miles down fox chase I did not go near them but the great racket they made I heard. There was snow on the ground and it was a bitter cold night heard that some of the party got frosted feet. When Thomas Richardson, and Elizabeth Tompkins, were married March 17 1848, They were dutch banded and much noise was made. I was in the house, Tompkins lived where the tavern now is and it sounded terrible. The next morning, her Father, started out early expecting to see Paddies but there were none in sight. On the next night Thursday late at night they brought their Paddies, the long ladder of Charles Shoemaker, was again put to use. Mr. Tompkins had an old gig body lying in the road near the shop. This was rigged up, and they drew it up in the old Catawba tree, which stood in front of Bartholomew Mather’s House on the opposite side from Mr Tompkins, in this old gig they put the ladders side by side facing up the Old York road they hid the ladder. The next morning, Friday, when Mr Tompkins was at his Pump Jason Livezey who lived at the corner of the road looked up the tree and said to him Joel look there, They were in view all day and being Friday, Market day it was the first thing they saw. At last Mr Tompkins, told his son Samuel and I to get them down, we got ladders spliced them together, and after a time got in the tree cut the ropes and let them fall down. This was the last I ever heard of Paddies, being put up in the neighborhood. The most of those who were acting in getting them up were married or moved away and the Old Mill changed hands.
Written by Joseph B. Schlater
May 9th 1903

In this photo from the February 2, 1964 edition of the Allentown Morning Call, a group of serenaders is depicted carrying a “paddy” or effigy.

Goschenhoppen Historian Bob Wood has researched, written and spoken extensively about PA Dutch folk culture topics and can be found at the Antes House during the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival.

Candace Kintzer Perry is curator of collections at Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center.

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