I love obscure facts. I think it’s fun knowing stuff. Maybe it pumps up my self-importance. I am the queen of unimportant knowledge, specializing in 1970s trivia, having lived through the decade that was a plethora of unimportant stuff. Pet rocks come to mind as an example. I’m having a great time with the research I’m doing for my debut historical fiction, which fortunately for all involved is not set in the 1970s. The internet and the library have a treasure trove of information to dig through. I’m always uncovering interesting facts related to my novel, which covers the time period from 1894 through 1920.
Did you know there were Gleeks in the 1800’s? No, I didn’t say Greeks. Gleeks, as in the devoted fans of the fabulously popular television show “Glee”, the one with characters Rachel, Finn, Sue Sylvester and Mr. Schuester. Imagine the glee club’s costumes included bustles, petticoats, and handlebar mustaches and the glee club members were German immigrants, singing and playing German songs, classical pieces and opera. There was no Auto-Tune and beer was involved.
Sangerbunds, or “singer clubs” were very popular in the 1890s through the beginning of World War I in the United States. Towns and cities held Saengerfests, meaning “singer festival” which held competitions to determine the top singing groups. There were thousands of participants. Some groups started in beer gardens and local saloons, which were more like family-oriented community centers than the typical American saloon, and where group sing-alongs were a common form of entertainment. Others were offshoots of civic and political groups. Saengerfests became very prestigious in many cities that had a large German immigrant population, with competitions drawing tens of thousands of fans. Because of their popularity, they began building music halls for these presentations that would accommodate the crowds. In Saint Louis, one of the settings of my novel, the Exposition and Music Hall built in 1884 for the annual competition was built on the site that is now the location of the Central Public Library . In some cities these halls were the seeds that grew into municipal symphonies.
During the competitions there would be parades, speeches, refreshment stands and souvenirs. By 1908 it was estimated approximately 250,000 people were members of musical organizations. Unfortunately, anti- German sentiment during World War I and II and the closing of saloons and beer gardens during Prohibition caused the dissolution of many groups, but the Sangerbund tradition still exists in many predominantly German areas of the U.S. Here is a sample performance from a recent Saengerfest:
Saengerfests became so prestigious that presidents and celebrities of the time would make appearances. (Sound familiar?) President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech at a 1903 Baltimore Saengerfest praising the Sangerbund tradition.
Fast forward to April 2010 when the cast of “Glee” gave a command performance requested by President Obama at the White House Easter Egg Roll. Popular culture intersecting with politics. Interesting how the more things change the more they stay the same.
Need advice for doing historical research? Here are three great links:
Romance writer Shelly Thacker shares her steps to historical research here.
Don’t be afraid to follow rabbit trails (as long as they’re not too long) in your writing research. You may find some interesting tidbits to enrich the setting or characters of your story. If I decide my characters want to break out in song and dance, it will be perfectly logical for their time period and culture. Too bad they can’t sing Journey songs, because who doesn’t want to belt out “Don’t Stop Believing”?
“Enough with the jibba jabba, sing something!” –Sue Sylvester
Question: What interesting historical facts or events have you found in your research that have influenced your story or character’s evolution that you hadn’t planned on until you discovered it?