Toys from Christmas past
On display is the October Artifact of the Month, a Sousa Band uniform once belonging to Lester B. Palmer of Vermont, Illinois. Leaves are starting to fall and football games are being played and one of the best parts of this time of year is that it is marching band season. Many think there is nothing better than listening to and watching a good marching band.
Almost everyone has heard of John Philip Sousa, the name brings to mind band concerts full of patriotic music. The Western Illinois Museum is fortunate enough to have a little piece of Sousa history – a uniform that was worn by a musician in Sousa’s very own band. At one time, this uniform was probably in the same room as the great Sousa, maybe even touched by Sousa himself!
One of America’s most famous composers and conductors, Sousa was born in 1854 and died in 1932. Writer of over 136 marches, his most well-known are, "Stars and Stripes Forever" (1896) and "Semper Fidelis" (1888) (the Official March of the United States Marine Corps) and "The Liberty Bell" (1893) (the credits theme for Monty Python's Flying Circus). So famous was Sousa for his military and patriotic marches, he was given the nickname, “The March King.”
Lester Palmer, a member of John Philip Sousa’s band, wore the uniform on display. Sousa created the Sousa Band in 1892 and it toured until 1931, performing at 15,623 concerts. Tours would last for many months, with the band giving several performances each day. Interestingly, the band was mainly a concert band and did very little marching. The band marched in only eight parades in its almost forty years of existence. For 39 years the band traveled by train for more than one million miles all over the United States. They also toured Europe and they were the first American band to go on a world tour.
Sousa was very involved in every aspect of the band and helped to design the appearance of the uniform. He composed and conducted much of the music played, and managed the band even choosing the places the band would tour. With his popular reputation, Sousa was able to hire the best musicians, so it can be assumed the wearer of this uniform was very talented.
The owner of the Sousa Band uniform, Lester Palmer, was a trombone player and he played with the band for a partial United States tour between 1919 and 1920. This is the uniform Lester would have worn when employed in the Sousa Band. Sousa did not provide uniforms for the musicians in his band. Members had to purchase their own uniforms and they were required to wear them whenever they appeared in public. They could wear their street clothes only on their days off.
Donated to the museum in 1983 by Keithra Banning, the uniform on display is made of heavy, black wool. Distinctive pins with SOUSA proudly emblazoned atop a globe sit on either edge of the velveteen collar. Every Sousa Band member wore these pins; they were part of the uniform. What makes the Sousa Band uniform very special is the application of swirling black braid trim all over the front of the jacket. There is also braid trim on the sleeves and even on the back. From an audience viewpoint, the uniform up on stage would have presented a striking appearance.
When looking at photographs of Sousa Band members, small variations in the uniforms are evident. According to Scott Schwartz, Archivist for Music and Fine Arts at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, “there were always subtle differences between each member's band uniform because they didn't always purchase their uniforms from the same manufacturer. Some members would have uniforms made of black fabric while others would have similar uniforms made from a very dark navy blue fabric. From the audiences point of the view the members on the stage appeared to have the exact same uniform.”
Schwartz confirms that the uniform that once belonged to Lester Palmer and that now belongs to the museum matches the design and colors of Sousa Band uniforms held in the collection at the Sousa archive.
A side story to this uniform concerns where it came from. The tag inside the uniform on display is “Brooks Uniform Co.” of New York. This is the same company that in 1937 made green jackets for the members of the Augusta National Golf Club so that fans attending the golf tournament could spot a worker to ask for help. These green jackets later began to be awarded to the winners (first golfer to get one was Sam Snead in 1949) of the Masters Tournament.
A superstar of his time, it is hard now to imagine the enormous popularity of Sousa and his band. They played sold-out concerts all over the US and later the world.
For those who love Sousa’s music there is no one like him. He still remains popular among marching band and patriotic music fans. A collector of Sousa memorabilia comments about seeing some Sousa Band uniforms: “When I look at these uniforms I get a chill,” he said. “When you think of what these uniforms have seen -I wish they could talk. Just think, they’ve been on stage. They’ve been back stage. They’ve run to catch trains. They’ve sweat with John Philip Sousa. You have to understand -he was the rock star of his age.”
From an essay by Heather Munro