Cole Porter, Bing Crosby & Leonard Bernstein: News & Obituaries

During this October week in American history three musical geniuses died who had a big impact on music—both in America and around the world:

  • Cole (Albert) Porter, American composer, died at 73 on 15 October 1964
  • Bing Crosby (Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby, Jr.), American singer and actor, died at 74 on 14 October 1977
  • Leonard Bernstein, American composer, conductor, and pianist, died at 72 on 14 October 1990

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. You can use newspapers to research their public careers and trace their family trees. The following newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Cole Porter (1891-1964)

Cole Porter, best known for his musical Kiss Me, Kate, had a long, prolific career in musical theater. A composer and songwriter, he had a string of hits on Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Porter wrote both the music and the lyrics for his songs, and his many hit songs include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “You’re the Top.”

Porter’s career was interrupted in 1937 by a severe accident while horseback riding, leaving him disabled and in pain for the rest of his life.

Cole Porter Hurt in Riding Accident, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 25 October 1937

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 25 October 1937, page 14

He carried on, however, and his triumph Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 placed him at the top of his profession once again.

Cole Porter's 'Kiss Me, Kate' Wins Royal Salute, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 31 December 1948

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 31 December 1948, page 11

Along with his successful Broadway shows, Porter also wrote numerous film scores, to great acclaim. He wrote his last musical, Silk Stockings, in 1955, and his last songs for a film were for the Gene Kelly movie Les Girls in 1957.

The next year was a turning point in Porter’s life. His severely damaged right leg was finally amputated—and he never wrote another song again. He lived the last six years of his life quietly, primarily in seclusion, and died in Santa Monica, California, in 1964.

Cole Porter Dies; Leaves Legacy of World-Famed Music, Seattle Daily Times newspaper obituary 16 October 1964

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 16 October 1964, page 9

His obituary stated:

“Porter’s works revolutionized song writing in many ways. It was he who first broke away, successfully, from the restrictions of Tin-Pan Alley traditions that a popular song had to have a 16-bar verse and a 32-bar chorus. Some of his pieces almost doubled this.

“His lyrics were so good they were published as a book of poems. Their sophistication, wit and complex inner rhymes won him accolades as the foremost Indiana poet since James Whitcomb Riley.”

Bing Crosby (1903-1977)

Bing Crosby is a towering figure in American music, radio, and film history. From the 1930s to the 1950s Crosby had tremendous success, from multi-selling records, popular radio shows, and movie roles. As a recording artist alone, Crosby sold more than half a billion records! He is honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for his records, movies, and radio shows.

The extent of Bing Crosby’s fame and popularity can be glimpsed in this 1949 newspaper article.

'Raffles' Changed His Mind about Robbing Bing Crosby, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 22 February 1949

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 22 February 1949, page 1

Bing Crosby died doing something he loved. Late on the afternoon of 14 October 1977, he and a partner defeated two Spanish pros after 18 holes of golf in Madrid, Spain. Immediately after securing the victory, Crosby had a heart attack and died on one of the greens of the golf course.

Bing Crosby Dead, Boston Herald newspaper obituary 15 October 1977

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 15 October 1977, page 1

His obituary described Crosby as “the golden-voiced singer-actor who serenaded three generations of lovers” and reported:

“Crosby was ‘happy and singing’ during the 4½ hour round of golf that was to be his last, one of his golfing partners said.”

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Leonard Bernstein was one of the most famous musicians in the world, renowned for his composing, conducting, and piano playing. He gained his fame as the long-time music director of the New York Philharmonic orchestra, but in his long career he conducted most of the world’s best orchestras. He was equally well-known for his tremendous talent at the piano, often playing at the keyboard while conducting piano concertos.

Bernstein was also a gifted composer, achieving lasting fame for his music for the musical West Side Story, which opened on Broadway on 26 September 1957. The next day, this review noted that “the first-night audience gave it a rousing reception.”

'West Side Story' Linked to Bard, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 27 September 1957

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 27 September 1957, page 17

Bernstein, suffering from lung disease, conducted for the last time on 19 August 1990 at a concert with the Boston Symphony—a performance unfortunately marred by his suffering a coughing attack during the playing of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. On 9 October 1990 he announced he would no longer conduct; five days later he died from a heart attack.

Bernstein Dead at 72, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 15 October 1990

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 15 October 1990, page 1

Calling him “the impassioned American maestro,” Bernstein’s obituary noted some of his many achievements and the causes he supported:

“The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he led an orchestra performance at a liberated concentration camp, raised money for the Black Panthers and on Christmas 1989 celebrated the demise of the Berlin Wall by conducting [in East Berlin, Germany] Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Newspaper Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that we can’t find elsewhere—whether they are our ancestors or famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family tree and the famous people you admire most!

How to Date Old Photos of Our Ancestors with Early Fashion Trends

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers and historical books to show how illustrations of fashion trends in hats can help you date an undated family photograph in your collection.

One of my earlier GenealogyBank blog posts, “How to Date Family Photos with Vintage Fashion Ads in Newspapers,” showed how to date an old photograph by comparing the clothes worn by the people in the photo with clothing illustrations from vintage advertisements in historical newspapers.

One of the points I made in that article was that if you can find a newspaper advertisement that matches a hat found in an old photograph, use the newspaper to establish the time period that photo might have been taken. This is an important determination, as it can eliminate relatives not from that time period as possible candidates for the people in the photo.

In today’s blog article, I’m following up on this topic of how earlier fashion trends found in old newspapers can help you date an old, undated photograph by focusing on hats.

First Newspaper Photograph Published in 1880

Photographs published in newspapers can be used to study early fashion trends—but only after 1879.

That’s because it took until 1880 for the first photograph to be published in a newspaper. Prior to that time, you’ll have to rely on newspaper illustrations and other aids to date those troublesome shoeboxes of unidentified, undated family photos.

The Library of Congress’s illustrated Guide on Pictorial Journalism, which I recommend reading, explains:

“The first photograph published in an American newspaper—actually a photomechanical reproduction of a photograph—appeared in the Daily Graphic on March 4, 1880. Before that time it was common practice for American editors to enlist artists to sketch and report on news events, from steamboat explosions to the battles of the Civil War.”

In this 1875 illustration from the Daily Graphic, note that New York Senator Francis Kernan’s image was derived from a photograph by Gardner, of Utica, New York.

illustration of New York Senator Francis Kernan, Daily Graphic newspaper article 23 February 1875

Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 23 February 1875, page 4

Prior to 1880, we must be creative to find clothing illustrative of specific time periods.

I’d also like to stress that old photographs may not have depicted ancestors in everyday dress, as photographers were notorious for utilizing props, lighting, and fashion accessories to make black and white results more appealing. They soon learned that dark colors needed to contrast with light, or the results were one dark mess.

Advice for getting a good photographic result was common, as demonstrated in this 1882 article from the Kalamazoo Gazette that is full of recommendations on how to dress for a photographic session.

Dressing for a Photograph, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 26 May 1882

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 26 May 1882, page 2

The article advised: “The best materials for ladies to wear when about to sit for a photograph are such as will fold or drape nicely, like reps, winceys [plain or twill-woven cloth], poplins, satins and silks. Lavender, lilac, sky blue, purple and French blue take very light and are worse for a picture than pure white. Corn color and salmon are better.”

Later on, the article noted that ladies “with dark or brown hair should avoid contrasts in their costumes, as light substances photograph more quickly than dark, and ladies with light hair should dress in something lighter than those whose hair is dark or brown.”

Don’t necessarily believe that your early photographs are extremely old. Of course, it’s possible that a rare ambrotype from the 1850s or daguerreotype from the 1860s lies in your collection, but more likely you’re looking at later photographs.

Examples of Early Hat Fashion

So, given these considerations, is there much value in examining earlier newspapers for American fashion trends to help with your family photos identification?

Yes, but you might find it easier to target specific attire—such as hats.

These 1834 advertisements from the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics include simple illustrations: one of a buffalo, and the other of top hats. From these old newspaper ads, one gets the impression that our ancestors paraded around in attire made from animal products such as skins from buffalo, lynx, muskrat, seals and even swans.

Notice that gentlemen were purchasing beaver and satin hats, and that the youth of earlier days wore caps of sea otter, fur seal, leather and cloth. Boas, fur capes, and fur trimmings were available for the ladies.

ads for hats, Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics newspaper advertisements 22 November 1834

Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 22 November 1834, page 4

If you are interested in researching early hat fashions, search for articles in connection with religious and ethnic groups. Some describe their costumes in great detail.

This 1850 article from the Washington Reporter remarked on the collarless coats and broad-brimmed hats worn by the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Why the Quakers Wear Their Hats, Washington Reporter newspaper article 4 September 1850

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1850, page 1

This 1860 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer discussed Panama hats, made by South American Native Americans from the bombonaxa plant.

Panama Hats, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 16 October 1860

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 16 October 1860, page 2

Examples of Old Advertising Cards

Before I finish this article about dating family photos using period fashion clues, I’d like to mention that there is a most exciting option within GenealogyBank to examine clothing illustrations: advertising cards.

By exploring the Historical Book Collection you’ll find examples of advertising cards dating back to the 1700s. Many are works of art, and if you search by keywords such as “Hats,” “Hat Maker,” or “Hat Manufacturer,” you’ll learn that this industry was of greater importance than most realize.

Advertising card from 1790 for Sam Sturgis, hat maker

Advertising card from 1790

Although C. C. Porter’s Hat Manufacturing Company probably didn’t market to Native American Indians, this advertising card from around 1830 has a fine example of an Indian costume and headdress.

Advertising card from 1830 for C. C. Porter Hat Manufacturing Company

Advertising card from 1830

This next old advertising card shows a dog swimming in the water fetching a top hat—suggesting it must have blown from the head of the man behind him. Luckily, H. D. Tregear was known to manufacture waterproof hats!

Advertising card from 1830 for H. D. Tregear  hat maker

Advertising card from 1830

You might think waterproofing apparel items was a new invention, but out of curiosity I searched the historical newspaper archives and found reports of waterproof hats as early as 1765. Apparently there was a European waterproof hat called a Nivernois that became popular. (I’ll leave it to you to research how this feature was achieved.)

notice about waterproof hats, Georgia Gazette newspaper article 21 February 1765

Georgia Gazette (Savannah, Georgia), 21 February 1765, page 2

Notice in the following advertising card, from Mann Swift & Company (North American Straw Works) in 1837, a sampling of lady’s bonnets and the clothing of those wandering on the lawn in the illustration. If those bonnets were made of straw, it’s not likely many have survived—making these illustrations of great historical importance.

Advertising card from 1837 for Mann Swift & Company (North American Straw Works)

Advertising card from 1837

Here is an advertising card from John W. D. Hall of Taunton, which shows greater detail of top hats than found in the first example above.

Advertising card from 1840 for John W. D. Hall hat maker

Advertising card from 1840

This fashion trend remained popular with men for decades, as seen in this 16 May 1861 photograph of President Abraham Lincoln seated next to a table, upon which he’s placed his prominent top hat.

photo of American President Abraham Lincoln seated at a small table

Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-15178. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3a17427/

Hats off to any of you who can find an ancestor’s photo with a top hat!

As these illustrations, photograph and advertising cards have shown, pictures from old newspapers can show you what clothing people from a certain time period were wearing—and just might provide the clue you’ve long been looking for to date certain undocumented family photographs in your collection.