A “Steam Trombone” FOLLOW-UP

In a comment left on the previous post about the steam trombone, reader Peter suggested further research in the NY Times archives regarding the incident in question. I was initially hesitant, because I love the perfect snapshot afforded by the irate editorial we examined — personally, I don’t need the context, I don’t need anything except the vivid picture my mind paints of this situation. The facts can only take me a small measure farther, and besides: what if they’re boring? Then the phenomenon of the steam trombone might be ruined for me forever.

Still, my curiosity got the better of me. If you would like to retain a pure-hearted conception of the steam trombone, read no further. If, however, you would like cold, hard facts regardless of the consequences, read on. I will warn you: it is not quite what I expected. (Full articles are at the links; emphases mine.)

A STEAM TROMBONE: Proprietor Enjoined From Giving His Wild Concerts. NYT, January 1, 1890.

SCRANTON, Penn. Dec. 31 – Arthur Frothingham is an enterprising Scrantonian who has projected an elaborate “arcade” in the business centre of the city. [...] The feature of the Arcade is a great steam trombone or musical gong that can be heard five miles away. This Mr. Frothingham has set to music, and every day at 6 o’clock in the morning, 12 and 1 in the afternoon, and 6 in the evening he treated the citizens of Scranton to a “solo” as loud as the blast of Gabriel’s trumpet. [...]

The Westminster Hotel, one of the leading hotels in Scranton, is built right up against the Arcade, and after the steam trombone has been heard a few times the guests began to complain in pronounced terms to the landlord, Mr. Joseph Curt. The latter tried to quiet them by saying the steam music would be silenced in a few days, but Mr. Frothingham refused to forego the pleasure of liberating his musical steam.

The case reached a crisis the other day with the great two-hundred-horse-power steam trombone began in a wild, weird, and fearfully fantastic way to play “Home, Sweet Home.” Every note sounded as loud as the fog whistle of an ocean steamer, and the entire city stood and listened in amazement to the wonderful “tune.”

Landlord Curt asserted himself, and, after consulting his attorney, applied to Judge Gunster for an injunction to restrain Mr. Frothingham’s gong. A preliminary injunction was granted in short order, and Thursday next was fixed for the hearing of the case.

THE MUSIC OBJECTED TO: An Effort To Enjoin Mr. Frothingham’s Steam Trombone. NYT, January 22, 1890.

…Ex-Judge Knapp, who is an attorney for Mr. Curt, submitted to the court over twenty affadavits from lawyers, doctors, and businessmen living in the immediate vicinity of the Arcade, declaring that the steam trombone is a nuisance and a detriment to the public health.

Mr. Frothingham, in defense of the trombone, asserted that it was a necessity to his business. He said he employed about sixty-five men, and it is important to take some such means of notifying them when to begin work in the morning. He then introduced, by way of corroboration, the affadavits of several Binghamton men as well as some residents of Scranton to prove that a musical trombone was a source of great enjoyment.

Some of Mr. Frothingham’s Scranton friends even went so far as to allege that the steam trombone, if manipulated by an artist, would be a great attraction to the city, and they thought it ought to be continued as a means of cultivating the musical tastes of the people of Scranton.

The affadavit of one of the Binghamton men set forth that musical steam trombones were a positive public benefit, and said that the people of the Parlor City had been entertained for several years by the dulcet notes of an instrument similar to that of Mr. Frothingham. He stated that in the morning the Binghamton steam trombone usually played “Yankee Doodle,” and the people generally get out of bed half an hour or so before the music began, so that they might have full opportunity for its enjoyment.

EDITORIAL, NYT, January 22, 1890.

…Why the inmates of that hotel do not take shots at him as he walks the street, or pull his trombone to pieces, is a question impossible to answer except by reference to the fatuous and criminal good nature of the American character. The miscreant has even procured certain persons to make affadavits that they like it. Presumably they are deaf-mutes; but if not they should be marked for identification with the wretched owner when the hour of vengeance strikes.

THE SCRANTON MAN’S TROMBONE. Scranton Republican, February 11, 1890.

In court yesterday morning Judge Gunster handed down an opinion continuing the preliminary injunction brought in the Frothingham trombone case, with conditions. [...] “If the defendant wishes to use the gong he must do so at such times and in such a manner that the noise will not be a nuisance to others. Ingenuity, guided by a little regard for the rights and feelings of others, ought to be able to devise some method whereby this can be done, and at the same time serve all useful purposes.” [...] Mr. Frothingham is not discouraged by this ruling. He says that the opinion is in one sense a victory for him, as it permits him to sound the gong under certain conditions.

“BILLY” WEST AT LAW. A Scranton Man Took Offense At One Of His “Gags.” NYT, September 18, 1892.

Mr. Frothingham is a man of considerable tenacity, and when he has once set his mind to a thing he does not surrender his position easily. This was fully demonstrated here a few years ago, when he connected a steam gong, capable of being heard twenty miles away, with his boiler at the Arcade Building, which he was erecting next to the Westminster Hotel on Wyoming Avenue.

The landlord of the Westminster did not appreciate Mr. Frothingham’s enterprise at that time, and so the owner of the gong had a steam arrangement made of “Home, Sweet Home,” which was blown off every morning at 6 o’clock under pretense of summoning men to work, but in reality for the delectation of the hotel keeper and his guests, who were finally driven to distraction by the fiendish music emitted from a whistle actuated by a boiler of 100 horse power. Of course, litigation ensued, and a permanent injunction was granted by the court against Mr. Frothingham’s musical gong.

About that time Primrose and West’s Minstrels appeared at the Academy of Music, and one of the burned-cork comedians intimated to another that he had invested a fortune in Frothingham’s Arcade. The other replied that the investment would be “permanent,” and when pressed for his reasons for saying so, added that it would be permanent for the reason that the investor would never see a dollar of his money again.

Mr. Frothingham, who was in the audience, became terribly indignant at this reflection upon the solvency of his pet enterprise, and immediately declared war on the local minstrel “gag.” He did more than this. He resolved upon making it hot for the minstrel company, and took steps to have every member of it arrested.

The hour was late, however, and before the machinery of justice could be set in motion the minstrels had taken the midnight train to Wilkesbarre, where they were to appear next evening. But Mr. Frothingham was not to be baffled. He hastened to Wilkesbarre next day with a warrant for “Billy” West’s arrest, on a charge of slander, and the minstrel was taken into custody immediately after the performance and gave bail in a considerable amount for his appearance at court. [...] The owner of the Arcade vowed he would force the slander case to trial, and so instituted additional proceedings in a civil suit for $5,000 damages. [...]

[Frothingham] took good care to be at the railroad station after the performance [to serve West with papers], when West was about to leave town. Mr. West tried to elude his pursuer, but Frothingham followed him closely for some distance along the track and back again to the station. Then Minstrel West, who was very angry, threatened to strike Frothingham, but he was prevented by a policeman. During the disturbance at the station Frothingham stuck the legal papers under West’s coat collar, and claimed that the service was legal. [...]

In the meantime, it is proper to state that the local “gags” once so popular with minstrels and the exponents of farce comedy are rarely indulged in, so far as the Scranton Academy of Music is concerned. To this extent Mr. Frothingham is, in a certain sense, a reformer, and can with propriety claim that he is elevating the stage.


  • patg00

    1000 hp steam whistles/trombones/gongs and suing minstrels for slander. What has happened to Americans, we used to be so much fun.

  • http://sockzilla.tumblr.com Gabriel F

    I hadn’t thought to pursue the case of the Steam Trombone farther than the initial article. Oh boy, was I missing out :P Thanks for posting this!

  • Loreo

    Ha! The grand old tradition of being an American Dick.

  • Dan

    This story has made my morning. In addition to the oddity that is the Steam Trombone, I was intrigued by this line in the first article linked above:

    “The special Arcade policeman is a German giant measuring over seven feet in height. He was formerly a Chinese giant in a side show, but now he is a formidable figure at the entrance to the Arcade in his policemen’s uniform and helmet.”

    Was a Chinese giant and then was employed as a German giant? This Arcade, with it’s steam trombone and colorful owner, must have been quite the magical place.

  • CaTHy

    It wasn’t uncommon for “human oddities” to present themselves as being from someplace exotic, like China, only to revert to their plain old Euro-American selves when off tour. The Famous “Wild Men of Borneo” were actually two brothers from Ohio….