Alfred Bird was a man of many talents. Not only was he a pharmacist and chemist, inventor of instant pudding and baking powder, he was also a talented musician, wont to amuse his dinner guests by performing various popular melodies of the day on water glasses. Not in the style of the water harp or the glass armonica (Ben Franklin’s wondrous, forgotten contraption), but by tapping on them with forks and spoons like sets of chimes. He was quite good at it, and even had a custom 4-octave glass set made for himself so he could more fully express his musical ideas.
You know, one of the many down sides of the broadcast age is the way in which it’s deprived us all of home-made entertainment. Before TV and radio people had quite a lot of time to both practice and perform all types of parlor amusements. This was especially true among the European and American professional classes, where broad exposure to the arts was common, even expected. Back in the 1800’s it wouldn’t have been considered unusual in the least for a learned man like Bird to have been highly proficient on an instrument (even a weird one like water glasses). The wealthy and famous were no exceptions. I imagine some Viennese gentleman of the age calling out to his wife as he buttoned his collar studs: “Hurry dear or we’ll be late to the Freud’s! You know how much you love Ziggy’s juggling!”
So OK, probably never have happened. The vast majority of the time socialites amused each other with simple songs, games, piano pieces and poetry readings. Though part of me certainly prefers to think of pre-broadcast society as one long, never ending Gong Show, where an evening at Marie and Pierre Curie’s might culminate in an hour of amateur mime. Or where Alfred Nobel, his servants having just cleared the dishes, might announce “And now Ladies and Gentlemen, if you please, bring your coffees to the library, where my pet cat Bubbles will now amuse us by performing The Stars and Stripes Forever on the flugelhorn.”
That’s when entertainment would have really meant something, friends. Hm. All this is making me think I might want to break out the old trombone tonight, just for fun. Busy?