Monday, March 2, 2020

Elmira’s Whistling Prima Donna: Alice Shaw

by Erin Doane, Curator

In 1885, Alice Shaw was living with her father in Elmira. Her husband had gone off to make a living for himself and didn’t return, leaving her with four young daughters to support on her own. She tried to make money as a dressmaker, but it wasn’t enough and they were struggling. What was the poor woman to do? Alice screwed up her courage, took a deep breath, and whistled her way to international stardom.

Alice Shaw, The Cotton States and International
Exposition and South, Illustrated, 1896
Alice Horton was born in Elmira in 1853. She married W.H. Shaw when she was 20 years old. He was a widower with four sons, and ran a successful wholesale ration business in Detroit. Alice moved into her husband’s home in Detroit and the couple had two daughters. Around 1878, his business failed, and the family moved to New York City. They had two more daughters there, but he was never able to find profitable work. Alice gave up on living in New York City, and brought her four daughters to her father’s home at the corner of West Water and Grove Streets in Elmira. W.H. came with her but soon struck out on his own. Alice, too, decided to go her own way.

Music had been a part of Alice’s life from an early age, and she had always been oddly skilled at whistling. I say oddly, because, at that time, it was considered improper for women to whistle, and it was also considered difficult for them to learn in the first place. A reporter for the New York Times in 1887 explain that, “from the earliest times it has been agreed that it is a very hard thing for a girl to learn to whistle. The position of the lips is such as can only be maintained for any length of time in stern isolation from the male sex.” Alice somehow managed to overcome those difficulties, and in December 1886 she was a featured soloist at the holiday reception of the Teachers’ Association in Steinway Hall in New York City.

Illustrations of Alice Shaw and “the Pucker,” New York Sun, January 1, 1888
That one performance got such rave reviews that Alice was soon working as a professional whistler at high class concerts, private musicales, and society entertainments. The New York Sun ran an article on November 16, 1887 describing her talents:
Rather a unique figure in the amusement world is Mrs. Alice J. Shaw, who appears at benefits, private musicales, and similar performance. She is a wonderful performer, whistling without any instrument whatever in her mouth. She gives airs of the utmost intricacy and elaboration with complete accuracy and truth of expression. She is of rather majestic presence, decidedly handsome, and she has a larking expression of the left eye when she whistles which is no little factor of her success.
Recording of Alice Shaw whistling, 1888

After two years performing throughout New York City, Alice went to London. She was very well received in England, and even performed for the Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward). From there she continued touring the world. She spent a year in Russia, where she performed for Czar Nicholas. She was in India for a year, spent six months in Germany, and then returned to England for several more years. In 1899, while touring South Africa, she and her daughters had to hastily leave Johannesburg when the Boer War broke out. Her children traveled with her most of the time. Her twins, Elsie and Ethel, actually whistled with her on stage, starting when they were just five years old.

Recording of Alice Shaw and her daughters whistling, 1907

On February 24, 1889, Alice’s ex-husband was seen at her concert at Lafayette Hall in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Their divorce had become official just four months earlier. He did not meet with her in person that night, and it was the first time he had seen her in over two years. When a reporter spoke to him about his world-famous ex-wife, he had little nice to say about her. “The wealth of the Indies wouldn’t tempt me to call her wife again,” he declared. “She has changed very much since I saw her last. She is growing fleshier.” While the comment about her “fleshiness” was certainly rude, Alice obviously understood the appearance of her body, and even capitalized upon it. In 1897, she supplemented her income by endorsing Dr. Edison’s Obesity Pills and Salts.

Advertisement for Dr. Edison’s Obesity Pills and Salt
featuring Alice Shaw, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1897
Alice returned to Elmira several times through the years to visit friends and to perform. In 1888, near the height of her popularity, she whistled at a benefit performance in support of the Elmira Elks Lodge. She returned in 1900, and offered two performances daily for a week at Dixie’s Theatre. Her twins whistled and danced with her.

Advertisement for Alice Shaw’s performance at Dixie’s
Theatre in Elmira, Star-Gazette, December 10, 1900
On April 24, 1918, Alice Shaw returned to Elmira one last time. Two days earlier, she died from heart failure in New York City. She had been suffering from ill-health for the past seven or eight years. A private funeral service was held at her home at 388 Manhattan Avenue before her body was brought to Elmira for interment in Woodlawn Cemetery. She was 65 years old.

Over the years, Alice Shaw has faded into obscurity, but now and again, her extraordinary story is rediscovered.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, June 5, 1983

1 comment:

  1. For the recording of Alice J. Shaw and her daughters whistling, here is another one because the video there is unavailable.