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
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|
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.
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
|Advertisement for Alice Shaw’s performance at Dixie’s |
Theatre in Elmira, Star-Gazette, December 10, 1900
Over the years, Alice Shaw has faded into obscurity, but now and again, her extraordinary story is rediscovered.