Performers in Chicago

The group above isn’t identified and the photo has faded quite a bit.  The only information on the cabinet card is the name and address of the Chicago studio of William L. Koehne (1869-1965) and Charles F. Bretzman (1867-1934).  The partnership between the two photographers began by 1894 and ended in 1899 or very early the following year.  In February 1900 Bretzman moved to Indianapolis, Indiana.  We can therefore date the photo to the period 1894-1900.

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The members of the group look very close in age, which makes me think they might have been a college drama club.  On the other hand, the women are wearing folk costumes, so they might have been folk singers or dancers.  Maybe they were touring the country and stopped to perform in Chicago.  Do their outfits tell you anything?  One woman is wearing a striped skirt which must have been very colorful.

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32 thoughts on “Performers in Chicago

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    1. You may be right. I wondered about her but wasn’t quite sure if she was older or not. I bet she was their teacher. Have you heard of Bretzman before? Apparently he became an important chronicler of life in Indianapolis. He took the first photos of the Indy 500.


  1. A very intriguing photo! The woman on the far right and the one above her are wearing similar costumes and look like they could be sisters. I wonder what they were performing. Only three are looking into the camera; the rest have interesting expressions.

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  2. The only thing I’d say with a degree of confidence is that they aren’t dancers. Those costumes are too complex, and in some cases too heavy, for dance performance — particularly the velvet. At least, it seems so to me. I’d think drama. There’s quite a bit of variety in the men’s costumes, and it’s interesting that the woman on the left is wearing a more typically peasant’s scarf. In a drama, I’d pair her with the man on the far right.

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    1. The women’s costumes all fall into the general category of “folk,” but the men’s are more puzzling. Their outfits look more suitable for dancing than the women’s, and that fellow on the left is really striking a pose! But my first thought was that they were actors, rather than dancers, and that does seem like the most likely scenario.

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  3. I love the studied nonchalance of the photo. It’s so posed, but they are trying to hard to be casual. Fascinating looking at these old photos, getting a glimpse into an oh so brief moment of someone else’s life. Layer upon layer, upon layer.

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  4. The costume of the woman in the middle (striped apron with conical hat) looks to be Swedish from what I’ve seen at a couple websites. Looks like a variety of nationalities are represented, so it may have been taken to commemorate the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

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    1. What an interesting idea about the World’s Fair! Bretzman’s Wikipedia page says his partnership with Koehne began “by 1894,” which suggests it could have begun a little earlier. Also, if this group of performers got together in connection with the Fair in 1893, they could certainly have stayed together a bit longer, or simply reunited for the portrait.

      I looked up Swedish folk costumes and saw many different styles. You may have seen the one below, from Rättvik, which does indeed look quite similar. (From the website FolkCostume&Embroidery –

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  5. I love the direct gaze into the camera that three of the women are giving, well, and the expressions of all of the individuals in this image for that matter. But the three women looking straight at us all seem to have a “knowing” or even mischievous look in their eyes (especially the two younger women). I can’t help but begin to put together a narrative in my mind based on the characters they appear to be portraying. 🙂

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  6. So many ethnic dance costumes have the men in knee breeches from Slovakian, to Dutch, to German..yadda yadda..I tried to come at it from that way. There were and are many ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago. I do not doubt that this was a young group of..looks like Polish dancers..a young group but performance is not their profession but their pastime/passion for a festival or feast day with their club of fellow blond haired dancers. Eh. It’s all I got.

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    1. I like your analysis! You got me thinking about knee breeches. They must have been very practical for certain activities back in the day. Especially with the lower legs wrapped or covered by stockings (I don’t know the proper term). Breeches would be better than trousers for almost any kind of athletic activity.

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