Whistling Girls: 1885-1891

Mrs Bertha Stockwell with students at her whistling school, c. 1949 https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/-/IgEkF26a62c2ag


What a Professor of Anatomy has to Say

The Proper Method of Producing the Vibrations

Whistling Out of Tune

[New York Letter]

“The best whistlers I know,” said a fashionable doctor, “are young ladies. It is like the warbling of a mocking bird. They can whistle much higher notes than a man, and in a very clear and bell-like tone. I know a young lady who whistles and accompanies herself on a guitar. The effect is really very pretty, and her friends often beg her to favour them with an air. I met her down at Nantucket last summer, and it was her habit to sit on the beach in the evening and whistle plaintive negro melodies. When we went out sailing she was very welcome for the same reason. I think she whistled her way into the affections of a very desirable young man, and I hear they are engaged.”


A New York girl was quite indignant when asked why girls couldn’t whistle. “Can’t whistle?” she said. “Why, they can whistle! All the girls I know whistle. Up at Vassar we had whistling concerts. We used to practice at night in the dormitories when the matron was gone and the lights were out, and if you weren’t very sleepy it was fun to lie in bed and hear ten girls whistling ‘In the Gloaming’ all together. We had one girl who could whistle through her fingers like a boy, but then she was a regular tomboy. She could run, play ball, climb trees, and box better than any other girl in the college. There was another girl who could only whistle by drawing in her breath, but that was better than not whistling at all.”

A professor of anatomy said: “The mouth has more muscle than any other portion of the body—the number varies from nineteen to twenty-one. The chief muscle is the orbicularis oris or sphincter muscle. The muscle is in two parts, the upper extending from the nose to the mouth. The two parts are interwoven at the corners of the mouth so that they act as one muscle. Their minor circumference circumscribes the opening of the mouth. This muscle, by modifying the state of the expired air produces in it vibrations of a peculiar character, and this is whistling.


“In whistling the lips are pursed up so that only a small aperture remains. The air is driven from the lungs into the mouth, where it distends the buccinators muscles of the cheeks, and these muscles contracting aid in forcing out the air through the lips. The tongue compresses the volume of air in the mouth, and so adds to the sharpness of the whistle. The benefit of the tongue is readily seen when an attempt is made to whistle sharply with an indrawn breath. Women have the same muscles of the mouth as men, and are generally as well able to use them. There is no reason at all why everybody should not whistle.

“Some try to whistle by blowing through their pouting lips, but that is not the idea at all. The mucous membrane of the lips must be drawn tense, so that it will vibrate by the current of air passing over it. These vibrations are communicated to the air column, and hence the tone, varying with the tension of the lips and air. It is exactly on the same principle that the vocal cords work. The lips adjust themselves voluntarily according to the musical ear of the whistler, as it is impossible for him to distinguish the different positions of the lips in sounding the various tones. People with no ear for music will invariably whistle very much out of tune, while people with a cultivated ear will whistle very finely. As women are, as a rule, more musical than men, they can whistle better when they set about it. However, it is greatly a matter of practice.”

Bismarck [ND] Tribune 20 October 1885: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The learned professor of anatomy seems determined to drain every suggestion of pleasure out of the thing. Mrs Daffodil will not offer the obvious allusion to “Whistling women and cackling hens…”

Nineteenth-century whistling was viewed very seriously as one of the musical arts. Contests and concerts were held to showcase the tuneful lips, as in this account of dueling whistlers.

Eminent Whistlers Meet

Mrs. Alice J. Shaw, the whistling prima donna, and her company appeared at the opera house before a good audience. An additional number was furnished by Thomas F. Brown, the local whistler, who, by the way, Maj. Pond, Mrs. Shaw’s manager, asserted would be “knocked out.” Nothing of the kind happened, however, and Mr. Browne’s peculiar style of whistling compared very favourably with Mrs. Shaw’s.

Mrs. Shaw rendered Arditi’s familiar “Il Bacio,” and was warmly encored, to which she gracefully responded. Mr. Browne received an ovation when he appeared. He whistled “The Forest Fairy,” and responded to an encore with a medley of operatic selections, and on being recalled gave “Kathleen Mavourneen.” Mrs. Shaw’s volume of tone is somewhat superior to Mr. Browne’s. Her notes are peculiarly sweet and birdlike, and at the same time are quite penetrating. Her trills and runs were all good, and the expression and execution were excellent. She has one advantage over Mr. Browne, and that is her musical training, but he latter overcomes that by his natural ability. In the lower register Mr. Browne excels Mrs. Shaw, particularly in the flute or piccolo intonation. His range is about three octaves, and his execution of the high notes was brilliant. He possesses one strong feature which Mrs. Shaw lacks, and that is his peculiar double tonguing.  Arizona Champion [Flagstaff, AT] 14 March 1891: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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