- Historic Sites
How a young New York society matron named Alice Shaw dazzled English royalty with her extraordinary embouchure
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
A lady who grew up on a farm near Wabash, Indiana, recently recalled that any unfamiliar crowing from the henhouse would cause her father to rush out and identify the offender. Before the week was out, that hen ended up in the oven or the stewpot, according to its age. As a ritual for the departing bird, her father would intone his version of the old saw:
Needless to say, the lady in Wabash grew up without whistling. But she still questions why you’d lump together a chicken trying out a male call with a maiden who puckers.
For reasons we can only guess at, a woman’s whistling has figured darkly in popular lore for centuries. These sayings from Britain and France suggest the source of the American two-liner:
In Harper’s Magazine for January 1892 Charles Dudley Warner devoted the “Editor’s Drawer” to an examination of the “popular proverb.” He charged right in, declaring that it was “a musty saying… very likely the product of the average ignorance of an unenlightened time, and ought not to have the respect of a scientific and traveled people.” It was probably Puritan, and obviously uttered by a man with the intent of keeping woman in her place (“A good idea when not carried too far”). However, he concluded, “In this practical age… it is not true that the whistling girl comes to a bad end. Whistling pays. It has brought her money; it has blown her name about the listening world.” While he names no names, the pen-and-ink illustration accompanying the article makes clear whom he had in mind. In it, a scowling old Puritan leans on a crooked walking stick as he points an accusing finger at an attractive woman in a cascading ball gown with décolleté neckline, her fingers clasped in front like an opera singer. Who is this lady, able to inspire the editor of a leading American cultural magazine to rise to the defense of whistling and women? “She is a girl of spirit, of independence of character, of dash and flavor.… Scarcely has a non-whistling woman been more famous. She has set aside the adage. She has done much toward the emancipation of her sex from the prejudice created by an ill-natured proverb which never had root in fact.”
Without a doubt the good-looking woman is Mrs. Alice J. Shaw, the first and one of the most celebrated of America’s artistic whistlers.
What we know about Mrs. Shaw comes largely from a broadsheet sent out in 1888 by her business agent, Major J. B. Pond, Everett House, New York, announcing that “he has secured for an American concert tour the queen of all artists as a whistler. … Mrs. Shaw will visit the principal cities on her tour, beginning immediately after the Presidential election.” To attract bookings, the broadsheet reprinted excerpts from “the many thousand complimentary notices of the English press.” Verifying and using some of the material left out, we get glimpses of a fascinating artist.
In her youth Mrs. Shaw was already a bit different. Little Allie Horton was a tomboy who liked to climb trees, shag stones—and whistle. It was said that her troubled parents “shut” her “up” so often that eventually she dropped the habit. Only years later, when she was a discreet member of New York’s high society and desperate for a means to support herself and her four daughters, did she remember.
“Whistling seemed to come [back] to me like an inspiration, or a sudden gift,” she later told a newspaper reporter. “I thought perhaps I could turn it to account for my children’s sake. … So I put myself under a good singing master and learnt whistling, just as a women with a voice would learn singing. I practiced scales—oh, so diligently!—and they strengthened my volume of sound, and increased my compass. I can give a sharp long whistle now of such power that it can be heard two streets away.” (Later she demonstrated her carrying power by “bringing a hansom from the very end of the street.”)