- 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.”)
The reporter revealed in his article that Mrs. Shaw was born in New York and had lived for many years in Detroit, but made no mention of the circumstances that brought her to whistling in public. Had she become a widow, a divorcée? What about Mr. Shaw? There are no answers; the facts of her private life were kept obscure.
We do know that in late 1886 Mrs. Alice Shaw made her whistling debut in New York at Chickering Hall, appearing before an audience of the wealthy and cultivated in what was probably a benefit performance. She was a striking brunette of about five foot seven, with clear dark eyes set in an expressive and mobile face. Elegant in her dress and with great composure, she took her place on the stage beside the piano, which was her only accompaniment. Though the audience must have been seeded with her friends and well-wishers, few were prepared for what followed. The purity of her tone, the easy execution of complicated passages, the moods and emotions she was able to suggest, and the compelling volume of sound with which she filled the auditorium—all combined to startle and excite her listeners. They had never heard anything like it.
After a short and brilliant season in New York in which she whistled for nearly every charity function that asked (“It is all I can do for them”), she sailed for England accompanied by her own pianist, Mrs. Campbell. A London journal said she arrived “absolutely unadvertised,” but there must have been a few preparations. For instance, there was a friendly note from one newspaper correspondent to another quoted in the London Times : “Mrs. Shaw, who is coming to your shores… deserves all the good things that can possibly be said of her.… She has whistled her way to the hearts of all New York.” Then there was the journalist in London to whom Mrs. Shaw confided, “It was Mrs. Vanderbilt who advised me to come, and sent me over with some good introductions.”
Good introductions indeed! When her ship docked at Liverpool, the Lord Mayor of London had his private railroad car waiting to whisk her to London for a dinner at his residence. There “a select company of nobility were gathered in her honor.” They found her charming, a bright conversationalist, and a musician of considerable talent. For the next two months her stay in London was a continuous round of engagements, mostly in the parlors of the wealthy and the titled.
She whistled often for the Princess of Wales and her friends. On one occasion she found herself at a banquet seated next to the Prince of Wales and at his request whistled the “My Queen Waltz” during the removal of one of the courses. Wherever she went, her hosts insisted on serving her personally—homage shown to favorite guests.
The editor of the London Times summed it up in July of 1888: “They don’t let the grass grow under their feet, these New Yorkers. Before I had thought out my impromptu words of introduction to Mrs. Shaw, she had been interviewed; she had walked straight into the inner circle of society; she had whistled to the Prince of Wales, and has already become one of the most sought-after lionesses of the London season.… She has a marvelous whistle, and a natural one. I have invited her to come to my next great party.”
The English press loved her. “Whistling as a Fine Art” ran one headline. Others were “Society Has Taken Her Up,” “Fairly Astonished Her Audience,” “A Whistling Wonder (Mrs. Shaw Giving Points in London to the Nightingale),” “The Latest Society Sensation,” “Compared to Niagara Falls,” “Nothing Left for Her to Conquer.”
Boxes at the theaters and for the opera were now kept at her disposal. Whenever she put in an appearance, she was greeted with cheers. Mrs. Shaw had replaced Buffalo Bill as the reigning American celebrity in London.
“Many people in London have been asked out to hear Mrs. Shaw, regarding the whole thing as a joke,” admitted the Saturday Review of London, but added, “and have come away in simple wonder at the unlooked-for display of her powers. They have found her a sound musician and a subtle mistress of her particular art.”
The critics were impressed that she whistled entirely from the score, exactly as the music was written, and that she achieved “wondrous effects”—sometimes grave, even sinister, or as often rapturous, soaring, wild. It was said that she gave the music shades of interpretation as skillfully as a singer. They observed her method, remarking that “notes are only sounded with the outgoing breath, yet there is never heard the gasping recovery.” One eloquent critic compared her to a “Magic Flute” whose “notes burst forth gaily like the laugh of a bobolink” and then “sink away soft as the evening breeze.” A cable from London printed in the New York Herald of Paris reported that Mrs. Shaw “produces a tone which would rise clear and steady above an orchestra, and with equal ease she sustains her upper B flat so gently that one almost loses the sound.” A technically minded observer said that her whistle was “a most comprehensive instrument, capable of stress, swell, staccatos, trills and tremolos, with a range of two and a half octaves.”
Her extensive repertoire ranged from heavy and light operas to difficult instrumental solos. For a “special evening” in London she began with the “Charmant Oiseau” from the Pearl of Brazil . Then came the “Message of the Nightingale,” which had been composed especially for her, and finally, Decker’s “Springtide.” But in the London drawing rooms the demand was for old-fashioned ballads, so she saved “Annie Laurie” and “Bonnie Doone” for the encores.
On a more sordid note there was a headline, “Envious Professionals,” in a publication called London Society . It had to do with Mrs. Shaw’s fees. “All the professional singers and players are very bitter on the subject of the whistling woman. She gets twenty-five guineas for whistling a couple of tunes, which is more than can be commanded by performances of a far more classical character.” It seemed that the “envious professionals” were beginning to “wax very wrathful” because, as they saw it, Mrs. Shaw was collecting on her looks and on “the way she sits down and carefully wraps herself up in a cloak in the intervals of her performance.” Besides, they found her “loud whistling” to be “somewhat harsh.”
An English magazine for youth published some doggerel called “A Shaw-t Cut to Wealth”:
Mrs. Shaw was too genteel to reply, or perhaps too busy. A group of London surgeons and medical specialists had formally requested the privilege of examining her mouth and throat “in the interests of science.” She agreed, and after the examination they announced that her art was indeed a gift, due to the unusual height and narrowness of the roof of her mouth. Mrs. Shaw accepted their finding graciously but demurred slightly. It was, after all, her custom to practice whistling two to four hours each day, and it required from two to three months for her to learn a new piece; she thought diligence might have something to do with it.
Then, once more, science beckoned. Col. George E. Gouraud of London was the chief European representative for Thomas Edison. He had successfully introduced Edison’s “speaking telephone” in England and played a major part in organizing the Edison lighting industry there. Now in 1888 Edison’s Improved Phonograph was ready for the marketplace. It was electrically driven and used wax cylinders; up to this point the Edison cylinder record had been covered with tinfoil.
Edison sent a demonstration model to Colonel Gouraud in London and with it a “phonogram,” a cylinder on which the inventor himself had dictated a message with a jingle:
Gouraud at once proceeded to hold a series of “private exhibitions” or parties at Little Menlo, his house in Upper Norwood, Surrey, named after Edison’s laboratory. Prime Minister Gladstone was among the first to be recorded and hear his voice played back. Mrs. Shaw was there too. According to Musical Times , “Mrs. Shaw, the American whistler, performed an air in the machine and it was repeated in all its fullness and volume.” Gouraud sent his collection of historic wax cylinders to the Old Man at West Orange, New Jersey, but no one knows what became of these precious cylinders.
After her strenuous stay in London, Mrs. Shaw went on to Paris for a week’s rest. She had come billed as “America’s Phenomenon” or “The Whistling Prima Donna.” Before leaving England she had been dubbed La Belle Siffleuse by a journalist who found “her most striking feature” to be “the wonderful development of the muscles of her chest. Her bust is a beautiful one, and this she attributes entirely to whistling.”
The purity of her tone, the easy execution of complicated passages, and the compelling volume of sound with which she filled the auditorium all combined to startle and excite her listeners.
Returning to America in August, she made no public appearance until October 1, 1888, when La Belle Siffleuse filled the Cleveland Opera House with a “fashionable assemblage.” By this time the Plain Dealer in its review could label her “the finest whistler in the world.”
Nevertheless, it was not until 1906, almost twenty years later, that phonograph people on this side of the Atlantic got around to recording her. Perhaps the Whistling Prima Donna had been too proud or too expensive: in the early days of the phonograph a performer was often paid a dollar a round to make wax cylinders. A “round” called for a two-minute performance facing into a battery of horns while from five to fifteen cylinders were being cut. To fill an order for a hundred cylinders the performance had to be repeated up to ten times, noisily, in a cramped studio. It was not unusual to go forty times for a best seller, thereby earning forty dollars for the artist, with no royalties. Very few successful artists would subject themselves to this. Later the phonograph industry learned to make master records from which many copies could be molded or pressed, and the pay increased somewhat.
It was on one of these masters—a molded Celluloid cylinder—that Mrs. Shaw finally whistled for a larger audience. The Edison Phonograph Monthly for December 1906 announced to Edison dealers that one of the “New Edison Gold Moulded Records” to be released the following January would be “Spring-Tide Revels … a whistling trio novelty.”
Mrs. Shaw, remember, had four daughters to support. During her triumphant English tour she constantly wore pinned over that healthy bosom a brooch that opened to reveal the angelic portraits of her two youngest, the twins. “I never call my children by name,” she had told an interviewer in London, “but I have a distinct whistle for each of them which they know perfectly. Strangely enough all four of them have my gift and whistle beautifully.” By 1906 the twins had joined their mother in a whistling trio characterized by the Edison Phonograph Monthly as “perhaps the best known artists in their line now on the vaudeville and lyceum stage.
Agnes Woodward took up the serious study of whistling and eventually perfected a unique system for teaching called the Bird Method, which is still in use today.
“There is scarcely a theater-goer in the entire country who has not heard them one or more times. Therefore, a Record giving a reproduction of their remarkable talent will undoubtedly find a large sale.”
No doubt it did, for the Victor Talking Machine Company suddenly took an interest in Mrs. Shaw. We find her visiting their New York recording studio on May 29, 1907, five months after the release of the Edison cylinder. On that day she recorded three solo numbers, accompanied by the Victor Orchestra. The first and most important was “In Venice” by Rubens, which Victor released three months later as a single-sided disc. When Victor began to make double-faced records a year later, Alice Shaw’s “In Venice” was among the first releases. Ten years later, in 1917, “In Venice” was still selling.
In that particular 1917 catalog, Mrs. Shaw’s solo was listed among eighteen “Whistling Records” then available. These were followed by twenty-two “Records with Whistling Effects.” Elsewhere in the catalog appeared twenty-four “Records with Bird Effects.” It was the golden age of whistling. Anyone who had an Edison, a mahogany Victrola, or a Columbia Graphanola in the parlor invariably owned several whistling records among the cylinders or discs stored in the cabinet beneath. By contrast the 1936 Victor catalog lists only three “Whistling Records,” no “Records with Whistling Effects” and a mere eight with “Bird Effects”: the taste for fancy whistling had waned with the passing of vaudeville.
Those who bought Mrs. Shaw’s one successful Victor record as late as 1917 must have remembered the thrill of hearing her swell the air with her music; they may have been chiefly motivated by a desire to pay homage. For while it is true that “In Venice” affords an opportunity for Mrs. Shaw’s particular type of bravura performance—lots of trills, staccatos, and quick turns—and though she stays right on the note and her timing is excellent, there is no fire, no feeling. It is tempting to blame her lackluster performance on the limitations of acoustical recording, but the bitter truth is that on the flip side of the record Joe Belmont’s warblings in “The Bird and the Brook” played by the Victor Orchestra “with whistling effects” are sprightly, liquid, moving. It was simply that the phonograph people got around to Mrs. Shaw too late.
Even if the Victor record caught only a hint of her glory, those who heard her whistle in her prime never forgot. As late as 1931 “F.P.A.,” the New York Herald Tribune columnist, recalled having heard “the greatest of professional whistlers, Alice Shaw, who used to be on the big time in vaudeville.”
She even rated a scholarly reference in The Oxford Companion of Music: “The technique of whistling has sometimes been developed to the point of virtuosity. In the late nineteenth century the American Mrs. Alice Shaw was a famous whistler, known as ‘La Belle Siffleuse.’” Indeed, Mrs. Shaw is the only artist named in a somewhat lengthy treatment of “whistling” in that well-known reference book.
Even if her “heavenly music” is only a hazy memory, Alice J. Shaw should be remembered as a trailblazer. After her came a succession of notable female whistlers whose strains still enliven the air.
There was Sybil Sanderson Fagan, a young thing out of Springfield, Ohio, who went to New York in 1917 to demonstrate her amazing talent—she could whistle brilliantly with two pinky fingers thrust into her mouth for volume and tone control. Columbia signed her on immediately, and then Edison booked her for a series of road tours as a Tone Test artiste. For the next five years she and the other artistes (singers, violinists, elocutionists) held concerts all over America and Canada under the sponsorship of local Edison dealers. They played to packed houses in theaters, churches, union halls—their only stage prop being Edison’s ultimate phonograph, the Laboratory Model Diamond Disc. The concerts would be interrupted by sudden lightsout and flash-on surprises as the audience gradually realized it couldn’t tell when the performer stopped and the phonograph took over. When she took her final bows and retired from the vaudeville stage in 1931, Sybil Sanderson Fagan had been recorded on hundreds of cylinders and discs for fourteen record companies—more than any other artistic whistler before or since.
While Mrs. Shaw was still fascinating lyceum audiences in the mid-1890s, a young lady graduated from the Detroit Conservatory of Music having done special work in voice and sight reading. She yearned to be an operatic diva but had strained her voice so seriously as a student that she was told she must never sing again. So Agnes Woodward took up the serious study of whistling. In time she perfected a unique system for the teaching of whistling, called the Bird Method, which is in use to this day. Moving to California, Miss Woodward opened a whistling studio to test her theories. By 1909 she had enough students to hire three assistants and found the California School of Artistic Whistling at Los Angeles. Her booklet that was sent to prospective enrollees stated the school’s raison d’être : “There is an art of whistling which belongs to the higher musical accomplishments, and which, in the majority of cases, falls to the lot of the young woman.”
Agnes Woodward held evening musicales to which the public was invited to hear for the first time whistling duets, trios, and quartets. This led to bookings for club programs, weddings, and even funerals; in time Miss Woodward assembled the famous Bird Whistling Chorus, composed of thirty of her most accomplished young ladies. In 1923 she wrote her own textbook, Whistling as an Art , which was published by Carl Fischer in New York and went through several editions. As her students went on to the Chautauqua and vaudeville circuits, the fame of the California School spread. Woodward graduates were heard on radio and went into movie work. By 1926 Brenet’s Dictionnaire de la Musique could state: “In the United States of America whistling has become a real art, and lovers of whistling have arrived at the point of combining in the whistled performance of duos, trios, and classical quartets.”
A student of Agnes Woodward’s—Margaret McKee—even remade Alice Shaw’s one successful record for Victor, in 1919, when it is likely the master record was wearing out. Thus the classical whistling of “In Venice” stayed in the Victor catalog until 1926.
In her original booklet Woodward had announced: “Branches of the School… will be established throughout the United States as rapidly as competent teachers are prepared.” And so they were, in Glendale, California; Seattle and Yakima, Washington; Chicago; Portland, Oregon.
This last school was founded by a young bride who in 1914 saw an ad in the Chautauquan magazine that said, “Learn to Whistle Like a Bird.” She consulted her husband, a traveling salesman who was away from home for long periods, and he said, “Why not?” So Lota Stone sent away for Agnes Woodward’s booklet. She had a strong interest in music and, like her teacher-to-be, a throat condition that prevented singing. For the next ten years Lota Stone studied whistling each winter at the California School of Whistling in Los Angeles. In order to finance her education, she worked tirelessly each summer at gardening, canning, and sewing- then with her hoarded earnings took a coastwise steamer from Portland down to Wilmington and the “electric” into Los Angeles. She studied the half-written textbook, whistled in Agnes Woodward’s big all-girl chorus, and in 1924 she was licensed to teach the Bird Method. The final exam was to write Miss Woodward’s book from memory. Lota, now in her nineties, remembers that she made only one mistake, on the chromatic scale. Back in Portland to stay, she opened her own studio in the Fine Arts Building and soon had all the whistling students she could handle. They were mostly girls. One of the first things she taught was Agnes Woodward’s little poem, a riposte to the old proverb:
And they did too. Lota Stone still talks about “my whistlers.” One student, Annette Culley, is a housewife in Salem, Oregon, but in 1979 she was judged the best Contemporary and Country Western Whistler among women—at the World’s Second International Whistle-Off, held at Carson City, Nevada. A judge for this annual event was another of her students, Clifford W. Pratt, who teaches adult classes in whistling and recently published The Whistling Book . Both use the Bird Method, of course.
Is artistic whistling about to have a rebirth? Could another Alice Shaw come on the pop music scene and make Gold Records? Possibly, if she (or he) has the innate talent of an Alice J. Shaw or a Sybil Sanderson Pagan. But one thing is certain. As the editor of Harper’s Magazine wrote in 1892: “We only know that whereas they did not whistle with approval, now they do; the prejudice of generations gradually melts away. And woman’s destiny is not linked with that of the hen, nor to be controlled by a proverb—perhaps not by anything.”