MORNINGS ON MAPLE STREET VOLUME TWO

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Capps Family, Page One

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Capps family, Grand Rapids, Michigan, November 29, 1917. Photo by Lewis Hine.

(L-R): Back row: Pearl (mother), Earl, Kendall, Edward (father); middle row: Bridget (Bee), Edward Jr., Edith; front: Orville. Shown at the Pastime Vaudette Theater, now restored and called the Wealthy Theater, according to Erin Wilson, the current director of the theater.

Capps family at Columbia vaudeville. Baby of 21 months (been on stage for 6 months). Girl of 5 years (been on stage for 2 years). Boy of 7 years (been on stage for 1 year). Girl of 8 years (been on stage for 5 years). Boy of 12 years (been on stage for 8 years). Boy of 14 years (been on stage for 9 years). Oldest boy is acrobat, contortionist, etc. All do singing and dancing acts except baby, who appears in final scene as Charlie Chaplin. They appear 3 or 4 times a day--sometimes 7 days in the week, usually coming last on program (as a feature), which means they do not leave dressing room until nearly 11 p.m. Then, in addition, the life in cheap hotels and on the road "making new towns" is very unsettling. It was very touching to see the little ones curled up back of the scenes waiting for their act and getting 40 winks or the mother nursing the baby just before it was poked out onto the stage to do his little "turn." In spite of their stage life, their manners are good. They are quiet, well-appearing children, and the parents are kind and sympathetic. The father acts as nursemaid to the baby, and the mother dresses and changes the others and appears herself. She said: "They're never sick. It's the healthiest kind of life." The 8-year-old girl said: "I don't like it--the men in some places are so rough." There was some familiarity shown to them, but not much. Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan / Lewis W. Hine, November 29, 1917.

"I was born in a hotel. My family was traveling on the vaudeville circuit at the time. My sister Dolly was born in a taxi cab, and my sister Bee was born in a streetcar." -Everett (Jimmy) Capps, youngest child in the Capps Family (not in photo)

"My dad was in Ripley's Believe It Or Not, for an act that he did. He stood on one hand and tap danced on a prop while he accompanied himself on the trumpet. They were kind of crazy, you know, real daredevils. They would do handstands on the top of the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower, and dive off bridges without knowing how deep the water was." -Barbara (Bobbi) Toro, daughter of Edward Capps Jr.

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October 18, 1917, six weeks before Hine took his photo, Oshkosh (Wisc) Daily (NewspaperArchive.com).

"The Capps Family, eight in number from the toddler of three to the proud mother and father, are a happy lot who have something in the way of entertainment that is out of the beaten path, a novelty in laughter, song and dance that scintillates with the spirit of youth. Vaudeville has had its share of family acts in which precocious kiddies have been featured and have made good. Several acts of this nature have, however, carried two or more children who while appearing did not contribute to the act in entertaining. In the Capps Family, everybody works, the sextet of kiddies contributing individual numbers that are altogether worthwhile, specialties that will delight the little folks and make the old ones feel young again."

"As the curtain slowly rises, the octet is heard in an ensemble singing a number which serves to formally introduce this clever family. Following the opening, two of the children, a boy and a girl, offer a pretty singing and dancing number which in turn is followed by a vocal solo by another boy whose rendition of same is most worthy. Then we have the most versatile of the male portion of the family in a display of magic, music and acrobatic dancing. The female portion, not to be overlooked now have their innings as one of the girls presents a character song which is followed by another young Miss attired in full evening dress clothes, impersonating one of the male sex singing a characteristic song. Then a trio consisting of two boys and a girl offer a clever dance, the closing number showing all six children offering homage to their parents. The audience invariably voices their hearty approval and never fails to express empathetic appreciations for the wonderful Capps Family." -Owosso Argus Press (Michigan), October 9, 1919.

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"Eldridge T. Gerry sailed for Europe on Wednesday, but before taking passage, he instructed the agents of his Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in this city, to oppose all applications for the use of children in stage performances during the summer. Mr. Gerry still believes in the arguments presented by him to Mayor Strong the other day, that theatrical employment during the warm weather is physically harmful to children, and as a result of this, all applications made by the city managers have been refused by Mayor Strong, after the Gerry Society has filed it formal objections." -The New York Times, June 7, 1895

Sixteen years after the above article was published, Jean M. Gordon made a presentation called "Child Labor on the Stage," at the Seventh Annual Conference of the National Child Labor Committee. The following is an excerpt:

"There is no phase of child labor which I have found in my four-and-a-half years' experience as factory inspector in the City of New Orleans so baneful as that of the children of the stage. We became impressed with the subject of the children in the mill, because we could see those hundreds of little children coming out every evening after a hard day's work. I do not think many of us have realized the enormous growth of the nickel show and the vaudeville theatre, or the number of children employed in them. My work as factory inspector brought me in touch with the theatrical situation in New Orleans. I did not find any talent displayed in the girls that I had to take off the stage. They were simply employed for their physical attractiveness. In my office I have learned from girls of ten and twelve and thirteen years of age, of the low standard of morals taught these young children as part of their stage experience."

"The state has said that no girl under twenty-one years of age can have charge of her money. But you allow a little girl of ten years of age to take her moral life in her hand. You may think that this is all very true, but that art is a hard taskmaster, and genius must be given a certain sway. Theatrical people have a great way of talking of the geniuses. I think I am more interested in helping the geniuses along than any of the others, because I fear that those with any real genius in them would soon have it blotted out by the contact with the life they lead."

"It is only the human family that lives off the earnings and the wages of its own little children. They tell us that they always take such excellent care of the stage children. Stage children of five and seven years were boarded in a place in New Orleans where, I believe, no respectable parents would care to have their little five and seven-year-old children stay; going home as they did at half past eleven and twelve o'clock at night."

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Lewis Hine took only three pictures of children working in vaudeville or the theater. In one of them, taken in Philadelphia in 1910, Hine wrote a lengthy caption:

"This picture shows the ‘Four Novelty Grahams' acrobatic performers at the Victoria Theatre, Philadelphia. The father is 23 years of age. Willie Graham is 5 years of age, and Herbert Graham is 3 years of age. At 9 P.M. on June 10th, 1910, these children were performing on the stage. Four times daily they do a turn which lasts from 12 to 14 minutes. Herbert Graham, the youngest, was said by the father to have commenced performing on the stage as an acrobat when he was 10 months of age. Willie, now 5, is said to be the youngest acrobat in the world. The attached letter head shows some of the stunts these youngsters are engaged in. The mother of these boys was formerly a school teacher, and is now performing with this trio on the stage. The children are bright and strong, but have a playfulness about them which shows them to have forgotten the best years of childhood."

According to the Hine child labor collection at the Library of Congress, Hine's final photograph of a vaudeville family also has the distinction of being the very last picture he took for the National Child Labor Committee between the years of 1908 and 1917, which was the period when he did his most significant work. In 1918, he landed a job with the American Red Cross, documenting WWI refugees in Europe. He went on to take several hundred more photos for the National Child Labor Committee between 1921 and 1924, 95 of which pictured child laborers.

When I started my research, I had difficulty finding the family in the census, so I hunted for them on newspaper archive websites and other Internet sources. I found a few old newspaper articles and other items about the family, but no indication that they were very famous, or that anything substantial had been written about them. I got lucky when I discovered a brief posting by Ms. Bobbi Toro on an online genealogy forum. She gave her contact information, so I emailed her about the photo and my research, and received this prompt reply.

"Thank you for your interest in my incredible family. I am the daughter of Edward Capps, the little boy in the center of the picture. I am aware of the photo of my father and his brothers and sisters and my grandparents and would love to correspond with you about them. The youngest child, Jimmy, who is not in the picture, is in his 80s and lives in California. Hope to hear from you soon."

Ms. Toro followed up by sending me many photographs of her family and many newspaper articles about them. I interviewed her and her Uncle Jimmy, the youngest member of the Capps Family. As I write this, it has been 93 years since Hine photographed the Capps Family, I feel privileged to tell some of their story.

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Amsterdam Evening Recorder (NY), February 27, 1920 (NewspaperArchive.com).

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Date unknown

All images in this story provided by Bobbi Toro, except where noted.

Interviews with Jimmy Capps and Bobbi Toro, plus many photos and articles

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