Who were the Peak Sisters and what were they doing in Needham, MA in 1890?

Reposted from Once Upon a Time in Needham.

While working as archivist for the Congregational Church of Needham, I came across a tattered poster advertising a Strawberry Festival the church held in 1890. The more I looked at this 1890 Strawberry Festival poster, the more questions I had about it.

  • What’s an observation table?
  • Who was Professor Pike? Walter Morgan?
  • Is that mangled name Alice Wilcox?
  • Why was the festival held at the Needham Town Hall instead of at the church?
  • And is that the 1890s version of texting, or merely evidence that the Dingbats font has a more glorious history in print than I had ever suspected?
From the 1890 Strawberry Festival poster: Evidence that texting shorthand may be hard-coded into human DNA. (Image: Danielle Jurdan)

One of these days I hope to have the answers for you, but today “Ten tender, attractive sisters from Alaska, away from their mother” are demanding my attention.

Who were the Peak Sisters? 

Portion of the 1890 Strawberry Festival poster advertising the performance of the Peak Sisters. (Image: Danielle Jurdan)

When I first saw this, I took it quite literally, and thought that wording of the advertisement had a surprisingly salacious cast for a church poster. “Ten tender attractive sisters”? “Away from their mother”? “They are fine, vocally and instrumentally”? Worse and worse. I had to know the story.

I was somewhat disappointed to learn that the Peak Sisters was not the 1890s version of the Jackson 5, but rather the title of a play written by Mary Barnard Horne in 1887.

Mary Barnard Horne understood her niche as an 1880s playwright remarkably well

Music and lyrics for the Muffin Man
You may not have heard of the Peak Sisters, but I’m pretty sure you’ve heard this–Sheet music for the Muffin Man and other songs sung during the Peak Sisters performance. (Source: The Book of Drills, Mary Barnard Horne)

Horne may not have achieved the enduring fame of her contemporaries Oscar Wilde or Anton Chekhov, but she appears to have understood her niche as a playwright pretty well. Her entertainments include specific instructions regarding casting and costumes, and frequently use well-known songs such as Rock-a-bye Baby and The Muffin Man, making them both accessible to and wildly popular with amateur performers at the time.

“The Peak Sisters” was particularly popular and was performed by church groups across the country. The text, which I found in a digital scan of Mary Horne’s The Book of Drills on Google books (pp. 236-257), includes specific instructions for costumes as well as sheet music for some of the songs performed in the play.

“This entertainment is given by ten young ladies. A less number will do, but there should be at least seven to make it effective. The leader, sister Keziah, should be very tall; the others graduated down to sister Sophia at the end of the line, who is as tiny as possible. Sister Bethia and sister Maria may be found anywhere in line between the leader and Sophia. Sister Bethia stands next Sophia, sister Dorothy beside Keziah.

“Costumes, plain dresses, black or in colors, as convenient. Large white aprons, white kerchiefs crossed on the breast, and very tall white peaked hats, all exactly alike. These hats can be made of white cardboard, should be two feet tall, with black bows on the front. Each sister carries an old-fashioned bandbox; these also graduated from Keziah’s, one of the largest size, down to Sophia’s, a collar-box. Each sister has also a fan tied to her side. — Keziah’s very tiny, Sophia’s immense. — and a large pocket-handkerchief with a big letter P in one corner in black or red. Sister Bethia wears blue glasses.

“A plain stage or platform will serve, arranged with a row of seats at the front, graduated, like the sisters, from a high office stool to a small cricket. A curtain may be used if convenient. If not, the sisters enter before the audience, and retire at the close.”

Mary Horne’s The Book of Drills via Google books (pp. 236-257)

What would the Peak Sisters’ costumes look like?

Although I haven’t found any photographs of our church’s production in the archives, I did manage to find this photograph online of a group of women dressed for a May 1905 performance of “The Peak Sisters” in New York City.

Women dressed for a performance of Mary Barnard Horne’s play “The Peak Sisters.” (Image via the Shorpy Historical Photo Archive)

What kind of a play was the Peak Sisters?

The text of “The Peak Sisters” reads like a scripted talent show in which Keziah, the eldest, acts as emcee. She introduces her fellow performers and attempts to keep the irrepressible Sophia in line as the sisters sing a variety of well-known songs, play melodies of dubious quality on hair combs, and recite poetry extolling the virtues of Boston, the Athens of America.

The entertainment concludes with an appeal for the church to call the Peak Sisters back:

“Whenever you wish to raise money again to paint the church, or to carpet the vestry, or to pay the minister….”

“The Peak Sisters” is not great literature, but I suspect that the women who performed it had quite a lot of fun.

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