Thursday, July 1, 2021

Who was I. E. White?

Boston native Ira Erving White (1839 - 1914) operated a musical instrument repair and manufacturing business for most of his life. Long overshadowed by his better-known father, Ira Johnson White (1813-1895), and uncle, Asa Warren White (1826-1894), very little has been written about Ira Erving.

The extent of Ira Erving White's training is unclear but he surely recieved an introduction to the trade from his large, musically inclined extended family. During Ira Erving's adolescent and teenage years, his father and uncle operated as "White Brothers" dealing in a wide range of musical instruments including drums but focused especially on stringed instruments. Ira Johnson and Asa Warren are best remembered as New England's earliest master violin makers.

The White Brothers storefront was known as the "Tremont Temple Music Store" as can be seen in advertising from the early 1850s. After 1863, Asa Warren continued alone at 86 Tremont Street later partnering with Louis P. Goullaud around 1870. The store would ultimately be succeeded by Thompson & Odell in 1876 with Asa Warren relocating to 50 Bromfield Street.

1853 White Brothers Ad
1853 White Brothers Ad from Dwight's Journal of Music
A. W. White makers label, ca. 1863 - 1870
A. W. White makers label, ca. 1863 - 1870

As for Ira Erving's assumed involvement in the family busines, the 1855 Census shows him working as a musical instrument maker when he was just 16 years old. Five years later, the 1860 Census lists his occupation more concisely as "music store". But perhaps the best evidence linking Ira Erving to White Brothers are directory listings showing him as a musician at 86 Tremont in 1861, and at 25 Tremont Temple in 1863 - the same address as his father and uncle's music store. By 1864, Ira Johnson departed White Brothers and Ira Erving, at age 24, opened his own shop at 83 Sudbury where directory listings describe him as a drum manufacturer.

By 1864, at the age of 24, Ira Erving White had opened his own shop at 83 Sudbury Street in Boston where directory listings describe him as a drum manufacturer.

If Ira Johnson and Asa Warren were more consumed with string instruments, Ira Erving may have learned drum making from others. Joseph B. Treat is thought to have worked for Asa Warren White in the 1860s and 1870s and shares a common address of 86 Tremont with A. W. White as early as 1863. Another little-known drum maker, George E. Rogers, is also listed at 86 Tremont Street in 1863. The Civil War era was a prosperous time for drum manufacturing and by starting his own business Ira Erving White was meeting a need for military drums while filling a void in the market left behind by the dissolution of White Brothers.

Ira Erving White married Sarah Isabella Pearl in 1861 and by 1871 was residing in Wakefield, MA. Save for a brief absence during the early 1870s, Boston directories list White's business at 83 Sudbury Street well into the 1880s sometimes appearing under the name "Irving E. White". A simple explanation for the alternative name could be that he went by his middle name "Erving" in order to avoid confusion with his father Ira Johnson. (His Uncle Asa reportedly went by his middle name "Warren".) A less plausible thoery, offered by Christine Merrick Ayars' Contributions to the Art of Music in America by the Music Industries of Boston, 1640-1936, posits that "Irving E." was Ira Erving's cousin. But "Irving" and "Ira" never appear in the same directory and the full name "Irving" appears only in the personal listings and never in the business listings which always use the initials "I. E. White". Further, no one by the name "Irving E. White" can be found in the White family tree.

I. E. White Drum, ca. 1870s
I. E. White Drum, ca. 1870s
I. E. White makers label, ca. 1870s
I. E. White makers label, ca. 1870s

Across more than five decades Ira Erving White built and repaired a wide variety of musical instruments but seems to have focused a considerable amount attention on drums. For much of the 1870s and 1880s, directories describe White's line of work as "drums and musical instruments" suggesting that drums in fact accounted for a major segment of his business during the middle part of his career. Yet considering how long White was active, very few surviving examples of his work have been documented. This raises the possibility that some of his manufacturing was done on contract for music stores who then applied their own labels. It could also be that repair work took up the bulk of White's time while his manufacturing efforts were less prolific. And, especially in his younger days, White was likely dividing time between performing and running his shop.

Around 1887 White relocated to 48 Hanover Street where he remained through the late 1890s. From 1900 through 1904 White was listed at 144 Friend Street and in 1905 the Boston Diretory places him at 15 Marshall Street. Beginning in 1906 White is listed at 44 Merrimac Street where he remained until he last appears in 1909. Apparently having never fully retired, Ira E. White was advertised as a musical instrument maker in the Wakefield Directory as late as 1913, a year before his death in 1914.

1887 Advertisement from Gatcomb's Banjo and Guitar Gazette
Gatcomb's Banjo and Guitar Gazette - January 1888
1887 Classified Ad from The Boston Globe
Boston Globe - July 20, 1887

A short death notice printed in the Boston Globe described White as "a well-known Boston musician and member of the old Boston Brass Band, Gilmore's Band and the Boston Cadet Band." A more humanizing obituary ran in the Boston Herald on Friday, February 13th, 1914 (which mispells his middle name and gives the wrong middle initial for his widow) and reads as follows:

Ira Irving White, for many years a manufacturer of musical instruments and former member of several Boston bands, died yesterday at his home on Spring street in the Boyntonville district of Wakefield as the result of a shock. He was 74 years old.

Mr. White was born in Boston but made Wakefield his home for 43 years. In earlier years he had belonged to the Boston Brass Band, the Cadet Band and Gilmore's Band. He belonged to the Unitarian church of Melrose and was a great nature lover. In his later years he devoted himself to the cultivation of flowers and plants.

He is survived by his widow, Mrs. Sarah J. White, and by four children, George E. and Louise G. White, and Mrs. Clara I. Haskell, all of Wakefield, and Mrs. Sarah E. Wilmarth of Jamaica Plain.

W. Lee Vinson is a classical percussionist, music educator, and snare drum historian. He is the author of, a website devoted to the late 19th and early 20th century drum makers of Boston, Massachusetts. Lee can be contacted by email at