The Hostetler Family of Blind Musicians

This circa 1866 carte-de-visite photograph of the musical Hostetler family represents a thread in the seams of the complex history of the representation of blind musicians in popular culture. Known in their local Fayette County, Pennsylvania newspapers as the “Blind Family,” the Hostetler siblings Catherine (1835-1890), Bartholomew (1845-1908), Jesse Samuel (1842-1923), and John Hostetler (1829-1911) were five of eight children born to their parents blind or visually impaired. The Hostetlers traveled throughout Western Pennsylvania performing in churches, schoolhouses, and the like, and by the early 1870s, were managed by their agent Prof. Buchinal.

The siblings appear to have received no formal music training. Nonetheless, such instruction was often strongly advocated by 19th-century educators of the blind, like Samuel G. Howe.  Howe, director of Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, strongly urged music education over handicrafts for his students. In 1833 he wrote “The accuracy of the ear gives to blind persons a very great advantage in music; they depend entirely upon it; …” This rationale supported his stance that playing and teaching music necessarily provided the blind with a more realizable livelihood based in excellence than handicrafts. For Howe, the sighted could not help but excel in the latter trades, but not so in music.

With music and public performance as their profession, the possibility of the Hostetlers’ exploitation cannot be overlooked. This most respectfully posed portrait could still be seen as an object of curiosity at the time it was taken as well as today. Did those who acquired the image want it as a souvenir of the singing talents of the Hostetlers or the novelty of a blind family of singers?  Such questions raised by the photograph cannot help but challenge the viewer about their understanding of the role that music played in the education, portrayal, and life of individuals who were blind in the 19th century.

Sources:

Harvey Hostetler, Descendants of Jacob Hochstetler: The Immigrant of 1736 (1912)

Genius of Liberty, July 8, 1872 and August 29, 1872 accessed on http://hostetlerblindfamily.wikifoundry.com/

Blind Hostetler Family of Fayette Co., February 7, 1999, accessed on PAFAYETTE-L Archives, http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/PAFAYETT/2002-10/1034816831

Samuel Howe, “Education of the Blind” in The North American Review, July 1833.

Erika Piola
Associate Curator, Prints and Photographs
Co-Director, VCP at LCP

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