With the Hour of Charm Orchestra, the show revolved more around who the performers were and what they looked like rather than the music they produced.

The band was popular in the 1930s and 1940s, and the schtick was that the orchestra was all female — except, of course, for the bandleader and boss, Phil Spitalny.

Spitalny’s logic for creating an all-female orchestra was that the music would be more soothing and charming because it was being created by women instead of men. The music was arranged and performed to embody these stereotypical female characteristics.

The all-women marketing scheme that Spitalny devised helped to make his band a hit. For a full dose of the sexism behind his whole concept, here’s what Spitalny told The Etude music magazine in 1938:

If I were seeking an effect of power, of heavy beats, of sort of military precision that commands you against your will, I should certainly not go to work with a group of girls. But the effect desired was one of charm, of mellowness, of floating, elusive persuasion. And so it seemed the most natural logical thing in the world to assemble a band of women and to ask them simply to go on being charming women in their playing.

Right, the most natural logical thing. Who knows how much Spitalny believed what he was spewing about the divide between music made by women and music made by men? But regardless, it resonated. He was able to turn his gimmick into a profitable little affair.

The Hour of Charm Orchestra was especially popular with the Army. The music was played for U.S. servicemen on bases around the world. The idea was that soldiers would find the music soothing because it was made entirely by women, but not just any women.

To play in the orchestra, women had to meet all sorts of requirements that had nothing to do with their ability to play music. It has been reported that to be in the orchestra, women had to be in their 20s, have long flowing hair and weigh less than 120 pounds. They weren’t allowed to marry and needed permission to date. You can read more about the rules and history of the Hour of Charm Orchestra here, courtesy of the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club.

From the description above, one might assume that the show was successful because men wanted to see a group of women who fit virginal stereotypes performing up on a stage. And that was certainly part of it. 

The orchestra did the show live, and many in the audience probably watched to see “charming” women in concert. But the allure of the show came less from visual stimulation and more from a belief that sound in some way carried the essence of whatever or whoever produced it.

Many listeners didn’t see the women at all, though. The music came to them from a record player or through the radio. Spitalny promised to deliver the charm of women channeled through music, as if the sound could somehow embody and transmit the characteristics of its makers — virginal, beautiful young women. You can imagine listeners, maybe lonely Army men scattered across the globe, tuning in, believing that the sounds they were hearing really carried the charms of the women who produced them.

This little piece of music history comes to us from the Archive of Recorded Sound at Stanford University. To hear more sounds of the world, check out The World According to Sound podcast.

The World According to Sound: The Hour of Charm Orchestra 2 August,2016Sam Harnett

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