We are fortunate to have many personal accounts in the Indiana Historical Society collections that detail the experiences of women in Indiana. Diaries and scrapbooks are among my favorite sources to research the perspectives, activities and careers of Hoosier women.
One of my favorite women in the collection is pianist Bertha Jasper Mehrlich (1884-1962), because like her, I also studied and performed classical music as a young woman. Her scrapbook-diaries document the active musical life of a young woman living in Indianapolis and classical music history in Indianapolis.
Bertha Jasper was born in Indianapolis on February 21, 1884, to parents of German heritage. Her family was devastated by the sudden death of three of Bertha’s young siblings in the 1880s, most likely from illnesses such as diphtheria or scarlet fever. Bertha escaped illness and began studying piano as a child. By 1896 she performed her first piano solo at her church. In her scrapbook-diary she writes about her struggles with piano lessons, her decision to quit, and starting lessons again after being inspired by watching a recital of serious, local piano students.
As Bertha continued her pianos studies at Indianapolis’s Metropolitan School of Music through the early 1900s, her scrapbooks tell the story of a vibrant musical life. She attended and reviewed concerts at English’s Opera House, The Murat Theatre, and at Das Deutsche Haus several times a week. Her scrapbooks are filled with music programs and handwritten music reviews of local as well as world-famous performers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Artur Rubenstein. Bertha not only attended concerts regularly, but she also performed many recitals in Indianapolis with groups such as the Indianapolis Matinee Musicale.
In her twenties, Bertha pursued a career as a piano teacher while continuing to perform. Around 1910 she opened her piano studios in Indianapolis and Lebanon through the Cooperative Piano Teachers’ Association. She charged $1.50 per half-hour lesson, which translates to roughly $40 today. She later taught piano, harmony, and other music courses for the Indiana College of Music, which later became Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music/Butler University.
Bertha lived with her parents while pursuing her music career through the 1910s and 1920s, as many single women of that era did. In 1933, at the age of 49, Bertha Jasper married Dr. John T. Mehrlich. Her performing and teaching slowed down during her married years, but she continued to play the organ at her church until the end of her life.
Through the Bertha Jasper Mehrlich Collection (M0805) I learned what it was like for a young woman musician living in Indianapolis and the rich music culture of the city in the early 1900s. Bertha likely influenced many other young musicians by teaching piano lessons, performing, and sharing her love of music. Learn more about Bertha Jasper Mehrlich , women’s history, and the performing arts through our digital collections!