The publication of folio-size sheets of American popular music dates to the late 18th century, but the practice didn't pick up steam until the 1830s, '40s, and '50s. That's when upright pianos first began to find their way into the parlors and salons of U.S. homes. Artists who produced sheet music covers early in their careers before going on to acclaim for their oil paintings include Fitz Henry Lane, Winslow Homer, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

The Civil War was a productive period for popular music compositions and also for beautifully lithographed title pages, most of them published in the North. There are also many Confederate music publications to collect—the war-based and illustrated pieces are generally of most interest. Though paper quality in the South was generally poor, all Southern sheet music is hard to find and desirable.

But the truly widespread popularity of sheet music in the United States in the late-19th and early-20th centuries coincided with the proliferation of domestically produced pianos after the Civil War. Up to that point, piano-making had been a labor-intensive craft practiced only by highly skilled workers. Instituting mass-production techniques, U.S. manufacturers transformed this artisan enterprise into a business. By the end of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of pianos a year were produced, and every single one of them required many more times its number in printed sheet music.

The hub of sheet-music publishing was in New York City on West 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway, a stretch that became known as Tin Pan Alley. For a while, the publishers grouped there were essentially printing money—one 1892 hit, “After the Ball” sold two-million copies in its first year alone. “Sidewalks of New York” was published in 1894, “The Band Played on” in 1895, and “Hello! Ma Baby” in 1899.

Vintage sheet music is fascinating to collectors not only for its range of subjects, but for its entertaining cover graphics, featuring everything from pastoral landscapes to city street scenes. As such, they are snapshots, albeit romanticized ones, of life at the turn of the 20th century.

Other people collect sheet music less for the imagery on their covers as the songwriters associated with a particular tune. Scott Joplin compositions such as “Maple Leaf Rag” are popular, as are those by George M. Cohan (“Give My Regards To Broadway”), Irving Berlin (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”), and George Gershwin (“Swanee”).

Then, just as the piano had created a demand for sheet music, two inventions, followed by the Depression, brought the glory years of the medium to an end. The first was the introduction of the phonograph, especially the Victrola, which was all the rage in the early 1920s. By the end of that decade, though, radios meant people could get their entertainment without lifting a finger, let alone having to gather around the family piano to sing along to sheet music.


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Recent News: Sheet Music

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Robby's Voice benefit, Spellbound, Rock Against Dementia, WomenSafe ...
The Plain Dealer - cleveland.com (blog), August 28th

7 p.m. doors, 8 p.m. music. Sunday, Aug. 31. $15 (all ages). Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Road, Cleveland. Performances by I-tal, Outlaws I&I, Carlos Jones, Joe Hunter Trio, Primal Rhythm, The Nazz 3, Austin Walkin' Cane, The Flavor, others...Read more

Billy Corgan, a Pumpkin at Ravinia
Chicago Tribune, August 28th

The logical part is that not only does the 47-year-old Smashing Pumpkins frontman live in Highland Park, but he operates a tea shop, Madame ZuZu's, less than a mile from the music venue, and he's playing an acoustic show for this hometown gig. ... "If...Read more

Cheat Sheet: Labor Day Weekend
Vegas Seven, August 27th

The Roots' bandleader Questlove treats Brooklyn Bowl to two nights of throwback beats and vintage Soul Train clips during Bowl Train. (In the Linq ... Also on the bill is Pete Tong, whose BBC Radio 1 programs are revered for their influence on dance music...Read more

For No Good Reason (Blu-ray)
DVD Talk, August 27th

The filmed studio footage also looks quite good, standing in contrast to the worn but watchable vintage home movies, photos, and other goodies from decades past. Most documentaries run the gamut of visual clarity and For No Good ... But also worth...Read more

Volunteers spend golden years restoring planes
Albany Times Union, August 27th

Now, in their golden years, these volunteers spend a day or two a week at Paine Field, fixing up vintage aircraft at the Museum of Flight Restoration Center. Many are well into their 80s. The oldest is 99. "The people ... He enjoys working with the...Read more

Musicians At Work
Kilgore News Herald, August 26th

Much of the vintage pieces come from the collections of private donors, long-time fans of Maycher's First Presbyterian pipe organ predecessor, Roy Perry, the local festival's namesake. A number of pieces trace the career of festival honoree and...Read more

New Lynden store combines women's clothing, barbecue supplies
Bellingham Herald, August 23rd

State Street Thrift & Vintage opened earlier this year at 1051 N. State St., near Pepper Sisters. Owners Kim DeCarlo and Ethan Dodgson have a large vintage and mid-century collection and jumped at the opportunity to blend the collection with thrift...Read more

The Secret's Out: A Gold Mine of Antiques and Vintage Finds Await at This East ...
Huffington Post, August 21st

It includes vintage magazines, sheet music, posters, etc., all of which give a historic snapshot, have a nostalgic vibe and often look great framed. I found a 1940s pin-up print. She's saucy for the 1940s but very tame for 2014, so she's perfect for me...Read more