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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Cruise On Into The 17th Annual Coolest Car Show In Colorado July 4th
Estes Park news (press release), June 29th

Music and cars have always been partners in song from "In My Merry Oldsmobile" recorded by Billy Murray in 1909 for Victor Records to the 1976 Johnny Cash hit, "One Piece at a Time," about a Cadillac. There are at least 50 ... Holtzman is the third...Read more

6 reasons to go out this week: what's on in north kent and south east London
News Shopper, June 29th

Among the fun are 1950s jive and rock and roll sessions, vintage cars such as Herbie and the Knightrider vehicle, Thunderbird 3, a TARDIS and HG Well's Time Machine. Go to ... Grammy Award-winning choral legends Ladysmith Black Mambazo have teamed up...Read more

Kennedy Space Center opens exhibit honoring Columbia, Challenger crews
Orlando Business Journal, June 29th

A new permanent memorial designed to honor astronauts, pay tribute to orbiters Challenger and Columbia, and emphasize the importance of learning from the past opened at Kennedy Space Center this weekend. Encompassing nearly 2,000 square feet, the ...Read more

This selfless bride staged the perfect engagement for her best friends on her ...
BT.com, June 27th

The house that time forgot – contents of 1940s farmhouse untouched for 75 years go up for auction. Vintage jewellery, 1920s sheet music and war memorabilia were all found inside the £600,000 nine-bedroom Queen Anne-style property in Warwickshire...Read more

Forest Grove Events: 'Somebody's Ripper,' Love Rocks Run, Microcar show
OregonLive.com, June 26th

Here's a look ahead at events in Forest Grove, Gaston, Banks and Cornelius for the next few weeks. Did I miss something? Let me know! Email community event information to sswindler@oregonian.com, or send us a message through our Facebook page...Read more

On Tour with The War on Drugs: Rochester's Church of Gear
Atlas Obscura, June 23rd

The store (also literally) overflows with unique instruments, both hard-to-find vintage pieces and new custom guitars built by Fender and Gibson for the shop. And while the upper floors are divided into a maze of rooms, the bottom floor is a giant open...Read more

What menus can tell us about our city
USC News, June 22nd

Kun's last project, “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” also brought to life a Los Angeles Public Library collection: Southern California Sheet Music from the 1840s through the 1950s. “Food and music function culturally in very similar ways,” Kun said...Read more

Valedictorian has a passion for saving history
Hartford Courant, June 15th

The heyday of sheet music, from roughly the 1890s to the 1940s, coincided with "a massive rise in the number of people playing music," Perry said. In the decades before television, people gathered around the parlor piano, or later the record player, to...Read more