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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Hobbies of the rich and famous
Regina Leader-Post, July 24th

Imagine Bono, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Kylie Minogue backstage at an event. And what was this quorum of superstars doing? Consuming narcotics and indulging in orgiastic sex? Discussing the role of art as a force for revolutionary change in disco...Read more

Arts & Entertainment Briefs, July 24-30
Salisbury Post, July 23rd

Performers should prepare 16 bars from a song in the style of the show and bring sheet music. If only auditioning .... Autumn Train Excursions offer the rare opportunity to take a daylight train trip on vintage rail cars through beautiful countryside...Read more

Entertainment Highlights: Anais Mitchell Workshops Her 'Hadestown' Song ...
Valley News, July 23rd

Drawing on the sheet-music collection of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the trio of tenors Peter Furlong, Jeffrey Hartman and Paolo Buffagni will sing works of Verdi, Mozart, Bizet, Puccini and more, with Elizabeth Blood accompanying them on piano...Read more

Pequot Library again to host huge book sale
CT Post, July 23rd

More than 140,000 hard- and soft-cover books, CDs, DVDs, records, audiobooks, sheet music and other materials will be offered at this year's event under huge, outdoor tents on the Great Lawn and in the parking lot, and indoors in the library's...Read more

15 Sensational Superhero Songs
Billboard, July 23rd

In honor of these comic festivities, we're celebrating the best in superhero-inspired music, from Eminem's self-indulgent "Superman" to Queen's energized "Flash" theme song. There are quite a few songs for Batman and the Man of Steel, plus a little...Read more

What really makes old rockers rock: golf and model railways, July 21st

And what was this quorum of superstars doing? Consuming narcotics and indulging in orgiastic sex? Discussing the role of art as a force for revolutionary change in disco music while hangers-on spoon-fed them caviar? Well, sorry to disappoint, but they...Read more

TGIF: Happenings -- what's coming up in Northeast Ohio starting July 18, July 18th

Prepare a short selection the style of the show and bring sheet music; an accompanist will be provided. Callbacks ..... LAKE METROPARKS FARMPARK, 8800 Chardon Road, Kirtland, presents Ice Cream Month, through July 27; Vintage Ohio, Aug. 1 and 2 ...Read more

40 DIY Projects to Create with Vintage Sheet Music
Crafting A Green World, July 17th

40 DIY Projects to Create with Vintage Sheet Music Do you love vintage sheet music? We're sharing 40 DIY projects that you can create with your favorite recycled paper! As a musician, my favorite recycled paper is sheet music. If you're a consistent...Read more