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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Detroit area musical instrument shops improvise
The Detroit News, September 19th

As brick-and-mortar business dried up, he focused his energies on selling vintage instruments on Craigslist and eBay. Without the ... He said teachers and students from Dearborn to Monroe still come to him for instruments, repairs, sheet music and lessons...Read more

Film Threat, September 18th

Copperfield then pulls the sheet down to reveal Valerie Bertinelli. Next up is a production number where cheesy dancers twist and turn to modified disco music while Copperfield makes a variety of playing cards appear and disappear in his hands. The...Read more

Michelle Knight speaking at Friends of WomenSafe event, North Union Farmers ...
The Plain Dealer -, September 18th

Sale includes vintage and contemporary furniture, rugs, gold, gemstone, costume and sterling jewelry; Hermes Paris scarves; original framed art; sterling and china sets; decorative lamps; fine table linen. Schedule: Sept. 19: 5-6 p.m., preview sale for...Read more

Harrisburg Study Club reviews its impact, one decade at a time: M. Diane ...
The Patriot-News -, September 18th

At the Susquehanna Twp. home of Helen Filippino, there were vintage magazines, sepia family photos, sheet music, and that revolutionary technology of the Roaring '20s, the radio. Helen cleverly recapped the breathless news of the 1920s in the form of a ...Read more

Eight Minutes of Fame
Valley Advocate, September 17th

ednesday evening at Luthier's Co-op in Easthampton, the open mic sign-up sheet is full and the room is brimming with anticipation. Would-be performers sit shyly by ... The black-and-white checkered floor and patterned ceiling jibe with the co-op's...Read more

The First Disneyland Ticket
MousePlanet, September 16th

So I had prepared a sheet to the effect that I was first, and had last-minute workers and security people sign it. Sure enough, about five .... Surely, the sounds from the Wurlitzer Music Hall on Main Street might have helped wake him up. (And, yes...Read more

Author Michael Chabon's 1984 Pittsburgh punk rock performance released by ...
Pittsburgh Post Gazette, September 16th

Through the years, he held onto the smoking gun of the two tapes and during one of his visits to Mind Cure, owner Michael Seamans, who has been re-issuing vintage Pittsburgh punk, expressed an interest in putting it out. It sounds better than what you...Read more

Man with a horn, a camera and a mission
Santa Clarita Valley Signal, September 15th

Spilka points to rich black-and-white vintage prints hanging on the wall of the stairway leading to the loft of his Valencia home. The images are his photographs taken of the great jazz musicians of the 1950s through the 1980s, including Ella...Read more