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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Historic Old Gillett Farm Estate Auction
PR MediaRelease (press release), August 31st

A Huge 3-Day Auction will take place on September 18th, 19th and 20th. The Family Estate of the 8th Generation of the Old Gillett Farm Established in 1868 and located at 4 Drake Lane, Elkhart, IL 62634 will sell Auction! The HUGE 3-Day Auction will...Read more

WWE: Raw Was a Night of Diminishing Returns
Hidden Remote, August 31st

Savvy wrestling fans can see a storyline twist coming a mile away, while returning favorites often leak via social media or through dirt-sheet websites. Additionally, the days of ... But then the signature guitars of the Dudleys' theme music hit and...Read more

The Boy Scout Handbook Is The Best Y.A. Book Ever
Daily Beast, August 29th

A hunt for vintage Playboy yielded back issues of the less titillating Old Bottle Magazine. I almost gave .... Just compare the contents of The Boy Scout Handbook with everything else young people are immersed in: school, pop music, social media, video...Read more

BRIEFLY: Aug. 29-Sept. 1
Wicked Local Plymouth, August 29th

29, rain or shine, at the Hedge House, located at 126 Water St., offering attic treasures, vintage jewelry, homemade goodies and bargains galore. ... The fair offers rides, exhibits, vendors, farmers' markets, truck and tractor pulls, live music and...Read more

So Bad It's Good: 'Dirty Dancing' and the Limits of Nostalgia
Flavorwire, August 28th

I remember this little factoid primarily because of a ridiculous footnote: the sheet music offered up an alternative chorus for “Hungry Eyes,” which reimagined the song as “Loving Eyes,” in case the idea of hungry eyes was too racy for the school choir...Read more

Gangrene Sticks To Vintage Boom Bap On 'You Disgust Me'
XXLMAG.COM, August 27th

Instead, it's “Sheet Music” featuring Mobb Deep's Havoc and the late Sean Price and “Flamethrowers, Pt. 2” that both move the momentum of You Disgust Me forward. “Sheet Music,” like the bulk of the album, is the vintage-sounding infamy hip-hop that...Read more

First Listen: Dam-Funk, 'Invite The Light'
NPR, August 26th

What to make of the guy playing vintage, satin-sheet R&B in "Glyde 2nyte" with his former employers Leon Sylvers III and IV? Could all this be the work of one man? Just as you try to get a grip on Dâm-Funk's sound, he glides away and comes at you from...Read more

Dr. Michael White lost everything in Hurricane Katrina except what mattered ..., August 22nd

possessions, but pieces of history he had been collecting for decades: thousands of photographs, books on jazz, records and CDs; interviews with New Orleans jazz musicians born between 1890 and 1910, who were no longer alive; historic sheet music...Read more