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Singing the Dream: American Sheet Music at the British Library

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10


Sheet music was first published in America in 1788, and its publication was firmly established by the mid-1790s.

In its early days this music generally carried no type of illustration. With the development of lithography in the 1820s, however, and the low cost and ease of reproduction that this process entailed, this situation began to change. Now a publisher could contact a lithographer, who in turn would contact an artist, and in next to no time an illustration was ready for use. Since an attractive cover would allow a publisher to add between ten and twenty-five cents to the cost of each new publication, it made good sense to use them. By the 1840s, the use of illustrated covers was quite commonplace.

The half-century following the Civil War proved to be a boom-time for those who published music, as the piano soared in popularity throughout the United States. It is estimated that by the 1860s some 110 American manufacturers were building twenty-five thousand pianos per year, and the next few decades have justifiably been described as "the age of parlor music".

It was during this time that the function of American music also changed dramatically - from "the sacred to the secular and from the timeless to the timely". Composers and songwriters began drawing inspiration from every aspect of American life. Indeed, from the national anguish of the Civil War to the personal pleasure of owning a new motorcar, it seemed that when it came to making music no stone was left unturned.

Given the highly competitive nature of music publishing throughout this period, the visual attractiveness of sheet music became increasingly important. Publishers vied not only for lyricists but for first-rate artists too, and the illustrations they provided gave Americans one of their few sources of pictorial news, both local and national.

This exhibition highlights just some of the subjects put to music in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Unfortunately, the ephemeral nature of sheet music - the wear and tear it endured at the time, and the way in which it gradually fell out of fashion - means that much of it did not survive to the present day. However, that which survives provides a unique insight into American society at this time.

The printed items displayed in this exhibition represent a small selection of the materials on this subject held at the British Library.

Every effort has been made to ensure that the images shown here comply with copyright legislation.

Part 1:  The War of 1812
Part 2:  The Mexican-American War, 1846-48
Part 3:  Race, Slavery and Abolition
Part 4:  The Civil War, 1861-65
Part 5:  Reconstruction
Part 6:  The Spanish American War, 1898
Part 7:  The Women's Suffrage Movement
Part 8:  The Temperence Movement and Prohibition
Part 9:  Presidential Campaigns
Part 10: Lifestyle and Leisure

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 4 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

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