In the colonial period, Europeans in North America used music in their efforts to retain their traditions and to christianize Native Americans. Beginning in 1698, the Bay Psalm Book included music. However, early hymnals and other musical texts often appeared without printed music, due to the technical challenge of printing musical notation.
In the 19th century, the development of lithography facilitated the production of affordable printed music. Philadelphia became a center for both music publishing and lithography, and the illustrated covers often depicted buildings, famous individuals, and sentimental genre scenes. Retailers such as George Willig, Alexander Fiot, and the firm Lee & Walker sold sheet music for both European and American tunes. Young women in middle- and upper-class households often demonstrated their accomplishments by playing the pianoforte. In general, music became part of a well-rounded education, and singing and playing music at home became a standard source of entertainment.
The Library Company’s sheet music collection contains over 12,000 items, and is particularly strong for the decades from 1820-70. Included in the collection are early editions of songs that are still well-known today, such as “Oh! Susanna” by Stephen Foster and “The Flying Trapeze” by George Leybourne. Many songs reflect the artistic movements of the time, especially Romanticism. Songs also offer unfiltered glimpses at social movements of the 19th century, revealing contemporary views on temperance, race, the Civil War, and religion. Although not all of our items are fully cataloged, many songs relating to minstrelsy or the Civil War are searchable by subject on WolfPAC.
The proliferation of cheap editions of classical and operatic works arranged for the piano demonstrates the democratization of high culture. Typically, Americans might attend a performance in a concert hall (symphonic, operatic, and ballet performances were common) and then purchase piano reductions for home use. The collection includes works by such diverse composers as Franz Abt, Felix Mendelssohn, Sigismond Thalberg, and Vincenzo Bellini. In addition, dancing was a form of entertainment with widespread appeal, and the collection contains music for a variety of dances, including waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, galops, and quicksteps.
The Library Company also holds a large collection of American song sheets (i.e., words but no music) from 1850-70, as well as collections of songs (known as “songsters”). In addition, the collection includes a variety of sacred music, arranged for voices, piano, or organ, plus instructional texts for voice, piano, bugle, and other instruments.
The Library Company owns several manuscript collections that include significant amounts of material related to music. They are housed with the rest of the Library Company’s manuscripts at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Among them, the William Henry Fry Collection contains a variety of lyrical tragedies, choral works, and orchestral and chamber music pieces by Fry (1813-1864). The Library Company also owns a manuscript composition book containing about eighty tunes by Francis Johnson (1792-1844), an African-American composer and bandleader in Philadelphia. A third collection is the Albert G. Emerick Collection of musical copy books containing transcriptions, arrangements, and original compositions by Emerick (b. 1817), who was a Philadelphia music teacher and organist.
Allen Perdue Britton, Irving Lowens, and Richard Crawford. American Sacred Music Imprints, 1698-1810: A Bibliography (Worcester, 1990).
Robert M. Keller. “Early American Songsters, 1734-1800: An Index.”
Irving Lowens. A Bibliography of Songsters Printed in America before 1821 (Worcester, 1976).
William T. Upton. The Musical Works of William Henry Fry (Philadelphia, 1946).
Edwin Wolf 2nd. American Song Sheets, Slip Ballads, and Poetical Broadsides, 1850-1870: A Catalogue of the Collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1963).
Richard J. Wolfe. Secular Music in America, 1801-1825: A Bibliography (New York, 1964). 3 vols.