About Historic American Sheet Music

The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University holds a significant collection of 19th and early 20th century American sheet music. The Historic American Sheet Music Project provides access to digital images of 3042 pieces from the collection, published in the United States between 1850 and 1920.

Copyright Information

Images and texts on these pages are intended for research or educational use only. Please read our statement on use and reproduction for further information on how to receive permission to reproduce an item or how to cite it.

Related Information


This site includes historical materials that may contain offensive language or negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record.


1996/97 Award Winner, Library of Congress/Ameritech Digital Library Competition. Now part of the American Memory Collections at the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress/Ameritech Award Winner

What is Sheet Music?

The only definition of sheet music that can be applied with certainty is to define it purely by physical format. Some have suggested that sheet music applies only to "popular" music, but a close look at these publications over the course of history shows that the musical content of these publications is as varied as the history of music itself. Especially in the mid-nineteenth century a publisher may have issued sacred and secular songs, Lieder, opera excerpts, potpourris, waltzes, marches and descriptive etudes side-by-side. Only the physical format remains constant. The difficulty occurs with the definition of "popular." What is "popular" to one group may be "classical" to another. Musical taste is, like art and fashion, subject to extreme changes and subtle nuances. On this basis then, sheet music is best described as single sheets printed on one or both sides, folios (one sheet folded in half to form four pages), folios with a loose half-sheet inserted to yield six pages, double-folios (an inner folio inserted within the fold of an outer folio to make eight pages) and double-folios with a loose half-sheet inserted within the fold of an inner folio to produce ten pages. For more information about the physical description of sheet music, please consult the Music Library Association Sheet Music web site.

About the Collection at Duke

The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University holds an important, representative, and comprehensive collection of 19th and early 20th century American sheet music. The Historic American Sheet Music Project provides access to digital images of 3,042 pieces from the collection, published in America between 1850 and 1920. Drawn from the collections in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, this selection presents a significant perspective on American history and culture. The sheet music chosen for digital reproduction represents a wide variety of music types including bel canto, minstrel songs, protest songs, sentimental songs, patriotic and political songs, plantation songs, Civil War songs, spirituals, dance music, songs from vaudeville and musicals, "Tin pan alley" songs, and songs from World War I. The collection is particularly strong in antebellum Southern music, Confederate imprints, and Civil war songs. Also included are piano music of marches, variations, opera excerpts, and dance music, including waltzes, quadrilles, polkas, etc. In addition, some of this sheet music is illustrated. These illustrations represent an important, and in some cases almost unique, source of information for popular contemporary ideas on politics, patriotism, race, religion, love, and sentiment.

An examination of sheet music reveals something of the inner life of the American citizenry in a way distinguishable from diaries and newspaper accounts, while also more intimate than the historian's descriptive synthesis. Use of these materials in conjunction with letters and diaries can make history more personal. A soldier's mention of a song sung around the campfire in a letter to his family makes us more aware of the daily life of that man. To actually see the music and sing it ourselves transports us to that place and time for a moment. By examining the illustrations we can also study not only changes in fashion and dress, but expectations of appearance and behavior. The illustration series "Society and culture--Women" gives an interesting overview of the "ideal" woman from 1850 to1920. We also can view a less comfortable (through more modern eyes) overview of how African Americans were depicted both in the illustrations and in the music.

The collections in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University have been acquired in a wide variety of ways. Many items are the gifts of generous donors. Some have been acquired by purchase. The acquisition of music related to Southern history, especially Confederate imprints, has been supported by the funds of the George Washington Flowers Memorial Collection.

Background of Music Publishing in the United States

Sheet music publishing was well established in the United States by the early 19th century. Much of the music was printed with engraved plates, although in the 1820s there was a fair amount of music published using the lithographic process. Lithography was not very common until the 1840's, when the development of chromolithography made illustrated title pages economically feasible. Engraved and lithographed music continued to be issued throughout the period of this project. It is interesting to note that many of the Confederate imprints in this collection were lithographed - a process that requires less equipment and materials. Metal was, of course, a commodity required for the war and would have been in very short supply for civilian use. A fine example of Confederate lithography is Edmond Newmann's Battery Wagner, lithographed by B. Duncan in Columbia, South Carolina in 1863 (left). The period after the Civil War saw a great increase in music publishing activity. The stereotype process allowed publishers to issue huge numbers of music for mass consumption. In his article, "Publishing and printing of music" in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, D.W. Krummel suggests that this period could be called the "age of parlor music." Significant numbers of sheet music continued to be issued in the twentieth century, centering around the area of Manhattan known as "Tin pan alley." The sheer number of "hits" emanating from publishers such as Leo Feist, T.B. Harms, Irving Berlin, Shapiro & Bernstein, Von Tilzer and M. Witmark is remarkable. Sheet music became so popular that it was even issued as supplements to newspapers.

With the rise of parlor music in the 1860's came a realization on the part of music publishers of the commercial value of printing advertising on the otherwise blank pages of music. Catalogs of songs and music were sometimes printed on earlier publications (see Schreiner's catalog in Battery schottisch), but by the end of the nineteenth century lists of songs with melodies (see The Old Man Ain't What He Used To Be) or entire pages reproduced for the user to "try over on your piano" became standard (see Over There). Companies even issued series of sheet music to help advertise their products, notably the Emerson Drug Company's promotion of Bromo-Seltzer. During World War I publishers even promoted the war effort by using the margins of the music for such slogans as "Food will win the war, don't waste it" (see The Dream of a Soldier Boy).

Further resources about the history of sheet music publishing may be found in the bibliography. For the period covered by this project, a particularly good source is the article by D.W. Krummel, "Publishing and printing of music" in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan Press, 1986.

Problems in Dating Publications

Identifying the date of publication for music from this period is sometimes difficult. There has been considerable bibliographic interest in the printing and publishing of music in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but little bibliographic data is available about the publications from 1825 to the Civil War. Most of the items selected for this project bear some kind of copyright statement but these statements are not universal in the publications of the period before the enactment of the first U.S. copyright law in 1871. Moreover, because the music was engraved on plates, the publishers kept the plates in storage for long periods of time and printed new copies as they ran out of stock. Additionally, they would sell plates to other publishers who didn't necessarily bother to change the copyright information on the plates. The plate number can sometimes be used to identify the approximate date of publication but that depends on how much is known about the work of particular engravers or publishers. In this edition of the Southern Wagon, engraved by Mme. Wehrmann (New Orleans) and published by Joseph Bloch in Mobile, there is a deposit date of 1862. By noting that this set of plates (57) was issued in 1862, one might infer that the plate numbers near 57 might also have been issued around the same time. Unfortunately, we don't know if Mme. Wehrmann numbered her plates in chronological order, so until a substantial portion of her work can be identified and listed, we cannot be sure that a date of 1862 could be inferred for plate number 59.

Further information about sources for dating music of this period may be found in the bibliography.

Preservation issues

One of the difficulties of caring for sheet music collections is that they tend to be treated as printed ephemera. Music was intended to be used, and people did exactly that. It may have rested on the music rack or in the piano bench, but, generally people played or sang the music. Anything that is used (well-loved, perhaps) will show signs of wear. Stains, tears, sewing thread repairs, and mending tape all appear in this collection. Some items survived better than others. Much of the music printed from engraved plates in the nineteenth century is in fairly good condition simply because the paper was usually made of rags rather than wood pulp. Paper that was used for printing from engraved plates tended to be a little thicker than paper used for ordinary purposes. Music printed on the cheap paper made of wood pulp tends to become very brittle, even in a short period of time. Newspaper supplements are precarious condition as they are printed on thin paper made of woodpulp and were probably expected to be of very short term use to the reader. In order to preserve the items, they have been placed in acid-free folders in acid-free boxes and housed in low light conditions in climate controlled stacks. By scanning the music, we hope to increase the use of the material without wearing them out!

blog comments powered by Disqus