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William Sharp (1803-1875), The Real Scotch Polka, 1848. Chromolithographic sheet music cover. Gift of David Tatham, 2004

In nineteenth-century America, sheet music was commonly sold with a printed illustrated cover. These illustrated sheet music covers were popular with consumers and their designs and compositions reflected prevailing aesthetic tastes. The compositions, original or copied, were produced by American artists in concert with printmakers, particularly engraving and lithographic establishments.  Indeed, many printmaking firms relied heavily on the income of illustrated sheet music covers to remain in business and to support more ambitious, but less lucrative artistic endeavors.

 

The Boston Athenæum’s robust collection of illustrated sheet music covers documents the work of New England artists and printmakers, particularly lithographers. The Athenæum’s sheet music covers trace the development of the lithographic arts in America, from early attempts in the medium to the spectacular and technically challenging chromolithographs of the mid- to late nineteenth century. Successful artists such as Fritz Henry Lane and Winslow Homer began their careers as apprentices in Boston printmaking firms and examples of their early graphic work can be found in this collection.

 

But the subject matter of these illustrated covers is equally important and incredibly diverse, ranging from portraits, genre scenes, still lifes, landscapes, political commentary, and Civil War battle imagery. The illustrations provide a fascinating mirror of social and cultural life in nineteenth-century America and capture contemporary attitudes towards women, courtship, slavery, childhood, labor, immigration, and more. The collection provides a rich source of primary material for social and political historians; it has been justly and widely used by researchers across a wide spectrum of professions.

 

Catharina Slautterback

Curator of Prints & Photographs

 

 

References:

 

Lawrence, Vera Brodsky, Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents: Harmonies and Discords of the First Hundred Years. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1975.

 

Levy, Lester S., Picture the Songs: Lithographs from the Sheet Music of Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

 

Tatham, David, The Lure of the Striped Pig: The Illustration of Popular Music in American 1820-1870. Barre, Mass.; Imprint Society, 1973.

 

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