Historical Sheet Music

Documenting the social, political and cultural realities of the times


American Sheet MusicMost recently the Knohls have added over 40,000 pieces of illustrated large format sheet music from the mid-19th century to the early 20th centuries, including music by both American and foreign composers. The illustrations include portraits of bandleaders and dignitaries, historical events, and patriotic scenes. The artists who illustrated the covers of large format sheet music were some of the nation’s most prominent artists: Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, David Claypoole Johnston, and Fitz Hugh Lane. Consequently, this category of sheet music is in high demand. In addition to the intrinsic value of the music itself, historical sheet music and their illustrated covers are a glimpse into the minds of their creators, as well as a visual record of the social perceptions and attitudes toward foreign conflict, labor unions, race relations, and women’s rights during this particular period in history.

The collection includes approximately 5,000 illustrated sheet music from the prevalent blackface minstrelsy shows in America, a very popular form of entertainment during the mid–nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cover illustrations on blackface music often depicted African Americans with exaggerated physical features, such as bug eyes and large lips, and many times they were shown dancing or eating chicken and watermelon. It was not unusual for the titles to feature words like “coon” and “nigger.” Oriental or Asian cultures were also depicted in degrading terms, sometimes shown with grossly exaggerated slanted eyes, consuming opium, or doing laundry, and often included derogatory slangs, like “chink.” The quality of the cover artwork varied, from crude racist and heavily caricatured images to more refined and generally positive illustrations of Black life from the overthrow of slavery to the beginning of the Great Depression. The minstrel and vaudeville compositions, featuring Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Amos & Andy, primarily written and performed by Blacks, were also subject to negative caricature. Despite their distasteful and offensive depictions, the images provide documentation of the social, political and cultural realities of the times.

Sheet music at the turn of the century was still prevalently issued in the larger format with illustrated title pages. However, as World War I progressed, paper became scarce. To cooperate with the government regulations and to conserve paper, publishers came out with a variety of smaller format sizes. By 1919, large format music had almost completely disappeared from the sheet music marketplace.