Introduction to Nineteenth-century Pictorial Sheet Music
Through most of the nineteenth century, sheet music was published with an illustrated title page or cover. These compelling topical graphics were designed to catch the attention of the purchaser. The pictorial covers augmented the value of the musical score because they were desirable items in their own right, images to be collected, savored, and displayed.
Sheet music was first published in the United States about 1788. The earliest examples had no pictorial embellishments but later publishers began to decorate the front page with small engravings (see the Battle of Prague), and occasionally the engraving would cover most of the page. The engravings were expensive to produce and drove up the cost of the music. When lithography, a much cheaper printmaking process, became commercially available music publishers eagerly adopted it for cover illustrations. The Log House, published in 1826 with an illustration drawn by the gifted caricaturist David Claypolle Johnston and printed by the Pendleton lithography shop in Boston, is generally considered the earliest American lithographic cover sheet. From then on, lithographers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities printed sheet music covers in ever increasing quantities and it became an important aspect of their business. Some well-known artists received their early training in lithographic shops, and throughout the century talented artists designed and drew sheet music covers. Artists represented in this web site include: Joseph E. Baker, John Henry Bufford, Benjamin Champney, Robert Cooke, Samuel S. Frizzell, Winslow Homer, David Claypoole Johnston, Fitz Henry Lane, and William Sharp. A chronological examination of the covers reveals that the style and themes of the illustrations changed as the century progressed. These changes are addressed in the collection category descriptions that follow. By the 1880s the quality of the illustrations had declined significantly as cheaper, more mechanized printing processes were adopted.