First Epoch - America's First Popular Music Epoch 1768-1887
The 500

They Drew On Stone
(Published in Illustration magazine, July 2003)
By Kevin Lynch

There’s one vivid memory I have from the dimly recalled days of childhood of sleeping on the living room couch and looking over through nighttime shadows at stacks of sheet music. Their covers had curious drawings on them. They were my father’s pride and joy.  As a musician and bandleader he had established through the course of his life a fairly sizable collection. He would sit nights in his overstuffed leather chair, close his eyes, and with his baton conduct the music from some of those sheets. It was his music that kept him alive.

Barnum's National Poultry Show Polka (1856)
Sarony lithograph

He passed away in 1964 when I was eleven, and his large collection of music disappeared into the home of his brother and stayed there for 20 years. When that brother died I came calling with a copy of my father’s will and the music finally came to me. 10 years more it sat in a closet, boxed and forgotten, until one rainy day I pulled it out and began sorting the sheets on the living room floor. And that’s when my own particular fascination with these little paper booklets began to grow. Seeing them with fresh eyes, it occurred to me that the evocative covers had captured a period of popular musical history and that perhaps the illustrations on the cover were worth as much or more than the music within. In other words, having Stephen Foster’s Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair may be fine but if the lithograph of Jeannie by Napoleon Sarony happened to be on the cover, that would be finer. Maybe the art was more collectible than the music it marketed.

I’ve been seriously collecting these wonderful and often very colorful music sheets for only the last five or six years. My attention has been drawn back in time, long before the time of my father to the mid-19th century and even earlier. These were the very young and early days of full-page pictorial music illustration. It was more than 150 years ago, when paper was typically of a much higher quality than today and when artists must have had a lot more time on their hands, judging by the crafting and detail that went into many of their creations.

Needless to say, much of what was produced then simply didn’t survive. “Man is in love with what disappears”, Thoreau said.

Paper disappears. Lives disappear. Art forms disappear.

I fell in love with the scarcities as well as the genius of it all, the wide range of imagination that went into the illustrated covers that helped sell the music. I was astonished at the full tide of images and how they catalogued American history and chronicled development of 19th century moods and mores. Events and prominent individuals were illuminated and placed in history by the copyright date under the publisher’s imprint. Myriad fonts and imaginatively decorated titles, often centered within an edge frame, gave the covers a ‘finished for display’ look that would foreshadow the development of poster art. And the educational bonus is that exploring these sheets is a wonderful lesson in both popular music and popular art history as well as social history.

Of course, for any dyed-in-the-wool collector the hunt is what it’s all about. Recently, my own passion for pursuing these antique graphics came into focus during a phone call with a long time collector. This gentleman had come across a piece of music so stunning, that to call it the find of a lifetime would be an understatement. He had purchased a book of old music through an auction site that in some respects was like many bound volumes of music from the first half of the 19th century. Its owner had long ago bound together a number of musical pieces to preserve them and when he died, unaware of what was in the book, the volume no doubt sat on a shelf while a century or more passed. One day it was put up for auction and sold for about $450. When it arrived the book revealed an enormous discovery. It contained a wickedly scarce first edition of the Star Spangled Banner. No more than a dozen or so are known to survive and most all of those are in archives. It’s difficult to measure what this would be worth in today’s media-driven auction environment, but a six figure possibility would not be out of the question. The last time a first edition SSB (Star Spangled Banner) came up for public sale, as far as my research can ascertain, was the 1980’s. 

With this famous piece, knowledgeable music collectors know in one heart stopping moment exactly what they’re looking at. That’s because of an error made at the time it went to press. The subtitle was misspelled! It reads The Star Spangled Banner, A Pariotic Song (should be ‘patriotic’!!). Though this song’s title page does not have a pictorial cover and is not what I typically collect, I was flabbergasted by the story because it reminded me of why I search for these pieces of popular art, these little bits of history. The discoveries can be thrilling. 

The illustration of music as an art form stretches back hundreds of years to the days of hand drawn and hand colored illuminated texts and liturgical manuscripts. The earliest known music illustration was to the title page of Luther’s ‘German Mass’ in 1526. Speaking strictly of popular music, pictorial engravings came to the forefront in England between 1736 and 1739 with the work of George Bickham Jr., who published two volumes of music. Each of these came with 90 to 100 hundred songs and each song was headed by an attractive copper or steel engraving. The publications were extremely popular, in both England and America, and were twice reprinted, in 1740 and 1765. These initial, attractive song sheets may have provided some stimulus for music illustration here in the U.S. Indeed, it was during Revolutionary War times that one of the nation’s finest engravers of the century began illustrating music. Better known for his work with silver and his impact as a patriot, Paul Revere contributed some fine engravings to church hymnals. Illustrated music in America never developed in the 1700’s the way it had in England or Europe, however, and examples here from the 18th century are typically of a lower quality. It’s almost as if America was waiting for a new medium of music decoration to match the newly minted songs of the new nation and in 1796, at the century’s close, that medium was discovered. A new artistic stone age had begun.

Alois Senefelder, a German, was the lad who discovered a trick with a certain Bavarian limestone that gave rise to the art of lithography. Lithography, a cheaper printing process with advantages for the illustrator, became the dominant mode of printing during the 19th century for not only illustrated music but for much of the printing world. The trick involved creating an image on a textured stone surface - in reverse - with greasy, black crayons of varying thickness and hardness. The surface was treated with aqua fortis and gum arabic, washed with water and then ink was applied and you were ready to print. The process was incredibly exacting with almost no room for error or erasure but in the gifted hands of an artist it could produce drawings of surpassing fineness in detail and shading. Surprisingly, in all the time that has passed, a finer stone than what Senefelder used for his initial printing was never found. What was the first printing attempt by Alois on this stone? It was a laundry list!

As lithographic printing was refined by German and French specialists it was then imported to England and finally America, around 1820. And in 1825 our first successful lithographic studio was established in Boston by John and William Pendleton, with the first American lithographed music illustration appearing the following year. In 1828 they adopted their first apprentice, a likeable 15-year-old youngster whose name was to become legendary, the most well known name in lithography even to this day - Nathaniel Currier. At 21 years of age Currier purchased the business from John Pendleton and began producing lithographs for music illustrations, the earliest being The New York Light Guards. Over the next several years music lithos were an important source of income for the firm and represent some of Currier’s earliest artwork, a full 20 years before the famous Currier and Ives team was formed in 1857.

Many of the finest artists who worked in this field were not the men who ran the well known lithographic studios. Those men had a business to run and needed artisans to handle the time-consuming work creating the designs and drawing them on stone. Sometimes the designers and delineators were different artists. Winslow Homer, Fitz Hugh Lane, Thomas Eakins, William Rimmer, George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller, James Whistler, Benjamin Champney and Eastman Johnson were some of the extraordinary talents who apprenticed in lithography. Homer, Lane, Rimmer, Whistler and Champney produced some excellent music lithos. Even the great landscape artist George Inness had lithographs attributed to him. And along with Nathaniel Currier, the top studio heads included one-time Currier apprentices Napoleon Sarony and John Bufford, who would become two of the most significant names in 19th century music illustration.

The Stars and Stripes Forever (1861)
Whatley lithograph
Sarony, one of  the greatest portrait lithographers, later became internationally renowned as a portrait photographer. From here, the arc of  accomplishment in decorated music covers extends into the 1900’s and the rich history of music illustrators continues on to include Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, Rolf Armstrong, Earl Christy, literally too many well known names to mention.

It’s probably just coincidence that the golden era of music lithographs, 1830-1870, the very middle years of the century, roughly parallel the time span of the Hudson River School of landscape painters, one of America’s greatest gifts to the world of art. And it’s probably more synchronous that those dates match the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign, for the flowering of music lithography connected in many ways with the flowering of the Victorian spirit. It may be fair to say as well that the full flowering of the art necessitated color; with the advent of chromolithography in 1840, this was achieved.

Hand colored music illustrations had been around for a long time, of course, but not a mechanical printing process that would do away with the need for individual artistic attention to each printed sheet. Chromolithography in the world of music illustration began in America in 1842 (probably 1841 in England). These multi-color prints were often referred to as chromos. By 1870, Louis Prang, the most successful printer in colors at the dawn of the 20th century (though not particularly known for music covers), would perfect the process and produce examples that required the inking of 26 separate lithographic stones! One complicated print made use of 45 stones and took 45 days to produce an edition of 150 copies!!! It was Prang who switched to the use of  zinc as a replacement for the Bavarian limestone, beginning in 1873. This new printing plate, along with expanding interest in the new art of photography, wound up dooming the impressive run of stone lithography, just as the advent of commercial radio in 1921 spelled the end to the heyday of sheet music.

As art and music wheel through history, it’s wonderful to have a canvas that reflects society, its idiosyncrasies and ideologies, its personalities, its homage. These delightful music covers serve beautifully, cataloguing military and historical events, famous people and places, humors and sentiments. Sometimes history hides the impact of a music cover and its revelation. Such was the case with The Ledger Polka, copyrighted in 1857. The litho cover shows a gentleman reading a newspaper and bystanders reacting with an air of incredulity. What happened in 1857 to cause this reaction? Nothing in particular. Renowned collector Lester Levy researched and discovered the stone plates were originally prepared in 1849 for an earlier edition and then sold to a second studio who again copyrighted the image. 1849!? Gold had been discovered in California! That explained the reaction in the litho from the passers-by. 

Also, music lithos could be seen as predecessors in marketing as they predate much of the world of ephemera as we know it, the recognizable runs of promotional materials such as posters, postcards, trade cards, etc. No near complete catalogue or guide will ever exist in this field of popular music illustration. To give you an idea of the volume, one and a half million song titles were published between 1850 and 1950, with really successful pieces having as many as half a dozen different covers. Some 19th and early 20th century sheets have multiple color variations on a single illustration!

Since copies survive in every imaginable state, that becomes part of the search and part of the joy of discovery. Like the instrument in the film ‘The Red Violin’, each music booklet (usually 3-6 pages) and accompanying illustration has its own personal tale of survival. These were not prints destined to be framed but music to be placed on the piano and typically rifled through. Finding a valued piece in high grade, uncropped, without tape or an old owner’s name across the top, without significant stains of time (foxing), can be an arduous undertaking. Original, or proof, copies are almost unheard of. Many fine lithos might be seen only once in 20 or 30 years of collecting. In some cases, only a single print is known to be extant. Such are the scarcities.

A treasure trove of  19th century music illustrations is available for anyone who has access to the Internet. Regarded as one of the finest collections of this material, the Lester Levy collection is permanently housed in the Eisenhower Library at John Hopkins University. Some 20,000 images are scanned and available for viewing, including many rarities such as the first edition of the national anthem mentioned earlier. I was fortunate enough to attain copies of a number of Levy’s letters where he mentioned having it, and also being uncertain what to do with it. This correspondence was between Lester and his friend Bly Corning, who also possessed an astounding collection of music. Bly had purchased the entirety of the stock from The Edison Phonograph Co. which reputedly had the largest collection of popular music at the time of its demise in 1925. The entire bundle passed through the Henry Ford estate to wind up with Mr. Corning in the 1960’s, arriving where he lived in Flint , Michigan, and taking up part of two boxcars on the train. Close to 30,000 pieces from 1790-1900 are now at the Clements Library on the University of Michigan campus.

I was lucky enough to purchase some music sheets that remained from the Corning/Edison collection. Along with the rest of my collection they will always remind me how music can link with art, both together telling a fascinating story of a time long gone that will never return. And I have to wonder what my father, a musician who later in life made his living as an art dealer, would think of my collection. How odd, to collect all this music for the art on the cover and yet play none of the music within. But a telling way to follow in a father’s footsteps.