Historical Sheet Music

October 1, 2006
Historical sheet music

Historical sheet music 

The library recently received a significant gift of historical sheet music from the collection of Norma Preston, noted for its extensive coverage of the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in the area of American popular music.

The pieces in the collection chronicle the evolution of music produced for vaudeville, musical theater, film, radio, and television and document the work of the prominent singers, composers, band leaders, and orchestras of the period. Many of the artists represented, including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, are still well known today.

The Preston Collection is remarkable not only for the music it includes, but also for what the lyrics and covers of the sheet music reveal about American society. Major historical events such as the two world wars are portrayed in songs and images of patriotism, separation, and loss, while songs about African Americans, Asians, Jews, Eastern Europeans, and other minorities betray prevailing attitudes about race and immigration.

The social impact of the automobile and the telephone, along with the transition from rail to air travel, lies just below the surface of this popular music. The sheet music in the collection can even be used to trace early-twentieth-century developments in science and technology, including the discovery of new atomic elements.

The Preston Collection adds depth and scope to the library's existing sheet-music collections. Digital images from those collections--more than 16,000 pages of sheet music from 3,042 pieces published in the United States between 1850 and 1920--may be viewed online at the library's website.