Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Storing All That Sheet Music

Orchard House, Concord, Massachusetts: Dining Room. (The rack is on left).

On a recent visit with my family to Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott, I noticed a curious piece of furniture in the corner of the dining room that look a bit like an oversized dish-drying rack; it was a finely-finished platform, on bowed legs, topped with a frame intersected by large vertical slots. After the guide suggested that it might have held sheet music, I became curious about "sheet music furniture." Was there such a thing? How far did people go to organize their home sheet music collections in the 19th century? 

This may seem like a bizarre topic to research, but in the age of the memory chip, we have a weakened understanding of the extent to which collecting music before the 21st century required a good deal of physical space and material organization. Besides the piano, one of the most successful consumer products for music in the 19th century was sheet music. (In fact, they often went together: getting a piano invariably meant starting a sheet music collection). Music publishers offered diverse forms of music, including lesson books for instrument and voice, souvenir versions of songs from the musical stage, hymns, minstrel songs, simplified versions of operas and symphonies. An enthusiast's sheet music could quickly number into hundreds of pieces, requiring some sort of cataloguing system for retrieval. As one writer lamented, "We so frequently go into homes and find sheet music thrown about in all sorts of confusion. One family has on old square piano and beneath it is a disorderly heap." (Locomotive Firemen's Magazine, October 1899, 420). How people dealt with issues of storage, organization, and display said a lot about how they consumed, valued, and understood music in general.

Some music-lovers started by identifying their collection with book-plates, similar to those used in home libraries. Music book-plates, as Sheldon Cheney has explained, were often specially-designed to both indicate a person's idiosyncratic interests and to fit in the margins of sheet music pages. 

Many people paid to have their collections of sheet music bound in leather and personalized with their names embossed in gold on the covers. The binders purposefully indicated the individual preferences of their owners through variations in content and organization--by year, by style, by publisher, and by favorite pieces. they could be bulky, but when stored with other books in one's library shelf, they added a sense of refinement and personal achievement to the room.

Other solutions came in the form of domestic furniture. Piano manufacturers did not include benches with their pianos; but, in the 1870s, piano bench makers starting provided storage for sheet music underneath a lift-top seat. Others invented appendages to the piano itself, a way to facilitate convenience and space-saving in one stroke. One of my favorites is this replacement of the legs of the piano with two cabinets that "are not only an ornament to the instrument but are within easy reach of the performer." Apparently this improvement was "in use on the pianos of several millionaire families in Chicago."

Stand-alone storage, like the piece I saw in the Alcott house, comprised a wider market; pieces came in all sorts of different designs, including racks:

And cabinets:

The cabinet, below, from the November 3rd, 1894 issue of Work: the Illustrated Weekly Journal for Mechanics, was a combination music cabinet/sideboard, for one's dining room:

Finally, for those who were unable to purchase furniture, there were tips in various domestic publications for making one's own sheet music racks and cabinets. One feature, from The Homemaker in November 1888, explained how one can transform a bed-room towel rack into a music-holder with a wooden box, brass nails, and felt. With a little work, one could create "an article of ornament and utility" which will "hold the loose sheet-music that becomes such a troublesome accumulation in a house where piano-players live, but is of sufficient strength to hold bound volumes if desired."

Eventually, sheet music gave way to 78 rpm records. But that was an entirely new collection management problem. More on that later.

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