The tunes are sweet and the prices are low, making turn-of-the-century, vintage sheet music a great collectible.
By Jane Viator
American popular music enjoyed a golden age from 1890–1920, an era that left a rich legacy of colorful sheet music. And it’s more than a musical legacy: The period’s “sheets,” as they’re called, offer a clear window to the ideas and ideals, concerns and customs of the time that produced them. That’s especially true of the “parlor songs” published by the thousands from the late 1800s through World War I.
The words and melodies of many hits of the day— songs like “Down By the Old Mill Stream,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “In the Good Old Summertime”—are still familiar. Above all, the artwork that graced the covers is widely admired and eagerly collected.
Vintage sheet music offers something for every collector, with themes that vary from transportation and technology to politics and pretty girls. And with most sheets selling for $3–$25, it’s an enthusiasm that won’t break the bank.
The first sheets published in the United States appeared in 1788.They were engraved on metal plates, and the covers were usually plain. Embellishment was limited to fancy lettering and/or a simple vignette. These early examples, while fairly scarce, aren’t particularly sought after today because they lack the colorful graphics and artwork that most collectors prize.
After color lithography became a widespread, inexpensive printing technique (around 1850), sheet music became more attractive, affordable, and widely available. Stephen Foster’s songs—such as “Oh! Susanna,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” with their catchy verses and memorable tunes—topped the pre-Civil War “hit parade.”
During the transitional period after the war, popular music was conservative and fairly dull; music scholar and author Rick Reublin calls the period from Foster’s death in 1864 to around 1890 “the dead zone.” But changes were coming, in both the sound of popular songs and the look of popular sheets.
The emergence of Tin Pan Alley as a center of song writing and publishing ushered in the great years of sheet music. (Tin Pan Alley, by the way, was a real place: 28th Street and Broadway in lower Manhattan.) People had time and money to spend; they bought pianos,harmoniums (small foot-pumped parlor organs), mandolins, and guitars by the tens of thousands. People sang in school, in church, and at home; they took music lessons in droves. To meet the ever-growing demand, composers and publishers churned out new songs as never before.
Songwriter Charles H. Kern produced the first blockbuster hit in 1892, with “After the Ball Is Over.” John Philip Sousa played it daily at the Chicago World’s Fair. This melodramatic ballad about a misunderstood kiss sold 5 million copies at a time when the entire United States population was only around 90 million people.
The golden age of sheet music didn’t last long, however: It ended around 1920. Technology played a big part. As electric power spread, the piano in the front room was replaced by radios, record players, and player pianos.
Music preferences changed, too; ballads and two-steps gave way to more complex rhythms and compositions. Jazz, the new leading music form, was tricky to play and lacked easy to sing verses and choruses. Sheet music continued to be published, but the imaginative cover illustrations gave way to photographs of the performers or the stars of the movies and musicals for which the songs had been written.
YOUR HIT PARADE
There’s a sheet music category for every interest and a good thing, too, since there’s so much available that without a focus, collectors would quickly run out of storage space. We asked some sheet enthusiasts for their ideas about the sharps and flats in this intriguing collecting area.
An eBay bidder won a group of 217 vintage Broadway sheets (including Once in a Lifetime,featuring the lyrics of Raymond Klages and the music of Jesse Greer) for a mere $142.
Sandy Marrone, a New Jersey based collector and dealer, says that this isn’t a niche, frankly, where big profits are likely. Of the millions of sheets available, very few, perhaps 5 percent, are worth more than a few dollars. “If you can sing it or hum it, it’s probably not worth much,” she says, meaning that the song was so popular, there were just too many copies out there. Her three exceptions to this rule: “Over the Rainbow,” “As Time Goes By,” and the musical themes from Gone With the Wind. These iconic hits are relatively valuable, as sheet music goes (keep in mind that “valuable” means $15–$25 each). Other categories that bring a premium: transportation themed songs; topical (especially political) numbers; and television themes.
Another category that attracts an increasing number of crossover buyers: sheets based on comic strip characters like the Katzenjammer Kids, the Yellow Kid (the scarcest comic sheet character), Little Nemo, and Mutt & Jeff. Collector and author Richard Olson notes that these sheets are large, colorful, and often full of detail, while the strips on which they were based are small and usually printed in black and white.
The beat goes on. Collectors hunt for sheets from the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and their contemporaries; truly rare rock’n’roll sheets can bring as much as $5,000 (see p. 2). Even in the age of iPod, Warner Brothers sells Harry Potter sheet music (usually several tunes from the films bound into a booklet) for $12 and up. Will they be tomorrow’s collectibles or tomorrow’s recyclables?
Before you pay more than $1 or $2 for a sheet, make sure it’s complete: It should have front and back covers attached to each other, and all pages present (the middle page was often a single sheet, which is easily lost). Most sheets had page numbers, making it easy to check for everything. Even if your collecting interest is only the cover art, don’t separate the cover from the rest of the sheet; this destroys any resale value it may have.
THE ART OF MUSIC
The music men of Tin Pan Alley quickly learned that people often do judge a song, as well as a book, by its cover. Eye-catching cover artwork sold many an otherwise mediocre tune, and buyers today often collect based on visual appeal.
The acknowledged master of colorful covers was the composer and publisher E. T. Paull. His “Ben Hur Chariot Race March,” published in 1894 (long before the famous movie), was a big hit and the first of more than 200 Paull sheets. Examples are highly sought, routinely bringing anywhere from $10–$100; exceptional pieces go even higher. Paull didn’t create the artwork but did have the good taste and business sense to have his works printed by leading lithographer A. Hoen and Co. of Virginia.
Although most covers weren’t signed, a number of known and notable professional cover artists produced them. The top artists worked as freelancers, and their artwork appears on sheets from many publishers. Among the “names” were William Austin and Frederick Waite Starmer, brothers who made lots of ragtime-era covers from the 1890s–1920 and worked into the mid 1940s; Edward Pfeiffer, notable for Art Deco-style illustration, stylized floral motifs, and pretty girls; Albert Barbelle, a successful “serious” artist and cover illustrator; W.J. Dittmar; and Frederick Manning.
David Rutstein, a scholar and former dealer of sheet music, points out that notable artists like Norman Rockwell (who did at least seven sheet covers), Winslow Homer, Maxfield Parrish, and James Montgomery Flagg attract art collectors as well as music enthusiasts, helping to raise prices for sheets by these mainstream artists into the $25–$50 range.
All of our experts repeated the same advice: Condition is important; age doesn’t much matter; and “rare” is too often used to describe sheet music. It was and is plentiful, and with very few exceptions—which are hard to spot because their rarity isn’t readily apparent—doesn’t have much potential for appreciation. So if you like the cover artwork and it doesn’t cost more than a few dollars, buy and enjoy.
Where to find vintage sheet music? Sheets are everywhere: Group shops, flea markets, garage and estate sales, and used-book stores are likely sources for inexpensive box lots holding a few beauties amongst the tattered trash. Word to the wise: Our experts tell us that much of what’s offered online and described as “rare” or “very old” is over-priced and over-hyped.
Senior contributing editor Jane Viator operates a decorative arts consulting business , Past Perfect, near San Francisco . In last month’s Insider, she covered vintage doorstops and antique Hawaiian quilts.