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Collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820 to 1860

About this Collection

Consists of over 15,000 pieces of sheet music registered for copyright during the years 1820 to 1860. This collection complements an earlier American Memory project, Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music 1870-1885 as well as the Band Music from the Civil War Era and Sheet Music from the Civil War Era. Included are popular songs, operatic arias, piano music, sacred and secular vocal music, solo instrumental music, method books and instructional materials, and some music for band and orchestra. This collection of American and European composers provides an interesting chronicle of the developments in the music publishing business in the nineteenth-century United States. Other notable elements include the burgeoning popularity of the polka, as well as the songs of Stephen Collins Foster (1826-64), who composed such as favorites as "Susanna," "The Old Folks at Home," and "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair." Songs in this collection also reflect the growing fame of performers such as the singing Hutchinson family and the first American tour (arranged by P. T. Barnum) of soprano Jenny Lind, the "Swedish nightingale." This collection reflects the development of popular song in America.

In 1870, the United States Congress designated the Library of Congress the sole agency for copyright registration and deposit. The law required that a complete copy of each copyrighted work be deposited in the U.S. Copyright Office.

Before 1870, most of the Library's music holdings were purchased and printed in Great Britain. The material in the copyright collection was almost exclusively the deposited work of American publishers. Almost overnight acquisition by purchase became insignificant, and the source of most of the Library's music holdings changed from England to the United States. America's legislature finally had a music collection made up largely of the product of its own presses… 1

The new law had an immediate effect on the Library of Congress's acquisition of music materials. For the first time, thousands of music items poured into the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library. Further, eighty years of accumulated records and deposits were transferred to the Library from the U.S. District Courts. Yet despite the Library's substantial music holdings, it was not until 1896 that its "Music Department," as it was then called, was established. By that time, the Library had accumulated some four hundred thousand music items. The Library was still housed in the U.S. Capitol building, but the following year, in 1897, the collections were moved across the street into the Library's magnificent new building. Initially, the building was unfurnished and sheet music was often stacked on the floor.

A view of the temporary quarters of the Music Division in the Library of Congress made about 1900. The bound up piles of music on the floor are undoubtedly part of the vast numbers of copyright deposits that formed the nucleus of the Library's music collections and which, taken as a whole, constitute one of the Library's greatest treasures.

Over the years, staff in what came to be called the Music Division, selected items deposited for copyright and added them to the Division's classified collections. These items were works by the best-known composers of the day, or were otherwise thought to be interesting or important. Even so, much music material was left in the Copyright Office and was not transferred to the Music Division until some time in the 1950s. It is a portion of those materials (published from 1820-1860), which makes up this online collection. These fifteen thousand pieces are nearly one-quarter of the musical items that were transferred to the Library of Congress from the U.S. Patent Office in 1870. They are vocal and instrumental music bound in three hundred volumes.

In 1978, the Music Division and the Copyright Office undertook a project to microfilm and to create brief catalog records for music materials registered and deposited during the years 1820 to 1860. The microfilm has long been available to the public in the Music Division Reading Room as "Microfilm M 3106". It is also available for sale from the Library of Congress Photoduplication Service. The seventy-nine reels of Microfilm M 3106 served as the source from which the digital images presented in this online collection were scanned. The brief catalog records have been upgraded and converted to USMARC-format bibliographic records to make up the database used in the online collection.

Although the Music Division possesses many great musical treasures and rarities, the items deposited for copyright (numbering in the millions) make up the heart of its collections, and are, in the aggregate, perhaps the greatest treasure of all. These copyrighted materials form a unique record of music publishing and popular culture in the United States. The Library is committed to responsible stewardship of this legacy. Part of that stewardship is realized with the current project.

Please send any comments about the project to Performing Arts Reading Room

  1. Gillian B. Anderson, "Putting the Experience of the World at the Nation's Command: Music at the Library of Congress, 1800-1917," Journal of the American Musicological Society 42, no. 1 (Spring 1989), 108-49. This article provides a more complete account of the history of the Music Division and of music copyright deposits. [Return to text]