Top of page

Collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885

About this Collection

Consists of over 47,000 pieces of sheet music registered for copyright during the years 1870 to 1885. Included are popular songs, piano music, sacred and secular choral music, solo instrumental music, method books and instructional materials, and music for band and orchestra.

In 1870 the United States Congress established the Library of Congress as the sole agency for copyright registration and deposit. The law also required that a complete copy of the copyrighted work be deposited in the U.S. Copyright Office. The new law had an immediate effect on the Library's acquisition of music materials:

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

Immediately, and for the first time, thousands of music items started pouring into the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress. Also as a result of the new law, 80 years of accumulated records and deposits were transferred to the Library from the U.S. District Courts. Though the Library's music holdings were substantial it was not until 1896 that the Library's "Music Department", as it was then called, was established. By that time the Library had accumulated some 400,000 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. At the beginning the building was still 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 Music Division staff selected items deposited for copyright and added them to the Division's classified collections. These were the items by the best known composers of the day, or items that 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 those items (published from 1870-85 and not added to the collections) that comprise this online collection.

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 1870 to 1885. That microfilm has long been available to the public in the Music Division Reading Room as "Microfilm M 3500". The microfilm is also available for sale from the Library of Congress Photoduplication Service. The 441 reels of Microfilm M 3500 served as the source material for scanning for the digital images presented in this online collection. The brief catalog records have been upgraded and converted to USMARC format bibliographic records. These records make up the database used in the online collection.

Though the Music Division possesses many great musical treasures and rarities, it can still be argued that the items deposited for copyright (now numbering in the millions) make up the heart of the collection, and are, in the aggregate, perhaps the greatest treasure of all. They represent a unique record of American music publishing and American popular culture. The Library is committed to responsible stewardship of this legacy. Part of that stewardship is realized with the current project.

Also available online are similar projects covering sheet music from 1820-1860 and the Civil War years.

  1. For a more complete account of the history of the Music Division and of music copyright deposits see Gillian B. Anderson's article, "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, 42:1 (Spring 1989): 108-49. [Return to text]