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Collection America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets

About this Collection

Contains 4291 song sheets. Included among these American songs are ninety-seven British song sheets from Dublin and London. The collection spans the period from the turn of the nineteenth century to the 1880s, although a majority of the song sheets were published during the height of the craze, from the 1850s to the 1870s. Held by the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.

The History of Song Sheets

The Star Spangled Banner. Washington, D.C. Charles A. Anderson. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

For most of the nineteenth century, before the advent of phonograph and radio technologies, Americans learned the latest songs from printed song sheets. Not to be confused with sheet music, song sheets are single printed sheets, usually six by eight inches, with lyrics but no music. These were new songs being sung in music halls or new lyrics to familiar songs. Some of America's most beloved tunes were printed as song sheets, including "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Song sheets are an early example of a mass medium and today they offer a unique perspective on the political, social, and economic life of the time, especially during the Civil War. Some were dramatic, some were humorous; all of them had America joining together in song.

Song sheets first found popularity in the British Isles as early as the 1500s, but their popularity in the United States skyrocketed in the early nineteenth century, fueled by the introduction of the mechanized printing press. Historically, sheets had been printed in editions of fewer than one hundred copies, on hand presses, using type that had been manually set. The new technology of the industrial age allowed runs of more than one thousand copies, using engraved illustrations and "plates" of text that were often bought and sold among publishers.

Printing and Publishing Song Sheets

Printers used the "relief" method of printing, in which the raised portion of the plate is inked and used to make the impression. If by chance an intaglio plate is used, one in which the carved-out portion provides an image, the effect is not what the printer or reader might expect.

Welcome, Mother. New York. Charles Magnus. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Publishers who chose to include an illustration on a song sheet would typically select from the illustrated vignettes owned by the printing house. These depicted political and military figures, pastoral and industrial landscapes, scenes of battles, and social settings. Sometimes printers used generic illustrations if nothing else was available. For example, the song, "Welcome Mother," is decorated with an illustration of the White House. The illustrations were sometimes colored, either by hand or with pre-cut blocks.

Many songs sheets employ the use of illustrative borders, usually cut from wood, that could be used to frame almost any plate of text. These frames usually include the printer's imprint and street address. A song sheet published by H. DeMarsan provides an example. Printers could use one of their own borders to frame the text acquired from a different printer. This interchangeability further encouraged the migration of plates between publishing houses.

The date of publication seldom appears on song sheets, but it can sometimes be estimated quite accurately using a knowledge of a publisher's history, including changes in address and company name. For example, the prolific publisher J. H. Johnson was known with and without his initials, and set up shop in various locales throughout Philadelphia.

The Popularity of Song Sheets

The Last Potato. New York. H. De Marsan. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

The proliferation of the mechanized printing press coincided with a period of expanding industrialization, immigration, and commerce in America. The relative ease and low cost of producing song sheets met the demand of a nation eager for a means of expression. By the height of their popularity, song sheets could be found almost everywhere. They were distributed in town squares, taverns, homes, and around camp fires. They are evidence of a country desiring to be heard, as well as to listen.

Perhaps most of all, there was a desire to sing with others. Often the song sheets provided new lyrics to a familiar song, like "Yankee Doodle," or "Just Before the Battle, Mother." Other sheets offered the lyrics of popular new songs. Among these, the byline commonly named the performer who sang the song, and where it was performed. ". . . To great acclaim," they often boast. "Performed to swells of applause." A modern reader can assume that a degree of hyperbole is present in such proclamations. In spite of this, these rave reviews often hold clues about the original arrangements. Though the sheets do not include musical notation, a byline mentioning a performance by a "celebrated banjoist" gives a hint of what patrons heard and saw in the music hall.

The Diversity of Song Sheets

Let Me Kiss Him For His Mother. New York. Charles Magnus. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Many songs were written purely for entertainment. There are songs of love and songs of death. There were parodies of songs already well known and loved. "The Last Potato," a culinary monologue to a tuber, is a parody of "The Last Rose of Summer." There are tall tales such as "Jack Muggins, or, the Donkey Balancer," about a farmer and his talented donkey.

Other song sheets were dramatic and serious. There are cautionary maxims about the hazards of alcohol, and critical responses to the temperance movement. There are songs of heartbreak. And of particular importance, there are songs about the Civil War, composed, performed, and published as events unfolded. Songs profess loyalty or disdain for statesmen and military leaders. They celebrate the bravery of individual regiments. They track shifting dominion throughout the course of the war, and report on specific battles, such as Antietam, Bull Run, and Spotsylvania.

As well as reporting the facts of the war, some songs documented civilian attitudes toward it. These attitudes range from highly patriotic to guardedly hesitant. Songs like "We Are Coming, Father Abraham" are rallying cries. Others are less straightforward. "Don't Draft Me, My Wife Has Got a Sick Baby, I Have to Stay Home to Give It Catnip Tea" may express reluctance, or, if played for laughs, may subtly underscore the importance of patriotism.

The patriotic muse is rarely so subtle in the mid-nineteenth century. Many of the Civil War songs are heavy with melodrama. "Mother Kissed Me in My Dream" and "Let Me Kiss Him for His Mother" tugged at the heartstrings, and had the power to strengthen the spirit of citizens on both sides of the war.


The variety of subjects and viewpoints conveyed by song sheets make them a unique and indispensable historical resource. The title of this digital collection comes from Walt Whitman's poem "I Hear America Singing." It was published in Leaves of Grass, at a time when song sheets were enjoying immense popularity. The nation had indeed been singing, and the songs they sang continue to tell the American story.