Sheet music was one of the earliest American consumer products to use images of women to attract buyers’ attention. Pictorial sheet music covers were sometimes lavishly illustrated, often hand-colored, and occasionally even speckled with glitter. A consumer might buy a piece of sheet music as much for the cover art as for the music inside.

Trade cards and larger advertising prints became increasingly popular. Early incarnations were less likely to feature pictorial scenes, but by the period following the Civil War, improvements in printing technology allowed artists and business owners to create pictorial advertisements that were much more sophisticated and colorful, and for a cheaper price, than ever before. These trade cards and larger prints still have an eye-catching appeal, and their low production costs made them a popular mode of advertising in the nineteenth century.

People frequently collected trade cards for the same reasons that earlier generations had collected prints. Trade cards’ small size allowed collectors to paste them into scrapbooks, a leisure-hour pastime that became particularly popular after the Civil War. These illustrations were designed to encourage consumers to associate the advertised product—which might be anything from soap to cigars to home furnishings or appliances—with beauty and a variety of pleasures.

Throughout the nineteenth century, continued technological advances enabled advertisers to reproduce very elaborate, sophisticated, and colorful images of beautiful women. Such images were often—but not only—designed to appeal to the women who would use the advertisers’ products in their daily grooming and household chores. The non-verbal language of artistic representation had a particularly powerful ability to incite desire in a viewer, and pictorial advertisements became the most popular way to attract the attention of potential customers. Visual communication techniques became increasingly sophisticated, a process that continues even to the present day.

The Baker Library at Harvard Business School has an excellent online exhibit about American trade cards.

Mermaid Polka. Lith. of Napoleon Sarony, 1850. [H. D. Hewitt]

In the nineteenth century, informal musical entertainments were a very common American pastime, and the piano was a common presence in American parlors. The piano’s rise in popularity coincided with advances in printing technology, and a booming sheet music industry was one result of these simultaneous developments.

American consumers purchased particular pieces of music for various reasons. Certainly, popular songs of the American musical stage became bestselling sheet music, but it is clear that sheet music publishers recognized that American consumers would buy even unfamiliar music if the cover art was appealing enough. Pictorial sheet music covers did double duty within the household: displayed above a keyboard even when a piano wasn’t in use, they functioned as decorative art.

Nineteenth-century pictorial sheet music covers capitalized on an endless array of already popular subjects, ideas, and themes in order to capture buyers’ attention. Over the course of the nineteenth century, sheet music images of beautiful women remained the most consistently popular type of illustration. In Mermaid Polka, these nude and loosely robed young women are graceful, demure, and carefree. They embody various ideas about women’s nature, with a titillating erotic accent. This lavish visual fantasy of beautiful young sea nymphs frolicking in the moonlight was meant to appeal to a wide variety of potential buyers. While women and men alike might have enjoyed this image for its pictorial beauty and expression of innocent romantic pleasure, men might also have associated it with antebellum dancing-girl performances (which were enjoyed by overwhelmingly male audiences) and European paintings like Botticelli’s celebrated fifteenth-century work, The Birth of Venus.

Detail from Mermaid Polka 1850, 33.5 x 26 cm



Gipsy Girl Polka. Eliphalet M. Brown, Jr., William Hall & Son, n.d. [Carl Pfannenmuller]

As with the Mermaid Polka, there are a variety of reasons this sheet music cover might have appealed to nineteenth-century viewers. Beyond this print’s obvious aesthetic appeal, the artist also suggests an intimate moment between the viewer and the gypsy girl. She gazes directly at the viewer; her self-protective gesture and the overturned hat at her feet suggest that the viewer is a man who has suddenly surprised her here in the bucolic quiet of the woods. Her clothing is so disarrayed and loose-fitting that she is almost en dishabille, and her gesture tells us that she knows that respectable women in her state of dress should not be seen by men. This awareness, demonstrated in her body language, is proof of her virtue, a feature that makes her all the more appealing as an object of desire. 1

Detail from Gipsy Girl Polka n.d., 34.5 x 26.5 cm


Dandine Polka. 1869. [J. Egghard]

Although this image is pure artistic fantasy, it offers us a view of women’s role in the male world of popular entertainments. The setting is a saloon or dance hall, and the dancer poses for the viewer as men busily smoke and drink behind her. Unlike a formal theatre, the stage here is low and there is no barrier between the dancer and her audience. Near the dancer’s feet are a nosegay and love letter that have been tossed onto the stage by an admirer.

This scene puts a woman at the center of a man’s world, a position that contrasts with nineteenth-century women’s place on the far peripheries of the men-only worlds of business, politics, and civic life. Here, the woman’s value lies in her ability to arouse the admiration of the saloon’s patrons, and she does this in part by showing off her legs, something that was considered very risqué. It was a common assumption that dancers like this one were sexually promiscuous, although there is no evidence that this was necessarily the case. At the same time, this woman’s relaxed ease as she smiles at the viewer suggests that, unlike most women of her time, she sees no problem in showing off her body for the enjoyment of her audience, and she therefore sets herself apart from the mainstream ideals of True Womanhood. Still, she embodies a few of the attributes of True Womanhood, particularly her beauty, her open, congenial manner, and her active efforts to inspire male pleasure. 

Detail from Dandine Polka 1869, 34.5 x 26.5 cm


Lyon's Katharion. Sarony & Co., 1856.

Although this advertisement promotes the retail business of Heath, Wynkoop, & Co., the proprietors use the appeal of a popular restorative hair tonic, Lyon’s Katharion, to attract the attention of potential customers. Katharion (from the Greek word for “pure”) was a generic name for tonics that counted castor oil, tincture of cantharides, alcohol, and fragrance oils among their ingredients. This advertising image says little about what the product actually does, but uses the powerful visual language of artistic fancy to associate itself and Lyon’s Katharion with romance, luxury, and beauty. 

The setting is highly theatrical. The lush-tressed young woman admires herself in a large gilt mirror (itself a very expensive luxury item) as she leans casually upon a bureau dripping with jewels. The enclosure that frames her seems like a fancifully decorated vending booth, and the architectural details at far left and right suggest that all of this is set within a grand European palace. Visual pleasures include gilt architectural embellishments, flowers bursting in bloom, lively sculptural carvings, and silky fabrics. These many symbols represent a variety of sensual comforts, and are meant to stimulate a viewer’s desire. This beautifully colored print represents a mighty promise from a little bottle of hair tonic.

Detail from Lyon's Katharion
1856, 31 x 38 cm



Hall's Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer. Attributed to Louis Maurer, n.d.

Hall’s Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer was another popular brand of hair tonic, and as with the previous print, this one, too, capitalizes on the popularity of these name brands to advertise a retail business.  This print is, in many ways, similar to the previous print advertising Lyon’s Katharion, particularly in its representation of beauty and comfort within a luxurious setting. The scenario here is a domestic one, and the young beauty with the endless tresses is being tended to by an equally beautiful, expensively dressed handmaid. All of the furnishings, and the dress of both women signal wealth and luxurious comfort. Louis Maurer, the presumed creator of this print, was an exceptionally successful American lithographer who worked for a number of major American art print publishers.

Detail from Hall's Vegetable Sicilian
Hair Renewer
n.d., 49 x 33 cm


Smith Brothers Chemically Pure Borax. c. 1870–1900.

In this trade card, the woman in the floor-length dress is the mistress of the house. Her dress, entirely impractical for the rigors of housework, signals to the viewer that she is affluent enough to enjoy the luxury of hired help, and the presence of three washerwomen suggests the mistress’ considerable wealth. She is seen instructing one of them and is thus a model of expert household management. Female consumers were encouraged to look at scenes like these and imagine themselves enjoying a similar life of leisure and privilege.

Whereas all of the white women in the image conform to idealized notions of beauty, the black woman’s face is delineated according to the grotesque models of the minstrel stage. Her exaggerated bustle also marks her as different, and serves as a reminder of existing American and European beliefs that blacks were essentially inferior to whites. The emphasis on this part of the female anatomy recalls older, erroneous ideas that suggested blacks were more lusty and animal-like than whites.

This image invites white women consumers to identify with the mistress of the house or her attractive washerwomen. All are well coiffed and dressed in neat and fashionable clothing, and through these associations between beauty and white womanhood, the manufacturers of Smith Brothers Chemically Pure Borax meant for consumers to associate their product with pleasure, privilege, and material comfort.

Image of Smith Brothers Chemically
Treated Borax
c. 1870-1900. 36 x 57 cm

Detail from Smith Brothers Chemically
Treated Borax
c. 1870-1900. 36 x 57 cm



1. For more about this image and other sheet music covers, see Katherine Hijar, “The Pin-Up, the Piano, and the Parlor: American Sheet Music, 1840-1860.” Imprint, 30:2 (Autumn 2005), pp. 7-21.


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