Sheet Music

The collection of sheet music at the American Antiquarian Society consists of about 60,000 pieces of instrumental, vocal, secular, and religious music by both American and foreign composers that were printed through 1880 (more than 4,100 compositions were printed in the United States before 1826). Although Boston imprints are in the majority, the collection also embraces works published in many other sections of the country, notably New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and San Francisco.


The music is shelved alphabetically by composer. All sheet music published before 1800 is cataloged in the General Catalog. Over 200 pieces of music published during the Civil War is also cataloged in the General Catalog.

The majority of the collection is accessed through a title index card file in the reading room. In addition to the title and name of the composer, the index lists the place of publication, publisher, and date. It also indicates any special filing category for retrieval of the music. Both Richard J. Wolfe's bibliography Secular Music in America, 1801-1825 (New York, 1964) and A Bibliography of Early Secular Music [18th Century] (Washington, 1945) by Oscar G. T. Sonneck and William T. Upton, are annotated to reflect the AAS holdings and new acquisitions. The numbers assigned by Wolfe are also added to the collection's title index.

The sheet music collection is divided into six categories. The largest contains about 44,400 pieces. As with all the other subdivisions, it is arranged first by composer's name, then alphabetically by title, and, in the case of multiple variant imprints, by place of publication and publisher. Some 9,000 pieces of music with lithographed pictorial covers forms a second division. This group is used extensively by researchers. The covers not only give a pictorial dimension to the musical content but also present a social and cultural commentary on the era. Songs were composed to pay tribute to the heroism of fire fighters or to celebrate such important events as the first water piped into New York in 1842. These pieces also illustrate issues of the day such as temperance, slavery, and women's rights. They extolled the pleasures of rowing or bowling, ice cream parlors, and tobacco. Even the appearance of the great comet in 1843 was deemed appropriate for the popular composer and the cover artist. The artists who illustrated the pictorial sheet music included some of the nation's most prominent--Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, David Claypoole Johnston, and Fitz Henry Lane.

About 5,000 pieces of music with engraved pictorial covers forms a third category. Another 800 or so pieces are filed by the names of authors cited in P.K. Foley's bibliography American Authors 1795-1895 (Boston, 1897). A smaller group of sheet music includes compositions displaying photographic or lithographed portraits on their covers.

The final category is the group that constitutes the "Worcester Collection," containing about 600 pieces. This category comprises music either composed by a Worcester native, published in Worcester, or celebrating a Worcester subject; and it is the only group that contains imprints extending into the twentieth century. Included are such pieces as the "Rangers Trip to Westborough or Lion Quick Step" by James Hooten, written for the opening of the railroad to Westboro, Massachusetts, on November 15, 1834, and "Good Old Worcester Town," composed in 1917 by Hamilton B. Wood, a former president of the Worcester County Music Association.

The sheet music collection is one of the outstanding collections in the country. The Society continues to augment the collection with as much pre-1826 music as possible. Also of interest is music published through 1880 in the West, Midwest, or South.


The Sheet Music Consortium provides tools and services that promote access to and use of online sheet music collections by scholars, students, and the general public. Hosted at UCLA.

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