According to the definition given by Irving Lowens in his A Bibliography of Songsters Printed in America before 1821 (Worcester, 1976), a songster is a "collection of three or more secular poems intended to be sung." The Society's collection of songsters is one of the strongest in the nation. Of the more than 1,000 songsters housed at the Society, nearly 300 were published before 1821, while the remainder were published before 1877. The size of the collection is a result of continued acquisition over the years, including the purchase of the collection formed by H. Douglas Dana, a bookseller in Providence, Rhode Island, and the generosity of recent donors like Margery Morgan Lowens, who in 1983-84 donated the fine collections built by her late husband, Irving Lowens.
The songster was most often an inexpensive publication used as a popular source of poems, meant to be sung, of a romantic, patriotic, or comic nature; the songster was also used as a medium to express ever-changing topical concerns. A careful study of the materials would reveal interesting changes in the expressions of romantic love, patriotic fervor, and native humor during the years covered by the collection. Politics was a popular theme of many songsters, and a number were issued to advance the fortunes of specific political candidates. Social reform movements such as temperance also utilized songsters to convey their message. Songsters compiled for the use of fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows are also commonplace in the collection. Another popular type contained songs about African Americans. Printed predominantly in the northern cities during the 1840s and 1850s, they perpetuated racial stereotypes. The songster also provides an interesting resource for the study of popular poetry, as well as for the tunes to which the poems were meant to be sung. In many instances the name of the tune is listed with the poem.
The songsters printed before 1841 are cataloged online with access under title, subject headings, and the genre heading "Songsters." Songsters published from 1831 to 1877 are shelved as one collection. Earlier songsters are shelved in the dated books collection. A checklist of songsters, completed in 1980, is available in the Reading Room. The Lowens bibliography, cited above, is the standard reference work.
- James F. Cuffe, Jr., former Cataloger, North American Imprints Program. Updated by Caroline Stoffel, Online Services Librarian