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The beauty of paper ephemerals

January 27, 2013
Decorative sheet music provides information about fashion and leisure activities of the 1910s.

Decorative sheet music provides information about fashion and leisure activities of the 1910s.

The first time I ever saw a stack of old sheet music from the 1910s in an antique shop, I was amazed by the beauty of the covers. This disposable art, made by unknown artists, brightened the appearance of short-lived paper goods. The covers depicted ordinary things: pretty women, flowers, the latest fashions, still-lives, the interiors of rooms, street views. The best ones glowed with bright colors. All of the lettering was hand-drawn.

These decorative music covers depict a drastically changing society. The 1910s were the decade in which the modern era as we know it truly began: shorter dresses, women who smoked openly, modern art and dance, ragtime and early jazz music, a liberalized morality. And all of these unsettling elements showed up in the covers of sheet music.

This gorgeous cover was hand-lettered and packed with color.

This gorgeous cover was hand-lettered and packed with color.

They were obviously prized possessions. Many of the original owners wrote their names in ink on the covers. One can easily imagine young people in the carefree days before the First World War carrying their favorite pieces of sheet music to parties where they would dance the fox trot, the turkey trot and the hesitation waltz while a designated pianist thumped out the songs. At the end of the night they would sort out the sheet music based on the names written on the covers.

Who could resist this melting glance?

Who could resist this melting glance?

Most probably, the advent of the Victrola record player destroyed the sheet music industry, or at least destroyed the decorative aspects of that industry. When technology replaced the human pianists, there was less need for sheet music and no need for decoration on the covers. Sheet music lingered on, a pale ghost of itself, with minimalist design and largely monochrome color schemes, but the glory days were gone. By the middle of the 1920s after a majority of consumers had bought Victrolas, the covers of sheet music displayed a sudden loss of originality and quality. By the 1940s there was nothing left but Bing Crosby’s face in monochrome on smaller and poorer-quality paper. People often give me these monochrome pieces, thinking that these are what I collect, but I look for the style of Tin Pan Alley, an entire generation earlier: the era of Bing Crosby’s parents.

A well-placed blast of an early jazz trombone crumbles the Flatiron Building in New York.

A well-placed blast of an early jazz trombone crumbles the Flatiron Building in New York.

I own about 360 pieces of this music. Most of it cost between 50 and 60 cents each when new, which when adjusted for inflation would be between $12 and $15 today. When I first began collecting sheet music, the average cost at an antique store was between one and five dollars each. This means that unlike other types of antiques, their value has actually diminished over the long years rather than increasing.

But that’s the great thing about paper ephemerals: they’re affordable, and they’re delightful. I often get them out and page through them. They fascinate me, these images of ladies with limpid eyes, with thick hair pinned up atop their heads and beautiful Edwardian dresses. There are occasional saucy covers with slyly grinning wenches flaunting too-short skirts. The era represented on these covers is still recognizable as the beginning of my own, whereas the few Victorian samples in my collection depict a vanished world that has virtually nothing in common with life today.

It’s remarkable that any of these old things have survived through the years. They were some of America’s first disposable goods, because each hit tune would be replaced by the next one that came along. And yet the ones in my collection survived long enough to have me come along and rescue them.

Duke University maintains a searchable website with countless beautiful covers. See http://search.library.duke.edu/search?Nty=1&N=210980. 

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From → paper ephemera

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