Music History is a Beautiful Thing

Image taken from presentation
This past weekend, on October 10th, I held the Barbara A. Cooke Musical Theater Collection Showcase. This was my opportunity to highlight one of the Archive’s special collections to the public, who might have been unaware of its existence. This event was in cooperation with Chicago Area Archivists and Chicago Open Archives: Collecting and Connecting.

Alumna Barbara Cooke gave a wonderful presentation on the history of sheet music, which she separated into three different time periods: the Vintage Era (1860-1880), the Victorian Era (1880-1900), and the Golden Age (1900-1935).

Selection of sheet music covers from 1900-1935
The Vintage Era produced sheet music with basic and functional covers, primarily in black and white. These pieces are very rare because it was expected that a sheet would be thrown away when the song’s popularity faded. The Victorian Era was heavily influenced by European ideas, especially from England’s Queen Victoria. Subject matter focused on the home, sentimental love songs, and heartbreak.

Ms. Cooke explained how the dull sheet music covers drastically changed when music publisher E.T. Paull (1858-1924) invented a way to create covers with full color. Sales of sheet music skyrocketed because people bought songs for the gorgeous covers, not for the songs within. This marked the beginning of the Golden Age. Composers and lyricists wrote music people could dance too, which meant incorporating jazz, blues, ragtime, and the music of black minstrel shows. The covers reflected the subject matter.

Visitors listening to presenter Barbara A. Cooke
The end of the Golden Age came when film studios sent head-shots of actors to the music publishing houses, instead of paying an artist to create a painting. Photographs were faster and cheaper to produce, but the cover designs suffered as a result.

Archives Librarian Gloria Hendrickson
and alumna Barbara A. Cooke
After Ms. Cooke’s presentation, attendees viewed selected covers and visited the room with the entire collection. People spent time talking with Barbara and listening to her stories from her theater career, as well.

I want to thank everyone who attended and expressing interest in another one of these sessions. As always, feel free to contact me at 815-740-3539 or if you have any questions.


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