New methods of music delivery seem to appear about every month. Once the new one is in place, the old one is quickly forgotten. This was as true in the pre-electronic days as it is now, which is part of the reason the Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco is showcasing the nearly forgotten but all-time champion in home music delivery: sheet music.
Today whole rooms are devoted to home entertainment, but in this earlier time, “the high point of entertainment would be gathering around the parlor piano and singing,” says exhibit curator James M. Keller.
Keller has paired his personal collection of sheet music with the Society’s Frederick Sherman Music Collection to create “Singing the Golden State: celebrating the history of California through sheet music.” The exhibit, with about 200 pieces, gives a persuasive overview of musical, societal, and artistic trends from the 1850s well into the 1930s. The attention-grabbing graphic designs and cover images attracted buyers, who took them home to share with the family.
“It was a group activity,” Keller says, “and a real experience of bonding because singing – making music – is something you have to do with a certain amount of precision. It was a sort of shared cultural activity that people maybe don’t have quite so often today. People viewed music as something essential in drawing them together with other people.” Think of that the next time you walk past a sea of individuals wearing earbuds (perhaps including you), each responding to their own beat.
While the elaborate covers are the main focus of this exhibit, other artifacts, such as a piano that was typical of the time, are also included. Keller says recordings of some of the songs available at listening stations in the exhibit are very popular with visitors. And that’s helping achieve one of his goals for this exhibit. “What we really want,” he says, “is for people to walk out the front door at the end with a smile on their faces.”