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Pic of the Week: Proud as a Peacock Edition

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"Pride polka : to Miss Mary A. Westcott of Providence R. I." Composed by Francis H. Brown. New York : published by William Hall & Son, ca. 1850. Photo by Pat Padua.

The following post is by Music Cataloging intern Ruth Bright.

While cataloging as an intern in the Music Division, I ran across this beautifully illustrated lithograph title page for a song tucked away inside an anonymous volume, one of approximately 290 volumes found at LC classification number M1.A15.  This volume of miscellaneous melodies contains many Civil War classics, famous ditties of the time, and even some quirky and obscure tunes.  Privately bound in the 19th-century, these worn and idiosyncratic collections consist primarily of American songs amassed by their individual owners and are an important deposit of early American songwriting.  As a collection, these volumes are among the  valuable treasures of the Library and hence of the American people!

Enchanted by the vivid and stunning color of the peacock design on the “Pride Polka,” I discovered a little about the process of lithography in the 1800s.  This song was published in 1850, just a little more than 50 years after lithography was invented in the mid-1790s.  In a time when technologies didn’t develop and go out of date in 6 months, like your latest phone, the explosion of lithography and its use is quite extraordinary.  So how did a process that began so recently end up on the cover of this song tucked away in someone’s personal collection?  Well, the lithograph was first developed by a Bavarian playwright, Alois Senefelder, who was interested in cheaper and easier methods to disseminate his apparently mediocre plays.  Senefelder discovered a way to duplicate by drawing or etching into a coating of grease or wax on limestone and using that to transfer ink to paper, hence the word lithograph, from the Latin words litho, or stone, and graph, or mark.  The beauty of lithography is that because the stone is not etched itself (as with previous methods of printing), there is nothing to wear away as copies are made.  Here we find the first copy machine.

Due to the ease of this process and its economic attraction, lithography took off, and found its niche in the world of publication, advertising, and even art.  Combined with the greater use of wood pulp paper after the rag shortage of the 1850s, producing endless copies became even easier.  Especially when color lithography, or chromolithography, became possible a little later in the century, commercial use, including posters, prints, and illustrations, ballooned.  That’s when we find Napoleon Sarony, our very own lithographer of this piece, starting his own business, Sarony & Major, in 1843.  If you click on the picture you can see a larger version where you may be able to find his name at the bottom.

The “Pride Polka” assuredly also benefited from this explosion of color printing!  Francis Henry Brown, the composer, was a very popular antebellum song writer.  Over 100,000 copies of this very piece were printed in about nine years, a sensational top charts hit for those days!

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Comments

  1. Nice post. Beautiful cover! Thanks for the history.

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