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Lincoln and the Blair House Binder’s Volumes

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The following is a guest post from retired Senior Music cataloger Sharon McKinley.

The Academy Awards are over, and I was definitely rooting for Lincoln.  Daniel Day-Lewis in particular was wonderful, but then, we’re Lincoln partisans here at the Library, which is the home of the Lincoln papers. Staffers were consulted during production of the movie. Too bad no one consulted me. I’d have told them that they needed to include some of our music volumes if they wanted true local color.

Francis Preston Blair and his wife, Violet Gist, as they looked at the end of the Civil War in U.S. Prints and Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-USZ6-1725

I enjoyed Hal Holbrook’s feisty portrayal of Francis Preston Blair, Sr. (1791-1876), an influential politician of the day who figures prominently in the movie. One scene takes place in the family home, Blair House, which became part of the official state guest house for the President of the United States after being purchased by the government in 1942.   The Library has at least one direct connection with Blair House:  we own some interesting scores which belonged to the Blair family, and these were given to the Library at an unknown time.

Binder’s volumes are artificial compilations of sheet music, mostly from the early to mid-19th century. They were created when the owner, who was almost always a woman, decided to have the contents of her piano bench bound for posterity; or perhaps someone else had them bound for her. There are over 300 of these unique volumes here at LC. We have received them from many sources: donations and purchases have both added to the stock. I have yet to find out how we acquired the Blair House volumes, but since the bindings are generally in poor condition, they may not be something you want to display on your piano a century or more later. I can imagine them being high on a house-cleaning list several decades ago, and the Library being the logical place for them to end up.

Photo by Pat Padua

The vast majority of binder’s volumes were created by the new middle class: young women in very comfortable circumstances but not necessarily from rarefied society. They contain some hi-falutin’ opera excerpts in Italian and French, and some are European imports, but most of this is just ordinary American-made popular piano and vocal music. Song topics cover the usual themes of the day; they range from true love (which of course is ALWAYS a theme) to maudlin numbers mourning the dead, to dance music, patriotic and military numbers, and so on. Parlor music sung and played at the piano was a common source of amusement, providing a perfect opportunity for young people to mingle with members of both sexes, or for families to share time together.

Hon. Montgomery Blair [between 1860 and 1875]. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-cwpbh-00033
It is interesting to note that the five Blair House volumes contain the same kinds of music as the other volumes we’ve cataloged thus far. These were extremely privileged women, yet they were entertained by and collected much the same things as their far more modest sisters. One of our volumes belonged to Minna Blair (1850-1919); she was the daughter of Preston’s son Montgomery Blair (1813-1883), who appears in Lincoln and served as a Postmaster General of the U.S. Three others were her Aunt Ellen’s. Ellen Carolina deQuincy Woodbury(1831-1909), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice, was Montgomery’s sister-in law. Our volumes span several decades, from the 1820s to the 1870s.

It may be hard for us to imagine ordinary domestic life going on in houses such as Blair House. These scores help bridge the gap between cold history and warm family life. So when you watch Lincoln again, look for the scene at Blair House, and perhaps you’ll think of young Minna and her Aunt Ellen singing and playing in the parlor when those politicians leave.

A number of the Library’s binder’s volumes have been cataloged, including the Blair House volumes. You can find these in the online catalog at Set limits to printed music,  then perform a keyword search on “Blair House” to view the individual records for each song in the volumes, which are found at LC class number M1.A15, volumes 283-287.




  1. Thanks so much, Sharon. You’ve got a picture of one of my favorite heroes, Montgomery Blair! I’m referring new docents for the Performing Arts tour to your blog.

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