As a Library Company intern, I am used to going into the stacks and seeing books such as copies of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Dr. Benjamin Rush’s copy of the account of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. I am also used to seeing 19th-century books—some bound in cloth, others in leather, and still others with plastic details or even some fashioned from mother of pearl, clearly meant to be displayed as well as read. With a glance beyond the covers, these beautifully bound books seem to carry comparably less weight than Common Sense or the account of 1793—these are household manuals, lessons and grammars, and popular novels—but they represent a historical fact which is difficult to obtain from a textbook. It is the fact of the owners of the books, and not only what stories and knowledge they cared about, needed, or were told they needed, but what they cared about seeing every day.
|Cover of sheet music book from anonymous gift, ca. 1857-1865|
|Illustration from sheet music book, ca. 1824-1844|
Such a musical melting pot not only tells us what the owners of the bound volumes liked to play and share, although, as any present-day musician or lover of music can assert, that is very important too. This music could give us a clue as to how individuals and families dealt and engaged with events happening in their world, from the almost all-encompassing Civil War to other more transient interests in 19th-century America. With music becoming a more accessible form of expression for many people in the 19th century, it is imperative that we look to it for answers to questions or concerns of the times as we would look to other available means of expression, such as writing. Like the rest of the books in the Library Company stacks, music offers its own stories of history from the ordinary people who lived with and through it.
Library Company of Philadelphia Volunteer Intern