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Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Cover for "Football,; or, Misery and Mud," by Wal Pink and W.G.
Eaton,  1894.  From the Sam DeVincent Collection
of Illustrated American Sheet Music
 One of the most popular and most-used collections in the National Museum of American History Archives Center is our Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music. Mr. DeVincent (1918-1997) was an avid collector of published sheet music, especially popular songs accompanied by colorful, often humorous cover illustrations. He filled his home with the thousands of items that form this vast collection, until the Archives Center acquired it in 1988.

American music is one of the Archives Center's specialties. Another huge music collection, the Duke Ellington Collection, actually arrived at the Museum on the same day. I remember this well, since I was the staff member who physically moved the first group of heavy cartons of both collections from the Museum's loading dock to the Archives Center! The Ellington Collection includes original music manuscripts by Ellington and associates such as Billy Strayhorn, whereas the DeVincent collection contains commercially published music.

"Three Times Three" by Inglis and Smith,
1902, including a reproduction of a
photograph.  De Vincent Collection
 There are other great collections of sheet music in the Washington area, notably at the Library of Congress, but what makes the DeVincent Collection unusual is the organization which Sam DeVincent imposed on this large aggregation. It was not arranged by composer or title in the conventional manner, but primairly by topic or theme. For example, songs about transportation--planes, trains, and automobiles--were grouped together. Such subject groupings simplify and expedite research for many scholars, picture resesarchers, and others concentrating on specific aspects of cultural history. The ease of viewing and comparing popular songs devoted to narrow themes and subjects--both in terms of their lyrics as well as cover illustrations--has thrilled many Smithsonian fellows and researchers. Sometimes everything a researcher needs can be found in a single DeVincent box.

Cover, "Those Dear Old College Days, by
W.R. Williams, 1905.  DeVincent Collection
  An online finding aid summarizes the contents of the DeVincent collection, and selected individual pieces have been catalogued in SIRIS, often accompanied by images of the cover illustrations. As more requests for copies of items from the collection are processed--usually older, public-domain materials--the database will be augmented. Examples of sports and college songs, many of which have humorous cover illustrations, are shown here.  Note the unflattering portrayal of a college student at the right.

--David Haberstich, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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