September 18, 1899: Scott Joplin

Setting the Scene: 1899

The Spanish-American war ended. Aspirin was patented. Carnation made its first can of evaporated milk. The first motor-driven vacuum cleaner (gasoline powered!) was invented by J.S. Thurman. A United States patent is issued to Ferdinand von Zeppelin for his “Navigable Balloon.” The first known use of the word “automobile” appeared in The New York Times. And on September 18, 1899, Scott Joplin copyrighted “Maple Leaf Rag.”

The Cultural Importance of the Piano

Since automobiles were still a novelty, once a family had a home, very often their next biggest purchase was a piano. Having a piano at home was considered a status symbol, reflecting high standards and prosperity. Great value was also placed on music education. The music recording industry was still very young, so if you wanted to hear a song, you learned to play it yourself.

Most of pianos manufactured in America came from factories in New York City, Boston, Chicago or other major cities. [Related: a notable exception is the Lombard Piano, made in Galesburg, Illinois.] While some pianos were still hand-crafted, many were at least partially mass-produced. Combined, these factories employed many people, from general labor to skilled craftsmen. Mass production helped lower the cost of pianos making them more accessible to the average family. Retail music stores could have pianos built to their specifications and those pianos would carry the brand name of the local store. Having a local brand name added to the prestige of the store!

A turn of the century piano factory
The Piano Lesson by George Goodwin Kilburne

Learning to play an instrument was considered an important part of a complete education. Quality piano teachers were respected and in high demand. While most of the well-known composers of the day were men, most of the piano teachers were women.

Becoming a trained piano tuner or technician was a popular profession. It took a great number of technicians were to take care of the thousands of instruments.

Social times with family and friends frequently centered around the piano. People would take turns at the piano, play other instruments along with the piano, sing along, or simply sit back and enjoy the music. While piano practice is and was primarily a solitary endeavor, the enjoyment of the instrument was most definitely a group activity.


From the Schomacker Piano-Forte Mfg. Co. catalog

All of this together, of course, helped sell a lot of sheet music. It was a very common practice in music stores to have musicians playing songs available for sale from the store inventory. This allowed a perspective purchaser to hear –and hopefully purchase– a song they might not yet be able to play. Scott Joplin, like many songwriters of his time, visited the music stores that sold his music. He would sit and play his songs to attract purchasers to his compositions. It would have been a treat, indeed, to see Mr. Joplin performing his own music!

[Related: “The Strenuous Life of Scott Joplin,” the story of Scott Joplin’s life told in graphic novel-style storyboards with links to online media, is now available. Read more about it and related printables here. The Maestro Heights Store is here.]

Nicholson and Company Music Store, Sydney, ca.
1905

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