Friday, July 29th, 2016...5:49 pm

Nineteenth-Century Bound Sheet Music Volumes Part I: Edith Forbes Perkins volumes

Jump to Comments

With one of this summer’s Pforzheimer fellowships came the opportunity for frequent trips to a remote corner of Houghton Library’s sub-basement level, where several hundred bound sheet music volumes lay waiting to be catalogued. Thanks to Dana Gee’s extraordinary work with the Hidden Collections Sheet Music project, tens of thousands of loose sheet music scores in the Theatre Collection have received preliminary identification and categorization. Bound sheet music volumes were next in line for attention, as their contents were not yet recorded beyond place of publication and genre. (For a general sense of the collection’s scope, see Kathryn Lowerre, “Some Uncataloged Musical Resources in the Harvard Theatre Collection with a Handlist for the Bound Music Volumes,” Notes 2006 Vol.62(3)).

An amateur musician in the nineteenth century could have sent his or her library of loose sheet music to a book binder for any number of reasons. Perhaps the owner wanted to display his or her wealth in an expensive, fancy binding. Maybe a mother intended to pass on her collected musical library to a daughter. Or, there simply might have been too much clutter on top of the piano.

Perkins volumes

Bound volumes in the collection which belonged to Edith Forbes Perkins, seven identified to date.

While we don’t know why Edith Forbes Perkins (1843-1925) decided to have her sheet music bound, the variety of bindings suggest her reasons and priorities may have changed over time.

Perkins cover

Cover of Edith Forbes Perkins collection of American songs, circa 1843-1871, volume 2 of 2 (Lowerre 278).

The volumes are not strictly chronological, but two with relatively early-starting date ranges are both handsomely bound in red and black. A note bound in the second of these volumes reads:

Dear Mother:
Please have these books kept at Burlington & rebound? would you – I appreciate your saying I can have these but I like to think they will always be at Apple Trees – where for years I played & sang through these things –
Your [musical?] Elsie

Edith had been collecting – and using – sheet music for most of her life by the time she received this note from her daughter, Alice “Elsie.” Edith was born to the wealthy Forbes family: her father was Captain Robert Bennett Forbes (1804-1889) who had married Rose Green Smith Forbes (1802-1885) in 1834. (A thorough genealogy of the Forbes family has been prepared by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Through his mother, Secretary of State John F. Kerry is a member of the same Forbes family.)

After growing up in Boston and Milton, Edith married her second cousin, Charles Elliot Perkins (1840-1907) in 1864. Helpfully, Edith began noting place names (sometimes dates) on her music before her marriage, as below, a practice she continued throughout her life.

Under the willow sleeping

“Under the willow she’s sleeping” featuring an Edith Forbes Perkins annotation, from the Edith Forbes Perkins collection of American songs, circa 1843-1871, volume 2 of 2 (Lowerre 278).

The rest of the Perkins volumes, which seem to have been bound at different times, are all in other styles. This suggests that having all of her music volumes match, which may have been a priority at one point, was no longer important or feasible. The largest of the Perkins volumes, with seventy-six pieces, includes more references to places near and dear to Edith: Naushon and The Apple Trees. Edith’s uncle, John Murray Forbes (1813-1898) purchased Naushon Island in the mid-nineteenth century; part of the Elizabeth Islands (near Martha’s Vineyard), the island is still owned by the Forbes family.


“On the shores of Tennessee,” featuring the Edith Forbes Perkins annotation “Naushon,” from the Edith Forbes Perkins volume of American songs, circa 1840-1885 (Lowerre 279).

For many years, Edith’s husband Charles Elliott Perkins served as president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, thus the family lived in Burlington, Iowa at an estate they called The Apple Trees. Though Edith was over a thousand miles from all of her family and friends, she loved her new life in Iowa. Shortly after her marriage she wrote to a friend in Boston:

“Tell Fred there is a cosy [sic] house which stands high up on the banks of the Mississippi, and in that house dwells the undersigned…I cannot tell you how much I like it out here, the place itself and my life – nothing could make it pleasanter…At 4 ½ I go down, and we either go to walk or to drive – then come the cosy [sic] evenings, with our little wood fire and “Bleak House,” which C.E.P. reads aloud, and then I play the piano…”

(Family letters, 1861-1869 [of] Charles Elliott Perkins and Edith Forbes Perkins. Ed. by their daughter, Edith Perkins Cunningham, 1949, p. 203-204)

Apple Trees

“Oh, I’ll meet you dar,” featuring the Edith Forbes Perkins annotation “Apple Trees,” from the Edith Forbes Perkins volume of American songs, circa 1840-1885 (Lowerre 279). This is one of many songs in the Perkins volumes which were written specifically for or in the spirit of a nineteenth-century blackface minstrel show, suggesting that Perkins, like millions of other Americans, was not immune to the popular form of entertainment which mocked and degraded African Americans.

The most unusual of the Perkins volumes, containing music circa 1895-1898, is one that was able to be bound by the consumer, hinting that either cost or convenience was now a factor in the Perkins music-binding decisions. This volume contains several numbers from the 1897 hit musical The Belle of New York.

Howard music binder

Inside back cover with binding instructions, from the Edith Forbes Perkins volume of American songs, circa 1895-1898 (Lowerre 272).

Sadly, Edith Forbes Perkins was killed in the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake. She and her husband are buried in Milton Cemetery. The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a collection of Edith’s scrapbooks, and her daughter, Edith Forbes Perkins Cunningham (1873-1961) edited and published many of her mother’s letters and journals. Now, happily, we are able to add Perkins’s music volumes to any future study of her life.

[Thanks to Katie Callam, Pforzheimer Fellow, for contributing this post.]

Comments are closed.