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Music in the Gilded Age

Updated on December 28, 2016
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

Influences and Popularization

Throughout an 1889 article entitled “Music and Society” the anonymous author explains that the banjo, barrel organ, and other such instruments were increasingly affordable and commonly played at home in the late nineteenth century. As more people had time for leisure activities such as playing music and dancing, the proficiency of more people to play instruments increased, and interest in music at public parties and music hall performances were increasingly becoming the center of social gatherings. According to the writings of Victor Yellin (1975), and James Dormon (1988), Ralph Locke (1994), the Gilded Age saw the growth of an interest in different styles of music, increased women’s involvement in musical activities, and an increase in leisure time of the expanding middle class which allowed and encouraged such changes to occur. [1]

Victor Yellin’s 1975 analysis of the Music of George Chadwick, entitled “Chadwick: American Musical Realist,” analyzes such musical selections as “Rip Van Winkle” (1879), “The Symphonic Sketches” (1895), “Jubilee” (1895), “Every Woman” (1911), “Tom O’Shanter” (1914), and “The Padrone” (1912), as well as Robert Grant’s “The Peer and the Pauper” (1884), contending that music of the Gilded Age reflected common themes of American humor, vigor, tragedy, and ethnic pride. Chadwick’s analysis surmises that the music of the Gilded Age reflected the social movements of the era with working-class origins, upper class influences, middle class playing, and expression of “American society.” In an era in which recorded music had not yet been perfected and local live performances were still the means through which Americans heard and witnessed the playing of music, Yellin argues that musicals created and played music reflecting themes such as pastoral rural music in an urban setting using “musical metaphors usually neglected as unsuitable vulgarisms” due to their ethnic tones; especially German, Irish, and African influences. This uniquely American blend of ethnic influences on music became known as “American Veristic” music among music historians.[2]

Throughout Ralph Locke’s 1994 analysis entitled “Paradoxes of the Woman Music Patron in America,” Locke contends that women’s work in and for Gilded Age music has gone underreported or else been ridiculed due to late nineteenth century portrayals of such women as female music patrons, depicted as racially or socio-economically inferior; thus portrayed as flawed in Gilded age political cartoons. Other women such as wealthy “opera-going matrons in the New Yorker cartoons of Helen E. Hokinson” as well as the common Gilded Age perception of the stereotyped “overstuffed club women” were portrayed as one dimensional character of political satire in a journalistic attempt at social commentary. Locke argues that women of the Gilded Age played a major role in the growth and popularity of the music from “Handel, Rossini, and Brahms, to Bartok” both through their participation in playing such music and their patronage to it. Using the examples of Alice Tully and Betty Freedman’s financial contributions and “dedicated efforts” towards the “western music” scene of the Gilded Age, Locke contends that some women served a as volunteers on women’s committees of symphony orchestras, as others served as benefactors of such efforts. Locke’s thesis that women exercised social feminism in their music scene activism through fundraising and volunteering argues that the work done by women went not only without pay, but without recognition. Through an analysis of the 1893 National Convention of Women’s Amateur Musical Clubs, the Cleveland Orchestra (1918), the Pittsburg Orchestra (1898-1904), and other such means of female music patronage, Locke shows that through their participation and patronage to such organizations, women “learned how to conduct business, carry on meetings, speak in public, manage money,” and partake in “burocratic” and professional endeavors far more than their Victorian Era gender ideology had formerly permitted. Locke asserts that this patronage and activism has been largely ignored by historians, yet is largely documented through the records of both the organizations and the women they composed. Harriet Gibbs Marshal, Laura Langford, Mary Carr Moore, and various other “symphony ladies” left paper trails of records used by Locke in what he claims to be the prediction that since women, especially those of the Gilded Age, have always played an important role in American music, women will continue to do so through their varying means of activism, reflecting the Gilded Age’s abundance of female influence on the music scene.[3]

James Dormon’s “Shaping the Popular Image of Post Reconstruction American Blacks: The Coon Song Phenomenon of the Gilded Age,” Dormon uses a variety of primary and secondary sources to argue his thesis that “the national fascination with coon songs between circa 1890 and 1910 underlay a major shift in white perception of blacks” which seemed to solidify and embellish racial stereotypes, whereby such stereotypes of “black Americans in popular culture” became encoded as part of the “semiotic system” of Gilded America. Dorman uses examples of Gilded Age uses of “coon song” racial stereotypes of blacks as a “comic rustic song and dance figure” to assert that late nineteenth and early twentieth century musical trends encouraged and embodied the racism of broader societal trends of the period. His analysis of J.P. Skelly’s 1880 “The Dandy Coon Parade,” J.S. Putnam’s 1883 “New Coon in Town,” Sam Lucas’s 1884 “Coon Salvation Army,” William Dressler’s 1884 “Coon Schottische,” and other such performances spanning the 1880s-1890s further validates Dormon’s thesis and makes it evident that “coon” was synonymous with “black” in the Gilded Age, and the offensive actions of the “coons” of entertainment was portrayed as the actions of black in real life. Through an analysis of the popularity of minstrel shows after the Civil War, Dormon demonstrates that like Jim Crow, Zip Coon served as the outline of a racially offensive caricature, validating Gilded American ideas of Social Darwinism. Dormon asserts that the popularity of coon songs in the Gilded Age was the “manifestation of something that lay buried more deeply in the collective psychology of white bourgeois America” in which there were “blacks playing whites playing blacks, but were nonetheless accepted as projecting a form of reality, the reality of the ludicrous coon.” Often involving watermelons, chickens, pork chops, the use of African American vernacular English dialect, gambling, abuse of women, and sexual undertones, Coon songs are argued by Dormon to lend continuity to older minstrel portrayals of blacks and to encourage the keeping of the ascribed “character of black Americans” throughout the Gilded Age.[4]

Using examples of Gilded Age sheet music, piano sales, 1860s-1890s photos and paintings of musicians and dances, and records of balls, dinner parties, funerals, store openings, house warmings, bicycle races, dedications club banquets, debating society meetings, and theater performances for which musicians were hired to entertain, Katherine Preston’s 1984 Popular Music in the Gilded Age: Musicians’ Gigs in Late Nineteenth Century Washington D.C.” argues that due to Gilded Age industrialization and urbanization, and the increased size of the middle class with leisure time and disposable income generated the popularity of music as a part of everyday life. Preston contends that the common sale of sheet music and pianos during the Gilded Age contributed to the band craze of the 1880s-1890s through an outward manifestation of the amateur music making of the 1860s-1880s. Dance clubs, orchestras, military bands, balls, and theater performances were common during the Gilded Age, as Preston argues the easy access and financial means of participating in musical endeavors increased for the middle class of urban America. According to Preston, “clubs, societies, militia units, churches, businesses, trade unions, men’s fraternal organizations,” and others sponsored musical engagements such as dances, balls, hops, and masquerades in the Gilded Era as a means of entertainment, social interaction, and even fundraisers. Preston provides specific examples of musical events in an analysis of dance programmes, such as the 1881 Masonic Lodge Dance and the 1883 Musette Pleasure Club Dance in her analysis of Gilded Age musical trends.[5]

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, instruments were increasingly affordable and commonly played at home, increasingly by women as the Gilded Age progressed. As more people had the time and economic means for leisure activities such as playing music and dancing, interest in music at social gatherings and private family activities increased with a wealth of documented evidence such as music and instrument sales and dance programmes. According to the writings of Victor Yellin (1975), and James Dormon (1988), Ralph Locke (1994), the Gilded Age and Progressive Era saw the growth of an interest in ethnic portrayals of Americans through music, increased women’s involvement in musical activities, and an increase in leisure time and financial means of participation of the expanding urban American middle class that allowed such changes to occur.


[1] “Music and Society” The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular. Vol.30, No.562 (December 1889) 716-717.

[2] Victor Yellin, “Chadwick: American Musical Realist” The Musical Quarterly, Vol.61, No.1, (January 1975) 77-97.

[3] Ralph Locke, “Paradoxes of the Women Music Patron in America” The Musical Quarterly, Vol.78, No.4, (Winter 1994) 798-825.

[4] James Dormon, “Shaping the Popular Image of Post Reconstruction American Blacks: The Coon Song Phenomenon of the Gilded Age” The American Quarterly, Vol.40, No.4 (December 1988) 450-471.

[5] Katherine Preston, “Popular Music in the Gilded Age: Musicians’ Gigs in Late Nineteenth Century Washington DC.” Popular Music, Vol.4, (1984) 25-47.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to Hartwick College for providing a beautiful and quiet place to read and research!
Special Thanks to Hartwick College for providing a beautiful and quiet place to read and research!

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