For the Victorians, music was an anchor of sorts. In a time when the world was rapidly changing due to the Industrial Revolution, music offered families a chance to gather in the peace of the home. Creating this nurturing, restful home was a goal for Victorians, and one way to provide this was through small family rituals like singing together in the evenings or listening to a child play a musical instrument.
Music also provided an escape from the stress of everyday life. The world was a tumultuous place in the late 19th century. Although great advances were being made in all areas of science and industry, there was a high price to pay. The streets were noisy with sounds of industry, the air dirty with soot; Victorians saw music as a way to transcend this turmoil and clamor around them.
Music enjoyed a distinctive place in the home. Larger homes had special music rooms devoted entirely to musical pursuits. In the music room, the family displayed their instruments and gave musical performances for one another. We know from oral history interviews that the Physick family had both a baby grand piano (with gold strings!) and an Aeolian player – a type of player piano. Although they did not refer to their parlor as the “music room,” it was where the instruments were kept.
In addition to pianos and organs, harps, guitars, banjos, accordions, harmonicas, mandolins, and zithers were common in Victorian homes. Kazoos, parlor bells, and toy instruments were also available for young children to experiment with.
Music as a pastime grew very popular and soon singing schools were established. Here young ladies and men could go for lessons in reading music, take classes in singing and voice, and learn to play instruments. Some singing masters also traveled throughout the countryside offering their services. By the end of the century, large quantities of printed sheet music were available to everyone. Known as “parlor songs,” the music was simple and easy to follow.
Community bands sprang up everywhere. Bands played at all kinds of public gatherings including parades, festivals, picnics, outdoor concerts, dances, and carnivals. Technological advancements in brass instruments meant that trumpets, cornets, and horns were easier to play and widely accessible. This led to the brass band, including the most famous of all under the direction of John Philip Sousa. From the 1890s to the 1920s, Sousa brought the outdoor concert to the height of its popularity in America.
The residents of Cape May also enjoyed outdoor concerts in the summer. Period newspapers tell of “Musical Festivals” scheduled for the summer months. By July 1882, the festivals were gaining such popularity that the newspapers reported they were “growing to great proportions.”
Cape May held numerous musical delights. The newspapers proclaimed “Cape May promises to be a musical summer center this season.” They also noted that “the musical festival will greatly help prolonging the season well into September,” stating that the festival would “draw like one of the Pennsylvania RR’s big engines.”
As the turn of the century approached, “mechanical music” began to replace live performed music. By the 1890s, Thomas Edison’s phonograph was gaining popularity. Music boxes, player pianos, and phonographs soon entirely replaced the organ and piano in families’ evening musical recitals. Most simply saw the mechanical devices as easier than learning to read music, sing, and play an instrument. By the 1920s, the radio became the dominate music supplier in the household. Music had evolved from a family activity to an individualized experience, losing that Victorian ideal of a peaceful, nurturing home environment.
Elan Zingman-Leith is a former curator and board member at MAC. He is an accomplished artist and he and his wife, Susan, own Leith Hall Bed & Breakfast on Ocean Street.