American ragtime, a precursor of early jazz, is a musical style that enjoyed immense popularity in the late 1800s through World War I. Ragtime was coined for its “ragged,” syncopated rhythms that arose from African-American musical traditions. The emergence of ragtime occurred at the height of the Industrial Revolution when the expanding middle classes could increasingly afford new inventions for home and business entertainment. A wide range of musical boxes, player pianos, nickelodeons, and early phonographs provided families and customers with access to the newest, most popular music of the day.
A piano in the parlor became a middle-class status symbol, with manufacturers rising to meet the challenge of intensified public demand. For the upwardly mobile, the piano represented disposable wealth, signaling the luxury of leisure time for practice and social enjoyment. This cultural phenomenon transformed the music-publishing industry, which churned out inexpensive sheet music with popular tunes on short demand and in mass quantities. Publishers on “Tin Pan Alley”—a block on 28th Street in New York City between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, named for the constant jangling sounds emanating from live pianists, promoting new releases in the show windows of music publishers—competed with one another by enlisting talented artists to create stimulating and evocative cover art for their compositions to catch the eye of the consumer.
The exhibition “Those Beautiful Rags” features rare ragtime sheet music cover art from the world-renowned Guinness Collection, and highlights a variety of mechanical musical instruments, such as the Seeburg “L” coin piano, and an early, coin-operated “jukebox” containing Edison cylinder records. Available at interactive listening stations are examples of early “ragged” and syncopated arrangements performed by musical machines. The mechanical instruments, audio kiosks, and provocative period illustrations on sheet music covers encourage visitors to come away with a deeper appreciation of the art and the music of this uniquely American product.