In Search Of American Popular Song

E.H. Pfeiffer

The Artistry of American Popular Music

The story of cover art & Edward H. Pfeiffer

As we have said in this month's feature, the artistry displayed on the covers of American Popular music from about 1890 - 1920 were one of the highest forms of commercial art during that period. Many a fine artist made a good living by creating fanciful and beautiful works of art to help sell the sheet music within. Competition for sales was keen with hundreds of publishers from Tin Pan Alley vying for the public's attention.

It is said that during the period after the American Civil War, over 25,000 new pianos a year were sold and that by 1887, over 500,000 youths were studying piano. Clearly, with so many homes having pianos, the demand for sheet music was tremendous. In fact, sales in the millions for sheet music was not unheard of and according to some sources, by 1910, sales of sheet music had reached thirty million copies per year!

With so many titles for sale, prices which normally were around fifty cents per title would often drop as low as one cent for special sales. Stores frequently had "song pluggers" who were hired to play songs in the store to attract buyers. Samples were also often given away to get the music into the community. Given this extremely competitive environment, visual stimulation and attractiveness became a major attribute of sheet music. Not only did publishers fight over attracting the best composers and lyricists but artists became a major part of the process also. Who can deny the beauty of a well done cover illustration as a welcome addition to the piano. Of course, collectors today focus on the illustrations, almost to the exclusion of the music. Sadly, many collectors have destroyed the music manuscripts in favor of framing and mounting the cover. (The idea of that destruction of historic documents makes us cringe.)

A number of extremely talented artists emerged during the period whose work was found on hundreds of beautiful covers. Names such as Starmer, Barbelle, De Tackacs and IM-HO became household names. For many, their popularity alone sold many a sheet music that perhaps had questionable musical value. Among these great artists was perhaps the most prolific of them all, Edward H. Pfeiffer. Recently, Ann M. Pfeiffer Latella, E.H. Pfeiffer's granddaughter graciously shared with us the above photo and a biography of Pfeiffer. The following information is extracted from her kind letter to us and gives us all some insights into one of the greatest artists of the period.

"E.H. Pfeiffer's signature can be found on the cover illustrations of hundreds of early 1900's songs. Although he has been dead for over 60 years, his art lives on and helps define for us who he was. I'm told his friends all called him 'Pfeiffer. He experimented with his signature trying, 'Fifer' and 'EHP' and usually followed his name with 'NY' or 'NYC', his lifelong home." Sheet Music CoverEdward Pfeiffer was born in New York City in 1868 of German immigrant parents. His father, Henry, was an engraver and his mother was Mary (nee York). As a young man, Edward suffered an injury to his leg that developed into osteomylitis and ultimately led to his death in 1932. Throughout his life he suffered from a severe limp and even designed his own orthopedic shoe to ease his discomfort.

At left is the Pfeiffer cover from "Alexander's Bag Pipe Band"(by Irving Berlin) from 1912. This cover shows Pfeiffer's excellent portraiture skills in rendering lifelike portraits of the cast of the production, "Hokey Pokey Bunty Bulls and Strings". His use of color and art deco elements make this an excellent work of art from the period

"In addition to illustrating sheet music covers, Pfeiffer also designed costume jewelry and was an illustrator for various newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately, much of that work is unsigned as compared to his sheet music work which was almost always signed. Like many people involved in the sheet music industry during those times, it appears Pfeiffer made some forays into establishing his own publishing house. A few sheets are found with 'PFEIFFER ILLUSTRATING CO.' and at least one indicates Pfeiffer as the publisher." His very unique and identifiable signature can be seen in the above photo of Pfeiffer provided by Ms. Latella.

Pfeiffer married Fannie McCracken but the marriage was short lived. Their only child, Ms. Latella's father, was raised by his grandmother after Edward and Fannie parted. In Ms. Latella's collection of over 1500 Pfeiffer covers, she states that over 100 publishers are represented. "This seems to indicate that he worked as a freelance artist for either the publishers or composers. Dad said he often worked at home but office addresses are also listed in old New York City directories. The earliest sheet I have found is 'In The Twilight' (composed by 'Schleifforth', ed.) from 1892. A few were published in the '50's using his illustrations, more than 20 years after his death."

"From Studying my collection of my grandfather's art, it appears that he must have had an eye for a lovely lady. They appear often and in a variety of fashionable hats.Sheet Music Cover Pfeiffer was also considered a pioneer in the art deco period. My favorite examples of this work appear on 'When I Get Back To My Old Home Town', 'For-Get-Me-Not' and 'I've Got The Finest Man' ( Creamer & Europe, 1912)All were done between 1912 and 1915. This work and his fantasy art suggest he must have had a vivid imagination."

At right is Cuddle Up (by Irving Berlin) from 1911. This cover is illustrative of Pfeiffer's "eye for a lovely lady" as related to us by Pfeiffer's granddaughter.

"Pfeiffer owned his own horse, and he and dad raced their sulky on what are now congested New York City streets. His love and knowledge of the horse is evident in scenes such as appear on 'Charge of the Uhlans" (see our featured page) and 'Marching Through Georgia'."
(illustrated below from 1918, by Rudolf Thaler)

Sheet Music Cover"Most of all, I'd say that my grandfather was an artist. His work was obviously appreciated then by the songwriters and publishers, and I can only imagine his pride in knowing it has become a collector's item these many years later. He never became rich or famous in his lifetime, but he has left a legacy for art and music lovers everywhere, and I hope he achieved a sense of satisfaction from doing what he loved best."

(Ann M. Pfeiffer Latella, January, 2000)

 

What a wonderful legacy indeed Mr. Pfeiffer! I feel honored that Ms. Latella would share her family's story with us for publication here. We offer her our gratitude for her contribution. It touches me to look on these works of art and listen to the music and realize that each work is a labor of love from a real human being. As such, these works represent not only a very real part of America's history but also represent the hopes and dreams of real people. Behind each fantastic work of art is the sweat and tears of an artist, composer and lyricist who shares with us a part of themselves. Art comes from the heart of humankind. Perhaps more than any other of mankind's accomplishments, art is a representation of emotion and feelings. What is so wonderful about the languages of art is that when we gaze on the painting, or listen to the music, the same feeling and emotion that the artist created can leap across the years and even centuries to make a bond between us and the creator.

This is but one reason Bob and I feel these treasures need to be preserved for all time and we dedicate ourselves to doing our small part by continuing to bring this wonderful music and art to you each month.

Rick Reublin, February, 2000