The innovative ways to make music at home we’ve seen recently are actually part of a tradition that goes back centuries! Here, we look at a bit of the history behind “music at home” in the U.S.

In the 19th century, making music at home was a popular pastime. Individuals often played solo instruments, and many families enjoyed making music together as informal ensembles. Learning to play an instrument—flutes, harps, violins, and keyboard instruments were all common—was a valued part of a child’s upbringing that indicated a family’s sophistication.

Indeed, instruments were becoming status symbols during this time. Amateur musicians began to buy from U.S. companies rather than importing instruments. Piano makers such as Chickering & Co. produced pianos of all sizes, including smaller square pianos that fit more comfortably in middle-class parlors and were less expensive. Pictured below is a Chickering grand piano made in Boston in 1850 (on display in MIM’s Domestic Music exhibit). Companies like Sears, Roebuck & Co. also offered easy-to-play instruments (often with instructions included) for purchase through mail order catalogs.

If you stepped into a 19th century home, you might hear a variety of music played. Works by European composers such as Handel and Haydn were popular. People also played religious hymns, sentimental ballads, or songs intended to teach moral lessons. American composers began to compose songs specifically for home-music making. Sheet-music publishers provided amateur musicians with songs by composers such as Stephen Foster (“Camptown Races” and “Oh! Susannah”), the first American to earn his living as a songwriter.

Hear some tunes popular in the 19th century with this Spotify playlist, or explore a range of instruments at the MIM Online Store for making music at home.