Book Shelves and a Painting of Stephen Foster in the Center for American Music

History of the Collections

Our collections go back to 1937 when Josiah Kirby Lilly, the then-retired president of Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals, and Josiah K. Lilly, a longtime Stephen Collins Foster devotee, began assembling the Foster Hall Collection in Indianapolis. They aimed to document Foster's life and authenticate his works. At the time the University of Pittsburgh built its Oakland campus in the 1920s and 1930s, it sought to memorialize Foster, a Pittsburgh native who wrote most of his works in the city. In 1937, Mr. Lilly donated his collection to the University to be housed and displayed in the new Stephen Foster Memorial building, which he had helped to fund. The Foster Hall Collection, as it was then called, established a regular agenda of humanities programs and was the first center for the study of American music.

The original Foster Hall Collection of 10,000 items constitutes the world's principal repository for materials concerning Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864), America's first professional songwriter. It thoroughly documents the life, work, images, and influence of Foster, the only individual consistently given entire chapters in histories of American music, and composer of songs that are still among the best known in the world. Lilly was aware that his collection was unique, having collaborated with scholars, the Library of Congress, the foremost music collectors, arrangers, performers, and publishers to collect and document its holdings.

The Collections Today

Since 1937, our holdings have trebled. The Center now collects reference and research materials for American music, with an emphasis on popular culture of the period between 1840 and 1940. Because Foster's music and images have pervaded all classes of American society from the late 1840s to the present, the Center offers a rare vantage point from which to interpret American cultural history. The holdings have been called, in the words of a 1985 NEH-funded assessment, "one of the major research collections for 19th-century American music, and American culture in general, in the entire country" with "a large and priceless collection of 19th-century song."

The 10,000 items deposited in 1937 are indexed by Answer Songs, Arrangers, Books, Broadsides, First Editions, Foster Hall Collection publications and recordings, Letters, Magazines, Manuscripts, Parodies, Pictures, Recordings, Plays, Poems, Songbooks, and Scores (subdivided by number and type of voices and instruments). We have gathered an additional 20,000 items reflecting Foster, composers influenced by him, and music in American life. The holdings include 250 pages of holographs and manuscripts; musical instruments; scrapbooks, account books, correspondence and papers; early photographs; 73 portraits and artworks; 12,000 music scores to the 1930s; 1,200 songbooks and songsters; 1,000 broadsides; 700 books and 250 periodicals; nine shelf-feet of early 78 rpm recordings; and maps, deeds, documents and other objects. The Collection's concentration of 19th- and early 20th-century American music has allowed the Center's research and programs to promote understanding of the original meanings and changing interpretations of the cultural products of nineteenth-century America, particularly inasmuch as they have affected societal attitudes over generations down to the present.

Access to the Collections

Since 1987, the Center has systematically filed its archival papers; documented the artworks; produced a guide to the collections; cataloged its books, serials, songbooks, songsters, music scores, programs, pamphlets, and broadsides with two major grants from the NEH Research Program; and created MARC-format pre-catalog records for other holdings. The catalog records are available on cards in the Center, via the University's online catalog Pittcat, and internationally via OCLC. Photographs are made of any item at cost; interlibrary loan is available through photocopies and cassettes. Although holdings are non-circulating, materials are loaned to other institutions. The Center's staff will gladly answer any reference questions or respond to any research inquiries. We recommend scheduling an appointment to use the library to guarantee staff's availability. The Center for American Music welcomes and encourages donations and bequests of materials that will increase the research value and utility of its holdings, particularly sheet music, books, sound recordings, and any material pertaining to Stephen Collins Foster. Of special interest to the Center is material relating to American music in the period between 1840 and 1940.

Contact Us

Center for American Music
Stephen Foster Memorial
University of Pittsburgh
4301 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260


Starting August 23, 2021, the Center for American Music Library and Stephen Foster Museum will be open by appointment only.

To request access, please send us a request at least 48 hours in advance.

You do not have to be affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh to use the Collection. 

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