For families in the early portion of the 20th century, nightly entertainment was, for the most part, a self-fulfilled undertaking. Radio was in its infancy and television was still a half-century away. So to pass the hours between supper and sleep, one of the most common solutions was to gather the family around the piano and, well, sing the night away.
In today’s era of channel surfing and Netflix marathons, the concept of family singalongs seems either quaint or downright horrifying, but in the context of the era it was high entertainment. Families would have on their pianos vast collections of sheet music, which, interestingly, were not only musically functional but also served as a form of pop art, much like movie posters and album covers would do in latter parts of the century. Famous artists were even commissioned to create paintings for particular pieces of sheet music.
Today, these relics of a bygone era are actually proving to be a quite revealing historical goldmine for art historians like Theresa Leininger-Miller. Not only do they offer a fresh look into life at the time, but they open the door to all kinds of historical revelations, including some about the Red Cross.
In 2014, Leininger-Miller was asked to create a display for the Ohio Academy of Medical History, which was creating an event for National Nurses Week. While the associate professor of art history at the University of Cincinnati specializes in 19th and 20th century art—African-American art in particular—nursing art was a little outside of her realm. Still, she agreed to the request and set about doing some research.
As she began to dig, she found that between 1914-1918—the years encompassing World War I—there were 13,500 individual compositions of sheet music created, and 70 of them were about nurses. Although working conditions for medical personnel in the war were hellish, especially on the battlefield, she says, one of the things that struck her was the way the illustrators and song writers portrayed the nurses: as angels, mothers, caregivers, sweethearts, patriots. Sheet music, she says, also served another function: propaganda for the war effort as well as solace—and sometimes levity—to those on the home front.
As she continued her research, another element jumped out at her: All of the nurses were members of the Red Cross. Long before M*A*S*H units, the Red Cross was a primary caretaker of the wounded, and as part of the war effort at the time, the American Red Cross recruited 20,000 nurses to serve the military.
The discovery proved to be exactly what she was looking for.
Cincinnati, as it also turns out, was a mecca for printing in the early 20th century, and much of the sheet music from that era was actually printed in the city—a fact not lost to the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, which collected a wide range of the printed material, including an archive of 30,000 pieces of sheet music.
With a theme in mind and art in hand, she created a three-paneled poster: “The Angel of No Man’s Land: Red Cross Nurses in World War I Illustrated Sheet Music.” The red, 3×4-foot display includes art from such songs as “My Red Cross Girlie,” “I’ve Got a Red Cross Rosie Going Across With Me,” “The Rose of No Man’s Land,” “I’ll Gladly Be a Wounded Soldier If You’ll Be My Red Cross Nurse” and “I Don’t Want to Get Well.”
Interestingly, she says, the art not only emphasizes the dedication, competence, kindness and American identity of the nurses, but it also shows them in somewhat risque positions for the time—holding a soldier’s hand, giving them a hug, gazing into their eyes. But it also show them in positions of strength if not authority—marching alongside the soldiers, on the frontlines, even in “No Man’s Land,” a place where no soldier wanted to go.
Although these images of strength might have been simply designed to bolster the war effort, they also became visual evidence to back what became the burgeoning feminism movement that took root after the war. There was even a song, “Why Shouldn’t They Be Good Enough Now?” that cited their war efforts as evidence for the equal rights argument.
Unfortunately, the end of the war also served as the beginning of the end of sheet music as cultural art. As radio and phonographs began to take hold, illustrations began to be replaced by photographs as people demanded to see pictures of the celebrities who were making the songs so popular. By WWII, Red Cross Rosie gave way in popularity to Rosie the Riveter, family singalongs were virtually a thing of the past and the once-illustrious art of sheet music was on its way to becoming a subject for historians.