Penn Library Department of Special Collections

William Penn

Keffer Collection of Sheet Music,
ca. 1790-1895

Content and design by John Bewley

Collection History
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Focus on Philadelphia
Composers Publishers Lithographers Imagesand Music
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Philadelphia Music Publishers: John Aitken (1744 or 1745-1831)

John Aitken was born in 1744 or 1745 in Dulkeath, Scotland. He emigrated to Philadelphia before 1785 and was listed in city directories as a silversmith. Two of his works in silver, a teaspoon and a creamer, survive in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum or Art.

Aitken is best known today for having been the first to publish sheet music engraved through the punching or stamping process in the United States. It is quite likely that Aitken was spurred into this activity by composer Alexander Reinagle, a Scottish musician who settled in Philadelphia in 1786. From 1787 to 1793 Aitken was the sole publisher of sheet music in America. During that period Aitken issued more than twenty titles and fifteen of the titles published by 1791 were by Reinagle, including the first title issued in 1787, A Selection of the Most Favourite Scots Tunes, with Variations for the Piano Forte or Harpsichord.

John Aitken left the publishing business for the years 1794 to 1806 possibly due to the arrival in Philadelphia of musicians such as John Christopher Moller, Henri Capron,, and Benjamin Carr, who were better qualified to publish music. Two titles were issued by Aitken during this period, The Scots Musical MuseumThe Goldsmith's Rant in 1802. The latter title was also composed by Aitken and reveals him to be less than accomplished as a musician.

In 1807 Aitken returned to the business of music publishing, setting up shop at 76 North Second Street. From 1807 to 1811 he issued approximately one hundred twenty-five titles, many of which imitated the successful work of George E. Blake and George Willig. Aitken died in 1831 and was buried at Christ Church's burial ground.

The library also holds letters written by Aitken to Boston publisher and music-seller, John Rowe Parker. These letters are located in the John Rowe Parker Correspondence,1802-1840.

There are approximately eighteen items published by John Aitken in the collection, all of them from the later period of his work, 1807-1811.

Philadelphia Music Publishers

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