Before video, television and radio, families would entertain themselves playing on the old piano or any of a number of instruments.
Printed sheet music was their path to entertainment.
Howard W. Wildin, a retired college teacher, became curious about the art form more than a decade ago and has since amassed a huge collection of historic sheet music.
He and his wife, Nancy, have donated a large portion of that collection to Gonzaga University, where it is being stored in archival conditions in the special collections section of the Foley Center Library.
The pieces date to 1835.
Today, more than 100 of the works have been scanned and logged into the library’s digital archives and are available to students, researchers, musicians and others.
“I think they would be considered treasures by anyone who sees them,” said Howard Wildin, a resident of Newport.
From the artwork on the covers to the music and lyrics inside, each work represents a slice of Americana, reflecting the culture, tastes, fashions and even biases of the day.
Wildin, a lifelong amateur musician, described his affinity for this written music: “I like it for its beauty. I like the music. I like to play it. I like it as a touchstone to history.”
The cover sheets typically are ornamented with artwork, mostly created through wood block carvings. The art is akin to vinyl album covers of their era.
Some curious trends are represented in the collection.
Early in the 20th century, the public apparently couldn’t get enough of Hawaiian-themed music.
In 1916, Al Jolson had a hit called “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula,” which Wildin obtained in its sheet music form.
“A lot of songwriters wrote Hawaiian songs and never went to Hawaii,” Wildin said.
Even Her Majesty Queen Liliuokalani got into the act, writing “Aloha Oe,” but failed to copyright the material, which grew to 13 versions of the song.
“I don’t think the queen of Hawaii ever got a dime out of it,” Wildin said.
Ethnic and racial themes abounded, some purely racist, Wildin said.
“If you are talking about African-American ethnicity, they are terrible,” he said.
Others were merely amusing.
Irish and Hawaiian stereotyping found its way into the song titled, “O’Brien is Trying to Learn to Talk Hawaiian.”
The words go like this: “O’Brien, he’s tryin’ to learn to talk Hawaiian to his Honolulu Lou.
“For he’s sighin’ and cryin’ and all the time he’s tryin’ just to say I love you true …”
But, the song ends, “If his wife knew, he’d be in an Irish stew.”
Wildin began his quest for sheet music while living in the Seattle area.
His eagerness to unearth these fading treasurers grew once he moved to Newport.
There, he said he has “mined” the community for whatever he could find.
“I generally stumble across it,” he said.
Old piano benches are often filled with historic sheet music. Other times, an attic or garage might yield a box of the material.
Younger family members often don’t know what to do with sheet music that may have belonged to a grandparent or other elder. The music could end up as part of an estate sale. Too frequently, it is thrown out because families don’t realize it has value, Wildin said.
Two years ago, the Wildins started looking for a university that might accept a donation, but they were careful to find an institution that was willing and capable of preserving it.
Gonzaga’s former Arts and Sciences Dean Marc Manganaro showed his enthusiasm for the possibility, which convinced the Wildins that GU’s Foley Library would make a good home.
An independent appraisal conducted as part of the donation showed that the collection has “substantial value,” but Wildin declined to specify an amount.
According to the university, the Howard W. and Nancy A. Wildin Collection of American Popular Sheet Music is intended to establish an “active, vibrant and growing collection” that will be available to a wide range of people.
An exhibit is planned for the collection in April at the Foley library, said Pete Tormey, GU spokesman.
Wildin said he is hoping that creation of the collection will result in others donating their historic sheet music to GU.
He said that as time passes, more and more of the music will be lost. “It will soon be too late,” he said.
“It’s time to mine Spokane.”