Hamilton College Library Online Exhibits

Elias Howe


  • Elias Howe (1820-1895) was born in Framingham, Massachusetts to parents Elias and Hannah Howe. (Neither of those Elias Howes, it should be noted, is the inventor of the sewing machine) [1]
  • As a child, Howe worked, helping a neighbor plow. In his free time he learned to play the fiddle, writing down any tunes he heard since he could not afford sheet music. His book of tunes was very popular among local musicians, and a nineteen-year-old Howe went to Boston in an attempt to publish this book. Kidder and Wright published his book, now entitled The Musician's Companion, at their own expense; Howe was unable to pay the $500 they asked for but promised "to work his legs off to make the book a success" [2].
  • The Musician's Companion (1840), printed on newsprint, was one of the first inexpensive music books published in the United States, and was very successful. By 1842, Howe had made enough money to buy the printing plates for his book and start his own business [3].
  • Howe published The Complete Preceptor for Banjo (a collection of minstrel songs) under the pseudonym of Gumbo Chaff in 1848 [4], appropriating the name of Thomas Dartmouth Rice's blackface character [5].
  • In 1850, Howe sold most of his works, including The Complete Preceptor for Banjo, to rival publisher Oliver Ditson, agreeing to not publish for ten years [6]. He retired, moving into a "large estate" in South Framingham (in Massachusetts) [7].
  • During retirement from publishing, Howe managed the South Reading Ice [Cream] Company [8] but also broke his agreement with Ditson by publishing tutors with publishing companies such as Russell & Tolman, Russell & Richardson, and J. H. Mellor [9].
  • In the 1860s, Howe became well-known throughout the United States as a publisher of instruction manuals and other collections of music. One such collection, The Musician's Omnibus, is probably the largest tune collection ever published in the United States, with 6500 songs in 7 volumes (1864-1882) [10]. By 1892 Howe had sold over a million copies of his instruction books [11].
  • As the Civil War began, Howe made drums and sold the drums as well as fifes to the regiments of Massachusetts. He also published music for the military, though much of the music ended up in the hands of the Confederate, not Union, Army [12]. President Lincoln offered Howe a position in the army as Director of Bands, Lieutenant Colonel rank, though Howe declined [13].
  • In 1871, Howe began collecting old stringed instruments, especially violins, searching Europe for items to add to his collection [14]. This collection was the largest of its kind in the United States [15].
  • Howe died in 1895, and left his business to sons William Hills Howe and Edward Frank Howe [16].

     [1] Patrick Sky, Mel Bay Presents "Ryan's Mammoth Collection:1050 Reels and Jigs, Hornpipes, Clogs, Walk-arounds, Essences, Strathspeys, Highland Flings and Contra Dances, with Figures, and How to Play Them" (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 1995), 10.

     [2] Richard Herndon, comp., Boston of To-day: A Glance at Its History and Characteristics: With Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Many of Its Professional and Business Men, ed. Edwin M. Bacon (Boston: Post, 1892), accessed July 15, 2011, Open Library (OL6905766M), 266.

     [3] Sky, Ryan's' Mammoth Collection, 11.

     [4] Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman, America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 38.

     [5] Sarah Meredith, "With a Banjo on Her Knee: Gender, Race, Class, and the American Classical Banjo Tradition, 1880-1915," diss. (Florida State University School of Music, 2003), 35. "Gumbo Chaff" and "Gombo Chaff" are variants of the same name. Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), 53, caption for illustration 11. Meredith hypothesizes that this particular pseudonym was intended to lend an air of authenticity (36). Another authentic-sounding pseudonym he used years later was Patrick O'Flannigan, for Songs of Ireland. Sky, Ryan's Mammoth Collection, 11.

     [6] Sky, Ryan's Mammoth Collection, 11.

     [7] Herndon, Boston of To-day, 266.


     [8] Herndon, Boston of To-day, 266.

     [9] Library of Congress and National Union Catalog Subcommittee of the Resources Committee of the Resources and Technical Services Division, American Library Association, comps., eds., The National Union Catalog: Pre-1956 Impints; A Cumulative Author List Representing Library of Congress Printed Cards and Titles Reported by Other American Libraries, vol. 257, Howard, William Lee (S) - Hubbard, Alice Philena (S) (London: Mansell, 1973), 49-50, 53-54.

     [10] Sky, Ryan's Mammoth Collection, 12.

     [11] Herndon, Boston of To-day, 266.

     [12] Ibid.

     [13] Sky, Ryan's Mammoth Collection, 12.

     [14] Herndon, Boston of To-day, 266.

     [15] Sky, Ryan's Mammoth Collection, 14.

     [16] Ibid., 15.