Oliver Ditson Monument

Oliver Ditson

This statue of St. John the Evangelist—actually a reproduction of the original, which is in storage—was done by one of Boston’s most celebrated sculptors, Thomas Ball. You may know of Ball’s most famous work in Boston, the equestrian statue of George Washington at the entrance to the Public Gardens. Ball was also involved with the world of music; as a young artist, he made part of his living as a professional singer in church choirs and operas. He married Ellen Louisa Wilde, the daughter of a singing colleague and a relative of the Chickering family of Boston piano manufacturers, at the time the leading piano maker in the country.

Even though the sculpture was meant for a Boston parlor, its original owner filed for bankruptcy and the statue was purchased by Oliver Ditson, who placed it instead on his own gravesite. In nineteenth century America, the name Ditson was synonymous with music and entertainment, especially at home. Oliver Ditson was America’s most successful and prolific publisher of sheet music.

Ditson started out poor, but by 1856 he owned Oliver Ditson & Company (along with his partner John G. Haynes, buried next door), which bought other publishers’ catalogues and published a wider variety of sheet music, journals and books that had ever been available. At its height the company’s catalogue numbered over 80,000 different pieces of sheet music and over 2,300 music books; twenty printing presses were kept running around the clock. Some songs addressed sad contemporary subjects, like the one entitled “Under the Willow She's Sleeping” (1863), about a mother who buried her child, which, as we have seen, was an all too common occurrence.

One of the major reasons for Ditson’s phenomenal success was the development of the parlor organ, a relatively inexpensive musical instrument that found its way into many middle class homes. Parlor or reed organs, even fancy ones, cost less than half the average price for a decent piano. The parlor organ had to be pumped vigorously with one’s feet, but like more elaborate organs, could be adjusted for different types of sound effects—echoes, French Horn, trumpet, and so on.

Parlor organs were also designed with multiple shelves to hold ceramic figurines, vases, and other decorative objects, in addition to the sconce shelves that held candlesticks or other portable lighting devices.

Popular images like those produced by Currier and Ives often showed the family and friends gathered around the parlor organ, singing merrily. In the days before records and television, family sing-alongs were one of the most popular forms of entertainment. The Ditson Company survived until the 1930s when it was bought out by Philadelphia’s Theodore Presser.

Before leaving, turn around and admire the beautiful decorative ironwork.