Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





David Nasaw

Committee Members

Joshua Freeman

Blanche Wiesen Cook

Hasia Diner

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Material Culture | American Popular Culture | Cultural History | History of Gender | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Jewish Studies | Labor History | Music Education | Musicology | Music Performance | Social History | United States History | Women's History | Women's Studies


piano, women, gender, music, ragtime, composition, girls, settlement house, movie theater


American girls and women used the parlor piano to reshape their lives between 1880 and 1920, the years when the instrument reached the height of its commercial and cultural popularity. Newspapers, memoirs, biographies, women’s magazines, personal papers, and trade publications show that female pianists engaged in public-facing piano play and work in pursuit of artistic expression, economic gain, self-actualization, social mobility, and social change. These motivations drove many to use their piano skills to play beyond the parlor, by studying in conservatory, working as classical and popular music performers and composers, founding and teaching at schools, working as department store demonstrators, movie theater accompanists, and settlement house workers, among other things. In the process, these girls and women created or expanded opportunities for women in society at large. Native-born white, African-American, and Jewish-American girls and women employed different strategies to pursue their aims, and focusing on these three groups reveals how race, social class, geographic location, age, marital status and more shaped female pianists’ options. Rather than seeing the commercialization of the parlor piano as a reification of domestic values imposed upon American girls or the swell in parlor piano sales as an indication of women's eagerness to adhere to existing gender norms, this dissertation traces how American girls and women converted the piano into a tool and conduit for their far-flung ambitions. “In Her Own Hands” offers new insight into how American girls and women from diverse backgrounds emerged into new societal roles between 1880 and 1920.

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