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John Rowe Parker was born October 24, 1777, in Boston. He was the eldest of thirteen children born to Rev. Samuel Parker (1744-1804) and his wife Anne (d. 1844). The Parkers were a prominent family in Boston. John Rowe Parker's grandfather, William, was a Superior Court judge, and his father was the rector of Boston's Trinity Church. Matthew S. Parker (1780-1865), brother of John Rowe Parker, was the first secretary of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society and the president of Oriental Bank in the 1830s. Another brother, Richard Green Parker (1798-1869), was a noted educator and author.
Parker was named after another distinguished Bostonian, John Rowe (1715-1779). Rowe, a close friend of Samuel Parker and his wife, was a respected merchant, civic leader, and officer of Trinity Church. Rowe and his wife were childless and left their property at 103 Pond Lane to John Rowe Parker in their will.
Parker's professional life falls neatly into three parts. His first career was that of a dry goods merchant selling such wares as carpet, buttons, candlesticks, cutlery, and other sundries. By 1802 Parker was partners with Standford Smith in the firm of Smith and Parker. Parker was in London in January 1802 to purchase goods for the company. He returned to Boston in time to be married to Catherine Brigden on June 6, 1802, and then returned to London with his wife. Sometime after August 1803 the couple returned again to Boston, and Catherine died shortly thereafter.
Parker married Mary Hamilton of Portsmouth, New Hampshire on October 22, 1804. They had three children: Samuel Parker Parker (1805-1880), Jonathan Hamilton Parker (b. 1806), and Mary Hamilton Parker (1808-1821). Parker's partnership with Smith ended, and by the end of 1806 he was partners with Moses Poor in the firm of Parker and Poor. The partnership was short-lived, ending by October 1807.
Mary Hamilton Parker, John Rowe Parker's second wife, died during the winter of 1811-1812. By late 1812 Parker had relocated to New London, Connecticut, where he developed business contacts with the three Parkin brothers, Richard William (d. 1814), John Still Winthrop, and Thomas. He married their sister, Jane Parkin, on February 8, 1813. The Parkers stayed in New London through 1814 and then moved back to Boston, where Parker continued operating as a general merchant. They had one child together, Jane Winthrop Parker, born in 1818.
The next phase of Parker's professional life began in 1817 when he became the proprietor of the Franklin Music Warehouse in Boston. Parker was joined in this venture by Gottlieb Graupner, one of the most respected musicians and music publishers in Boston at that time. Graupner moved his inventory into Parker's premises in April 1817, but a dispute between the two men caused Graupner to leave by August.
Parker was able to take advantage of the rising demand for secular music in the former colonies to build his business into the largest music distributor in the United States during the years 1817 to 1821. In 1820 Parker published one of the first music dealer's catalogues issued in the United States. The fifty-five page catalogue contained lists of music titles, instruments, and other musical merchandise. The catalogue was also unique for bearing a distinctive, oval trademark stamp that Parker used to identify his publications. This practice was soon adopted by many other dealers. Copies of the catalogue survive in the Houghton Library at Harvard University and at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Perhaps Parker's most noted achievement was the publication of the first American journal devoted exclusively to music. Parker had written articles about music for a column titled "The Euterpeiad" printed in the local newspaper, The Boston Intelligencer and Morning and Evening Advertiser, during the years 1817-1820. This experience provided him with the background to begin his own publication, The Euterpeiad, or Musical Intelligencer on April 1, 1820. The objectives of the new journal were stated by Parker in the first issue as follows:
The Euterpeiad will embrace every article any ways interesting to, or connected with the science [of music], by carefully compiling and collating -- A Brief History of Music from the earliest ages -- Cherish a classical taste -- Watch the progress of the Arts -- Excite the emulation of genius -- Record the transactions of Societies -- Examine and impartially review new Musical works -- Stimulate Professional Gentleman to explore new tracts in the regions of Science -- Furnish Biographical Memoirs of Musical men -- Correspondence, Anecdotes, Letters Instructive and interesting upon every branch of musical science -- Insert Miscellaneous Articles wherein will be noticed new Inventions, improvements in Musical Instruments, and observations upon Musical Performances, . . .
from The Euterpeiad, or Musical Intelligencer, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Saturday, April 1, 1820).
A substantial number of the articles in The Euterpeiad were borrowed, often without attribution, from European sources, especially from the writings of Charles Burney and Sir John Hawkins. In his own writings, Parker addressed key contemporary issues such as the relationship between amateur and professional musicians, the growing importance of secular and instrumental music, and the need to educate musically the listening public as well as establishing a means of providing specialized training for musicians. The reviews of local performances set a standard for music criticism in the United States. They also provided a record of concert life that included notes on repertoire, audience reactions to styles of music and performance, and the careers of leading performers from abroad and the United States. Separate sheets of music were irregularly included with the journal as a supplement.
The Euterpeiad was sold through a network of more than forty agents encompassing an area from Montreal to Augusta, Georgia. Parker tried to expand his subscription base by appealing to the female market with the addition of a Ladie's Gazette component, beginning with the issue of March 31, 1821. Despite the widespread geographic distribution of The Euterpeiad and its largely favorable critical success, the number of subscribers remained too low to support continued operations. The journal ended publication with its final issue of March 30, 1823.
In 1824 Parker compiled a collection of his articles from The Euterpeiad and had the reprints published by Stone and Fovell under the title Musical Biography, or Sketches of the Lives and Writings of Eminent Musical Characters. The collection is significant for being the first biographical music dictionary published in the United States. It contains thirty-three biographical sketches of such European composers as Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Purcell, and Beethoven, as well as American composers George K. Jackson and Raynor Taylor. There are also eight articles on such topics as church music, vocal music, anthems, and organs.
The final phase of Parker's professional life concerned his efforts to develop a nation-wide communication system for marine vessels. Parker attempted to revise a system of semaphore signals developed by James M. Elford (d. 1826) of Charleston, South Carolina. Parker wrote several texts on the system, including The Marine Telegraph (1827), The United States Telegraph Vocabulary (1832), A Treatise upon the Telegraphic Science (1835), The New Semaphoric Signal Book (1836), A History of Telegraphs (1836), The Semaphoric Telegraph (1837), A Treatise upon the Semaphoric System of Telegraphs (1838), The Boston Harbor Signal Book (1841), and A Treatise upon Telegraphs (1842).
The multi-faceted life of John Rowe Parker ended in Boston on December 29, 1844.
The collection consists of 935 items in 339 folders, housed in nine boxes. The folders are alphabetically arranged by correspondent, with letters written by John Rowe Parker filed under the name of the recipient of the letter. Items from unidentifiable sources are filed at the end of the collection. Letters addressed to either Parker or to one of his firms constitute the majority of the collection.
Although relatively small in number, personal letters provide some measure of insight into Parker's relationships with family members, including his mother, sister Rebecca Edsen, brothers James and William, and sons Samuel and Hamilton. A sequence of letters from 1824 to 1825 between Parker and his brother-in-law, Joshua Haven, in Philadelphia are particularly interesting. They provide a description of the work Parker's son Hamilton was performing in Haven's counting house and the resulting clamor when Hamilton fled to Norfolk, Virginia with $700 from his uncle's business.
The letters from the years during which Parker was a dry goods merchant, 1802-1817, reflect a period of unstable trade relations with Great Britain. It is a time that encompasses the Embargo Act of 1807, Macon's Bill No. 2, the War of 1812, and the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. All of these political actions greatly affected the ability of merchants in the United States to operate their businesses. This was especially true for merchants in the New England states, and several letters express concerns regarding these matters.
The correspondence from the years 1817 to 1824 contains the majority of music-related materials in the collection. The letters from prominent composers, performers, and music publishers provide a portrait of musical practice and taste in early nineteen th-century America as well as offering details concerning the operations of the growing music industry. Publishers from Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore represented in the collection include George E. Blake, George Willig, Bacon and Hart, Benjamin Carr, Edward Riley, William DuBois, Joseph Willson, John, Adam, and William Geib, and John Cole. Correspondence from composers and performers includes Anthony Philip Heinrich, Christopher Meinecke, Richard Willis, James Finlayson, Samuel Dyer, Oliver Shaw, Thomas Philipps, Samuel P. Taylor, James Hewitt, and James H. Swindells.
As part of his business at the Franklin Music Warehouse, Parker also acted as a distributor or representative for instrument manufacturers, including makers of pianos and organs. There are approximately twenty letters in the collection pertaining to inquiries about pianos, including letters from such manufacturers as John Loud, J. A. and W. Geib, John Mackay, and the firm of Gibson and Davis. More than a dozen letters concern requests for information about organs. Although the organ builders responsible for building the organs sold by Parker are not referred to by name, they are most likely William Goodrich and Thomas Appleton, two eminent local builders.
Approximately one hundred letters in the collection are concerned with Parker's publication, The Euterpeiad. The letters contain comments regarding the contents of the journal, requests for subscriptions, statements of satisfaction with the journal, and complaints about delivery. Many of the letters are addressed to the original printer of the journal, Thomas Badger, Jr. (1794?-1825). The collection also includes Badger's letter of agreement (circa 1820) to print the journal and a letter from December 24, 1821, in which Badger terminates the agreement after finding out that Parker was talking to other printers about taking over the job. The firm of True and Greene assumed responsibility for printing The Euterpeiad beginning with the issue of March 1822, and continued printing the journal through the end of its run in March 1823.
Parker's business practices caused considerable chagrin among his associates throughout his varied careers. There are numerous letters in which writers seek payment of debts and even threaten legal action. It is unclear whether Parker caused these problems from a lack of attention to detail or if something more onerous was occurring.
The last twenty years of Parker's life were primarily devoted to developing and marketing a marine telegraph system. This activity is well documented by correspondence to and from telegraph operators in the Eastern United States and especially by the more than two dozen letters to and from the patent holder of the system, James M. Elford and Son of Charleston, South Carolina.
Note: The collection was originally in rough chronological order, with additional arrangement by such categories as personal letters, letters related to The Euterpeiad music publishers, James M . Elford, and letters from John Rowe Parker. The original order is reflected in the index prepared by Patricia M. Gallo as part of her thesis, The John Rowe Parker Letter Collection: An Index to Early Nineteenth-Century American Musical Taste (1985). Gallo's index includes brief commentary regarding noteworthy contents of individual letters.
Purchased from Symnachus Trading Company (Boston), 1955.
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