About The Park
Stephen Collins Foster
July 4, 1826 - January 1864
Stephen Collins Foster, the ninth of William B. and Eliza T. Foster’s ten children, was born in a white cottage overlooking the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh. The tenth child died as an infant, leaving Stephen as the “baby” of the family, indulged by older brothers and sisters. He attended private academies in Pittsburgh and in North-Central Pennsylvania. Stephen never completed a college education, but was a literate, well-educated person. He was musically literate as well; he probably received some formal musical training from Henry Kleber, a German immigrant who was an accomplished and versatile performer, composer, music merchant, impresario, and teacher.
For a brief period, Stephen worked as a bookkeeper in Cincinnati for his brother Dunning. In 1850, 24-year-old Stephen returned to Pittsburgh and married 19-year-old Jane McDowell. Their daughter Marion was born in 1851. In 1852, the couple took a month-long cruise to New Orleans with friends, the only trip Stephen ever made south of the Mason-Dixon line. In 1853, he left Jane to go to New York; she joined him in Hoboken, NJ sometime in 1854. They returned to Pittsburgh in 1855 after both his parents died, living first in the family home and then a series of boarding houses.
Aside from these absences and until he went alone to New York for good in 1860, Stephen spent most of his life in Pittsburgh. He worked at songwriting, renting a piano and second-floor office in downtown Pittsburgh and keeping a thick copybook to write down ideas for song’s lyrics and melodies.
Foster was a pioneer. There was no music business as we know it (sound recording was not invented until 13 years after his death; radio, 66 years), no “performing rights” fees, no way of earning money except through a 5 to10 percent royalty or through the outright purchase of songs by his publishers. In today’s music industry he would be worth millions of dollars a year; on January 13, 1864, weakened by a persistent fever, he died at age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket and a scrap of paper that read, “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts.”
Today, more people know the myths about Stephen Foster than the facts. In truth, he was not a Southerner, he did not glorify slavery, he was not a carefree spendthrift, and he did not die and alcoholic. He was a professional, our first original songwriter, “America’s Troubadour.”