Library: Library Collections
Broadsides—single sheets printed on one side—served as public announcements or advertisements from the beginning of printing in America through the early 20th century. Generally posted or read aloud, broadsides provided news of battles, deaths, executions, and other current events; official notices of laws and regulations; and an inexpensive method for selling poetry, songs, and satires. They were the popular "broadcasts" of their day, bringing news of current events to the public quickly and often disappearing just as quickly.
The Society holds more than 10,000 broadsides—an unusually large and valuable collection since the time-specific use of broadsides made their survival particularly rare. The Society's collection also includes handbills and certificates.
Posters—works of art printed on single sheets—have been cataloged as part of the broadside collections.
Highlights of the Broadside Collection
The earliest American broadside in the MHS collection, and one of the earliest surviving American imprints, is a printed notice of the 1643 Harvard College Theses—the list of questions and topics for discourse by the four prospective graduates that year. The Society also holds recruitment posters for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first official black regiment raised in the North during the Civil War and a remarkable collection of Revolutionary War broadsides, as well as broadsides that run the gamut from dying confessions, to poems on natural disasters and topics of the day, to official government proclamations.
The Broadside Printing of The Declaration of Independence
The MHS holds copies of many different broadside printings of The Declaration in its collections, the most important of which, perhaps the most important printed item in the entire library, is John Dunlap's July 4-5, 1776, Philadelphia printing of The Declaration of Independence. Dunlap's broadside brought news of Independence throughout the colonies. In Boston on July 18, 1776, a broadside copy of The Declaration was read aloud from the balcony of the Old State House.
Theater Broadsides and Playbills
A large collection of theater broadsides and playbills, chiefly from Boston, gives a glimpse of popular culture and entertainment in the 19th century. A separate inventory of this collection is available in the reading room. Records for theater broadsides will be added to ABIGAIL in the near future.
Bibliographic Description of the Broadside Collection
Cataloging of the broadside collection in ABIGAIL is well underway at this time (all broadsides published before 1890 are now accessible), with new records added daily. For broadsides published after that date, and for theater broadsides and playbills, consult the card catalog or a reference librarian.