Collection on Theatrical Broadsides

Extent:  6 drawers of flat file storage, 3 oversize print boxes totaling 954 objects.

The Collection on Theatrical Broadsides is an artificial collection physically united by Morgen Stevens-Garmon, Associate Curator for the Theater Collection, in 2015, in order to better accommodate their continued preservation and access, and assess their conservation needs. As an artificial collection, the Collection on Theatrical Broadsides consists of objects from dozens of individual gifts donated to the Museum between 1928 and 1996. The majority of the material was donated either by audience members or collectors of theatrical memorabilia, few of whom had any connection to the professional theatrical world. Maintaining this material as an artificial collection based on subject matter allows for faster and more comprehensive organization and description, and is consistent with Museum practice in relation to its ephemera collections.

Scope and Content  

The Collection on Theatrical Broadsides contains theatrical broadsides created and used in the 18th and 19th centuries as advertisements. These materials are an artificial collection combined from dozens of individual gifts donated to the Museum between 1928 and 1996. The earliest broadside in the collection advertises a performance of The Merchant of Venice in 1785 by the Old American Company. This company is credited with being the first professional theater company in North America. The Museum’s 1785 The Merchant of Venice broadside lists the venue simply as “Theatre” because at that time there was only one permanent playhouse in New York: the John Street Theatre. Built by former company leader David Douglass in 1767, it was the only professional theater in operation for the first decade after the Revolutionary War. There are no known extant images of the exterior of the John Street Theatre; only renderings of the interior exist. Information on performances is limited to surviving broadsides and secondary accounts. 

The collection contains items documenting early performances of Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags. Written by the American playwright John Augustus Stone as a vehicle for American actor Edwin Forrest, the play recounts the downfall of a Native American hero at the hands of English settlers. Born in Philadelphia in 1806, Forrest made his acting debut at the age of 14. By 1828, he was the main attraction at New York’s Bowery Theatre. His interest in creating and portraying distinctly American heroes on stage secured his popularity with the nationalist, working-class audiences of the Bowery. With his muscular physique, Forrest championed a new “American” style of acting, declamatory and vigorous, that stood in sharp contrast to the more refined sensibilities of classical European actors. Metamora was a huge success and became one of the staples of Forrest’s repertoire. Its themes of liberty, freedom, and an underdog seeking to triumph over tyranny still rang true for Americans decades after the Revolutionary War and were integral to the formation of national character types.

Broadsides advertising William Charles Macready’s performances in plays by William Shakespeare connect to the Astor Place Riot, an event sparked by competing productions of Macbeth. On May 10, 1849, fans of the aforementioned American actor Edwin Forrest began throwing rocks at the Astor Place Opera House, ostensibly to protest the performance of the British actor Macready. Forrest was seen as the champion of both the immigrant and nativist working-class who wished to combat the Anglo-influence supported by wealthier theatergoers, while Macready was the embodiment of the British dominance the American people had so recently rejected. The United States was still adjusting to its independence, forming its own identity, and the New York stage became a forum for the expression of national concerns. 

The collection contains broadsides advertising T. D. Rice’s portrayal of “The Inimitable Jim Crow,” and also contains evidence of Rice’s later “Ethiopian operas,” the performances of Dan Emmett and his Virginia Minstrels, and E. P. Christy’s company that established the minstrel show’s distinctive three-act structure. 

Lydia Thompson incorporated revealing costumes with satirical productions to capitalize on the marketability of the female form. Her residency in New York City began in 1868 with her troupe, British Blondes. Although decried as immoral, her theatrical style became the basis of modern burlesque. The Museum’s 1877 broadside for Lydia Thompson’s performance at the Eagle Theater refers to her as the “World renowned Queen of Burlesque.”  

The Collection on Theatrical Broadsides is more than a record of productions, performers, and dates. The information contained in this collection reveals the social history of a new country attempting to define itself, experiencing economic changes and cultural shifts, and creating original expressions of American identity for public consumption.

Series I: Collection on Theatrical Broadsides

Click here to view the full finding aid for the Collection on Theatrical Broadsides.

Click here to view digitized images from the Collection on Theatrical Broadsides on the Collections Portal.