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Collection Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera

The Popularity of Broadsides

Broadsides—by far the most popular ephemeral format used throughout printed history—are single sheets of paper, printed on one side only. Often quickly and crudely produced in large numbers and distributed free in town squares, taverns, and churches or sold by chapmen for a nominal charge, broadsides are intended to have an immediate popular impact and then to be thrown away. Historically, broadsides have been used to inform the public about current news events, publicize official proclamations and government decisions, announce and record public meetings and entertainment events, advocate political and social causes, advertise products and services, and celebrate popular literary and musical efforts. Rich in detail and variety, and sometimes with striking illustrations, broadsides offer vivid insights into the daily activities and attitudes of individuals and communities that created America's yesterdays.

Of course, broadside printing has flourished since the dawn of printing itself, the oldest dated example being a letter of indulgence printed by Gutenberg in 1454, before he printed his famous Bible. Unfortunately, there is no known extant copy of the first American broadside, "The Oath of the Free-Man" printed by Stephen Daye in Cambridge in 1639, which remains the elusive black tulip of American printing history.

Colonial printers of newspapers and almanacs often printed broadsides as a source of extra income, in addition to other jobbing work, and some printers sold books and stationery supplies as well. Essential late-breaking news was transmitted as broadside "Postscripts" or "Extras" to the weekly newspapers. Official government business and notices of meetings were disseminated by broadsides; they were used to preach morality and to demonstrate the consequences of wrongdoing; but ballads and verse were also popular and plentiful. Illustrations were difficult to design and time-consuming to cut from wood, so most printers accumulated a supply of "stock" woodcuts for repeated use. Copperplate engravings were rare until after 1800.

New vitality and visual interest were infused into the typography of early nineteenth-century ephemeral printing by Robert Thorne's invention of Fat Face type in 1803, the first real display typeface. The introduction of steel engravings in the 1820s expanded the use of fine engraving processes in mass production. Evidence of further technological advances in printing may be traced through the collection, notably the riot of color that chromolithography brought to ephemeral printing in the last third of the nineteenth century.

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