All the World’s a Stage

Comic actor Joseph Jefferson, one of the best-known American stage personalities of the nineteenth century, died in Palm Beach in 1905. Born into a family of actors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 20, 1829, Jefferson achieved one of his first major successes in 1858 in Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin. (While Jefferson was not appearing in Our American Cousin at the time, this popular play was on stage at Ford’s Theatre the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.) Jefferson is best remembered for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle in an Americanized version of a German folk tale popularized by Washington Irving in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819-20). Jefferson took this play on the road for years after he originated the role, and became known throughout the United States for his portrayal.

Joe Jefferson [seated in front] at Palm Beach, Fla. c1904. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division
Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle / gravure, Gebbie & Husson Co. ltd. c1887. Prints & Photographs Division

The first American theaters were built in the eighteenth century in Williamsburg, Virginia, (1716) and in Charleston, South Carolina, (1730). Many theater groups of that period were itinerant. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, there were many established theaters throughout the country and American actors were making a name for themselves on both sides of the Atlantic. Three of the most famous of Jefferson’s contemporaries were Edwin Booth, son of native Englishman Junius Brutus Booth and brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth—himself an actor of some note, Charlotte Cushman, and Edwin Forrest,  who was known for his vocal power and athleticism on stage.

Edwin Booth, seated, facing camera, bust External. D. F. Barry, [1897 or 1898]. Denver Public Library Digital Collections: PhotographsExternal
[Junius Booth,...in theatrical costume]. Studio of Mathew Brady, ca 1844-1852. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division
[Charlotte Cushman, half-length vignetted portrait, facing right]. [ca. 1855]. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division
Edwin Forrest, head-and-shoulders portrait… Studio of Mathew Brady, ca 1844-1860. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division

Learn More

  • The Making of AmericaExternal project contains many nineteenth century periodicals with articles on the theater and the actors of that era. Search the collection on names such as Joseph Jefferson; Washington Irving; Edwin Booth; Charlotte Cushman; Rip Van Winkle, and Edwin Forrest, to find related articles.
  • Search Chronicling America for nineteenth century newspaper articles and advertisements on the actors listed above and related articles on theater.
  • Search the collections with photos, prints and drawings on the same names, as well as on phrases such as actors, actresses, theaters, and theatrical productions to find images of these figures and of various aspects of the theater profession.
  • American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 is a rich source of material on the history of popular entertainment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Click on The American Variety Stage for introductory information about this collection.
  • Browse the list of Performing Arts collections to identify music, dance, and theater related materials. Search on terms such as theater, actress, and actor to highlight specific collections on these topics.
  • View selected theatrical images from the Prints and Photographs Division collection Posters: Performing Arts Posters.
  • Search on the term Booth in the collection An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera to see a wanted poster illustrated with photographic prints of John Wilkes Booth and others involved with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
  • Search the Library’s collections on Washington Irving to locate more information on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which inspired actor Joseph Jefferson’s most memorable performances.