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. He 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.
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 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.
- The collection The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals External contains many 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 the collections from the Prints and Photographs Division on the same names (above) 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.
- Click on Performing Arts, Music to access a list of collections with music, dance, and theater materials. Search across this list of collections, or any subset of this group, on terms such as theater, actress, and actor.
- View selected theatrical images from the collections from the Prints and Photographs Division in Pictorial Americana: Selected Images from the Collections of the Library of Congress: Theatrical Posters and Performances.
- 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.