The collection of broadsides at the American Antiquarian Society printed before 1877 is believed to be the most extensive in existence. It is made up of over thirty thousand items, ranging in date from 1643 to 1900.
In 1872 the librarian of the Society, Samuel F. Haven, presented a useful definition of these materials in his semiannual report to the Society. "Broadsides," he stated,"are the legitimate representatives of the most ephemeral literature, the least likely to escape destruction, and yet they are the most vivid exhibitions of the manners, arts, and daily life, of communities and nations. They imply a vast deal more than they literally express, and disclose visions of interior conditions of society such as cannot be found in formal narratives."
The subject matter of the broadsides is remarkably diverse and ranges from official government proclamations and regulations, tax bills, and reports of town meetings, to accounts of events in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, or the Civil War. The collection contains numerous confessions of convicted criminals, reports of natural disasters, theater playbills, publishers' prospectuses, advertisements, newspaper carriers' addresses, patriotic and popular songs, and poems. AAS founder Isaiah Thomas was highly instrumental in preserving many of his own and other printers' most ephemeral pieces, and the Society actively collects broadsides printed before 1877.
The collection is fully cataloged online in the General Catalog. Researchers may find materials through a wide variety of access points, including "Genre/Form" searches for terms such as broadsides, poems, proclamations, prospectuses, playbills, and advertisements.
Most broadsides in the collection are also digitally available in Readex's America's Historical Imprints and American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series I . These resources are available onsite at AAS and via subscription from Readex.