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 many thousands of items. These single-sheet printed documents were issued locally in response to specific popular or newsworthy events or were otherwise designed for short-lived purposes. Many were subsequently destroyed or put to other uses. Those that survive today provide interesting perspectives on various aspects of the history and culture of the nation.
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 the more mundane official government proclamations and regulations, tax bills, and reports of town meetings, to the more interesting contemporary accounts of events in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, or the Civil War, as well as other unusual occurrences and natural disasters. The collection also contains numerous autobiographies and dying confessions of convicted criminals, theater playbills, sheet almanacs, publishers' prospectuses, advertisements, newspaper carriers' addresses, patriotic and popular songs, ballads, and poems, broadsides illustrating political party organization and controversy. For the student of nineteenth-century social and cultural history, there is information on a wide variety of local and national organizations and societies that were established to promote industrial and mechanical arts, agriculture, science, public education, religion, the fine arts, and various reform movements. 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.
Between 1978 and 1998, AAS received four grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the creation of a bibliographical descriptive catalog, in machine-readable format, of almost 19,000 of the Society's original broadsides and photostats that were printed in the United States from 1639 through 1876. As a result, AAS is able to provide full, scholarly access to its broadsides through complex methods of indexing and information retrieval, both locally, at the national level through RLIN, the shared cataloging network of the Research Libraries Group, and over the Internet. Researchers are now able to retrieve pre-1877 materials through a wide variety of access points, including author, title, multiple subject headings, added entries of personal or corporate names, special genre headings (e.g., broadsides, poems, proclamations, prospectuses, playbills, and advertisements, first line of songs or poems except carriers' addresses), appropriate bibliographic reference numbers, provenance data, illustration technique, printer, and date and place of publication.
Some broadsides are not yet cataloged. They include programs for popular entertainments printed after 1860, broadsides issued in Worcester, and broadside ballads published after 1850 although work on the latter material began in the fall of 2002.
In the summer of 2005, a team of students provided brief cataloging records for the collections of bill heads, Civil War Envelopes, clipper ship cards, invitations, menus, rewards of merit, stock certificates, trade cards, as well as several thousand programs for theater, music, circus, and other popular entertainments. Such materials now can be searched through the online catalog. These collections in addition to previously cataloged broadsides printed from 1821 through 1876 were also digitized and are available through terminals at AAS and at libraries subscribing to American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series I, 1760-1900, an Archive of Americana Collection issued by the Readex Division of NewsBank.