Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project

Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar

Text Context


Before the American Revolution, American broadside verse was primarily religious in content. Even news and reports of hangings or shipwrecks bore religious interpretation. After 1750, as disagreements between the new world and the old became more heated, topical songs began to appear in greater numbers. By 1775, topical and political songs were a major source of material for printers and sold in large numbers.

After the war, in both England and America, broadside printers began to lift large numbers of songs from the musical stage and other genteel middle-class sources such as songsters, songbooks, and sheet music. Mixed in with these were songs on current events and local politics, as well as the traditional ballads, elegies, dying confessions, and disaster ballads that had always found ready customers.

Daniel Cohen noted a major change in the content of print literature that occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century, particularly in relation to crime reporting. Crime literature became a competitive industry, “dominated by lawyers, journalists, professional authors, and cheap publishers that saturated the market with narratives of sex and violence” (ix). He suggests that a simplistic split between elite and popular had to give way to more complex interaction. Issues of gender, courtship, illicit sex, and sexual violence became more prominent. Following the theme of female virtue under assault that Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) popularized, seduction and untimely death became predominant themes of late eighteenth-century fiction, both sentimentalized and sensationalized, and that trend seemed to grow in the early years of the 1800s (167). It is a change reflected in the topics of many texts in the Thomas collection and in the pamphlets that Coverly and others of the period released. Vivid headline titles such as “Shocking Murder,” “Affecting Narrative,” “Awful Beacon,” “Bloody Battle,” and “Distressing Calamity” attracted buyers and the narratives within did not spare adjectives in describing the horrors of the story. The very success of Coverly’s Female Marine series is indicative of the changing tastes of the early nineteenth-century reader.

A similar trend is revealed when comparing the known pre-1800 American broadsides, the Thomas collection, and a group of about 350 broadsides in the AAS collection that were sold in the 1830s in Boston by Leonard Deming. The early broadsides contain texts that are mostly topical in some way, with very few sophisticated songs. By 1812-14 the market had changed and non-topical lyrics predominated by about a two-to-one margin. The Deming sheets hold almost exclusively non-topical texts. By the 1830s too, the literary style that produced “exhilarated tales of criminality” in the sensationalist pamphlets on which Coverly had prospered was “slightly passé.”[1]


[1] AAS cataloging notes for Michael Robinson’s Catharine Robinson, the Victim of Depravity (1832).