Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project

Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar

Isaiah Thomas, Collector

Isaiah Thomas Portrait                    Image from portraitat the American Antiquarian Society

The founding in 1812 of the American Antiquarian Society by Isaiah Thomas (1749–1831) was a high point in his long life as a printer, publisher, and book collector. At last the patriot printer turned print historian had a permanent repository for his treasures and those of his friends and colleagues interested in America’s antiquities. While the Society’s early accession records included Indian arrowheads, rare bird feathers, and other curiosities, most of the collection was made up of books, pamphlets, and newspapers, the earliest significant accessions given by Thomas himself.

True to a collector’s interest in documenting the progress of library acquisition, Thomas’s very first gifts to the nascent Society were blank books in which to list future gifts (“Donors” 1:1). His successors used these notebooks aptly and these precious volumes are still archived at the Society, which after much growth is now housed in its third home in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Thomas must have been born with collector’s genes. As a young child, he was apprenticed to Zechariah Fowle, a Boston printer of ballads, chapbooks, and educational texts. There, at the tender age of six, he was placed before the font racks and given the text of an erotic English song to set up in broadside format. He did a very good job. He missed one letter in the title and confused a p for a q in Squire, both errors perhaps reflecting a handwritten original.[1] The supply of roman letters for The was low and he had to substitute italics. By the time he reached the last two lines the supply of A was out, and again he had to use italic letters. The problems he had in the last twelve lines were similar to the problems that many years later plagued Nathaniel Coverly, who printed the ballads that are the subject of this website. Somehow, once the broadside was printed, the young Thomas managed to save not one but two copies, later proudly annotating them as his own work.[2] One he folded carefully and docketed in the usual eighteenth-century legal style. The other copy he eventually preserved, having it bound into a collection of pamphlets printed between 1789 and 1794. Both are now possessions of of the Society. On October 20, 1824, he gave the Society a personal treasure for the cabinet of curiosities, “a printer’s composing stick used by the donor when only six years of age in 1755” (“Donors” 1:223). Only a committed collector could have managed to save both the paper and the tool for sixty-nine tumultuous years.

Thomas preserved the record of his own past, his trade, and his country’s history as he progressed through his long career as a printer and publisher, into retirement as an author and the founder of a learned society. His personal library grew through accumulation, purchase, and trade. He saved copies of items that his shop printed. For the Society’s library, he purchased books and manuscripts, including a large collection, “unquestionably the oldest in New England,” from Hannah Mather Crocker, a descendant of several generations of Mathers in New England. He accepted stock from failed business associates and newspaper publishers throughout the United States. The newspaper collection he gave to the Society—beginning with the 1812 and 1813 volumes of his own newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy (valued at six dollars)—is still the largest and most comprehensive in the world for early American titles.

The printed record was Thomas’s particular passion and he recognized that it was important for his new library to reflect not only his political and literary world but that of the common people as well. To that end, he specifically purchased two items to donate, one a group of cheap, popular pamphlets, and another, a collection of broadside ballads and songs. On August 19, 1814, both were entered into the accession books.

The first he noted as “Pedlar’s Pamphlets. A Collection of Them [published singly] and bound in 2 vols. To shew the taste of the Vulgar. 1813. 12 mo.” (brackets Thomas's) (“Donors” 1:22). No item of this description can be located in the collection today. A search of the archives catalog reveals the description of a volume that may have been one of the two.[3] This volume consists mostly of popular garlands and ephemera that Thomas probably purchased in Boston from different shops. The fate of the other volume is unknown. As library practices and policies evolved over the years, most of the bound pamphlets that Thomas gave to the library were later disbound.

A second gift, valued at six dollars and described as “Songs and Ballads printed separately, but collected and bound in 3 Vols. [in use among the common people in 1813, &c.]” (“Donors” 1:23), is the subject of this website. Most of the broadsides in the three volumes had only recently been purchased when they became part of the AAS collection. From his note on the flyleaf of the first volume, it appears that Thomas ordered the broadsides in 1813 from a single shop but did not acquire and have them bound until 1814.

This inscription, the 1813 date on the spines of each of the bound volumes, and the datable events referred to in the ballads, suggest some planning on Thomas’s part, perhaps for as long as a year and a half before he picked up and paid for the broadsides. If he had instead made his purchase spontaneously in June 1814, he may have gathered a substantial number of 1814 sheets and fewer from 1813, but that is not the case. For 1814 there are only a few: a topical ballad for February 21 on Commander John Rodger’s return from his fourth cruisean 1814 copy of Yankee Frolics, and an 1814 reprint of Truxton’s Victory that had occurred February 10, 1799. In contrast, there are twenty-eight topical texts from 1813.

Questions about the details of the purchase remain, but for the present it seems that perhaps late in 1812 or early in 1813 Thomas asked “a ballad printer and seller in Boston”—Nathaniel Coverly—to assemble ballad sheets from his stock in trade and whatever new broadsides he might publish. The collection suggests that, initially, Coverly seems to have been diligent in assembling the stack of sheets from stocks on his shelves, until it became apparent that Thomas would not return and pay for them in a timely way. From that point, he added to the stack in a more casual and erratic fashion, even neglecting to add to it at all for two months, as there is a gap between Harrison’s Victory at the Battle of the Thames, October 5, 1813 and Pat's Observations on Harrison's Victory and the sentencing ballads for Livermore and Angier in Boston on December 18, 1813.

Thomas probably visited Coverly’s shop to pay for the bundle of sheets when he was in Boston for an AAS meeting. On June 2, 1814, he went to see the minister of the Congregational Church, noting in his diary that he “walked over to Charlesto[w]n, visited Dr. [Jedidiah] Moore” (ix:229). A note in his cashbook shows on that same day he “paid for Songs, ballads, &c. 4.50” (ix:232). The value of six dollars he declared ten weeks later with his gift of the broadsides included his cost for binding that is noted on the flyleaf of the first volume. He could have walked to Coverly’s shop on Milk Street on his way back to his own establishment at 45 Newbury Street or his son’s house at 6 Marlborough Street. Thomas paid $4.50 for 326 broadsides, a wholesale price. Street pricing for a small sheet was three cents, for a large sheet, four to six.

Thomas added a few others to the bundle before having it bound—some attractive English pieces published by John Evans in the 1790s (The Sailor's Departure from His True Love Susan, The Lovely ApparitionBonny [Bonney] Bet of AberdeenThe Plough BoyThe Rose Tree, and Wives & Sweethearts; or, Saturday Night) and the program of an event that Thomas had attended a few months earlier. When he turned the material over to his binder, it was a collection of sheets of many different sizes. The only pre-binding work that Thomas appears to have done was to sort the sheets roughly by size, putting the thirteen oversized sheets together with instructions to bind them on the short side and fold them in.

Thomas’s original collection comprised 326 sheets, most printed on one side, with 441 song lyrics, prose pieces, and poems.[4] Of these, seventy are duplicate texts, so that the collection actually contains 371 distinct songs, prose pieces, and poems current in Boston in 1813-14, many of them published for the first time. As Thomas intended, the collection is a rich source of information about local taste and popular culture.

Scholars cherish the few known early broadside catalogs because they provide checklists of a printer’s stock in trade and hence are a clue to customers’ tastes. Thomas did not preserve a Coverly catalog of broadsides for 1813, but his purchase may well represent most of Coverly’s actual shop stock for the year 1813. That is what makes this collection unique. Only the smaller ballad collection of the Thomas Ford press in the 1830s in Chesterfield, England, is as extensive for a single printer in the English language for so short a span of time. A little more than half the size of Thomas’s, this collection has 167 sheets with 296 different texts. 


[1] An early version of this text was handwritten into a lady’s collection of erotic poetry around 1610 (see Moulton 62). Titled “The Pope’s Pedigree,” the lengthy ballad appeared on several black letter broadsides (Simpson 240). Thomas’s version is the same as that in editions of D’Urfey’s Wit and Mirth between 1699 and 1720, shortened from the earlier ballad. The copy from which Thomas was working replaced the word “got” for “had” throughout, but otherwise it followed D’Urfey’s version closely except in one spot—the second half of the fourth verse.

[2] Forty years later, in drafting a contract with William Manning to run his Boston printing office, Thomas guarded against this kind of employee pilferage: “No copies to be allowed to be saved by boys or journeymen” (Silver 73).

[3] AAS Archives. S-T Shelf List. Pams 657-983.

[4] Thomas’s original purchase included 326 sheets; several had images printed on the verso and 34 were duplicates. He added the 7 (Evans) items and the program before sending the whole to the bindery. Since that time, 8 more sheets (one with images on both sides) have been added to the whole and are now bound in, bringing the number of sheets to 342 and the number of broadside images to 350.