Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project

Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar

What Is a Broadside?


In his semiannual report to the American Antiquarian Society in 1872, Librarian Samuel F. Haven said that broadsides “are legitimate representatives of the most ephemeral literature  . . . 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.” Prior to 1800 and the spread of newspapers, broadsides accounted for about one-fifth of all imprints and their price made them available to all (Gilmore 192).

“Broadside” was originally a printer’s term for the largest sheet that could be printed in one pass through a press. By 1575 it meant a sheet printed on one side. It might be a public announcement printed by a licensed printer for the government or a clandestine, seditious satire against the government distributed in the dead of the night. By the late sixteenth century broadsides had also become the cheapest medium for the printing of funeral elegies, topical verses, traditional ballads, and occasionally for bawdy and salacious songs. Not until the eighteenth century did broadsides become a common alternate medium in British America for the pirating of popular song texts. Many broadsides are tedious, even frivolous, evanescent ephemera, “flying leaves” as the Germans and French refer to them. But some had their day of importance. The “seditious” ballads for which John Peter Zenger was imprisoned in 1734 in New York were circulated on a broadside.  At trial, Zenger was released when a canny lawyer persuaded the jury that to be sedition the songs had to be untrue, which was not the case. This was the opening volley for freedom of the press in America (Rutherfurd 40-45).

Eighteenth-century American broadsides contained diverse subject matter: advertisements; official proclamations; blank forms for official use, such as by customs offices; theater announcements; opinions; commissions; comments on contemporary events; criminals’ confessions; instructions for students and schoolmasters; and poetry and song texts to amuse, inform, or educate the buyers. They were printed to be sold quickly—sometimes on order from officials or authors, but probably most often on speculation for the peddlers who needed stock for a sales circuit or street stands.

Broadsides were printed to be read and sung. Cotton Mather complained in his diary on September 24, 1713, that he had been informed “that the minds and manners of many People about the Countrey are much corrupted by foolish songs and ballads, which the hawkers and pedlars carry into all parts of the country.” When an accused murderer sent his “last words” to the printer before his execution, “poor Julian” added the comment that his Advice from the Dead to the Living (1733) was “very proper to be read by all persons, but especially young people, and servants of all sorts.” When A New Ballad, Upon a New Occasion appeared in Philadelphia in 1771, it bore the approbation, “fit to be sung in Streets.”

Cheap, broadsides were marketed as impulse purchases by hawkers and shopkeepers. Like supermarket tabloids today, the sheets needed to appeal immediately to some resonant chord in the potential buyer—either with a topical subject of concern or interest, a familiar old ballad, or the latest song from the theater down the street. Relief cuts and sensational titles increased the visual impact for better sales appeal.