Capsule History of the Broadside
by David Abel
The term “broadside” usually refers to a single sheet of paper, printed on one side only, often featuring a combination of text and illustration. Broadsides (also known as broadsheets) were among the most common printed materials from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, especially in Britain, Ireland, and North America, and their content ranged from official proclamations and news to scandalous stories and popular ballads.
Because the broadside in its early days was a quick and cheap way to circulate timely information (often selling for just a penny), it has often been compared to whatever form of instant communication is current; today, the email blast or tweet might be likened to the broadside. Often posted on a wall or other surface, the broadside soon gave rise to the poster, whose role in art and advertising was supreme in the nineteenth century
The broadside has always been a vehicle for the unofficial story: rumors, ballads, lurid crime reports, political messages thinly disguised. In the 1960s, Broadside magazine, a major influence in the urban folk music revival, drew on those associations with its name, and provided an outlet for scores of protest composers to share their songs.
The revival of fine printing and book arts in the United States in the past fifty years has seen the return of the broadside as a significant and honored format, in which the crafts of poet and printer (and often illustrator) are collaboratively applied. From 1975–90, Fine Print magazine included a “broadside roundup” in almost every issue, and there were frequent exhibitions and published portfolios of broadsides. Most contemporary letterpress printers and publishers continue to issue broadsides as well as books; after nearly five hundred years, it seems that the broadside is still alive and kicking.
Special thanks to David Abel for sharing this bit of broadside history. David Abel is the owner of Passages Bookshop. He specializes in modern poetry, literature, and avant-garde art, book arts, fine printing, and artist’s books. Learn more about Passages here.
David sent this history in response to the exhibition of broadsides on display at 23 Sandy through Saturday, March 14, 2015. Click here to see a full online catalog of the broadsides in this show.