Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

19th Century Broadside Ballads

Date posted: Fri, Jul. 31, 2020

We're fortunate at the Fisher that for many years we have been able to draw upon the student talent of the university's iSchool. In fact, many of the full-time staff that currently work at the Fisher started out as student employees, and we've seen many others who have come through our workroom move on and establish careers at other institutions. It's always sad, however, when we have to say goodbye to one of our students. Megan Fox, who wrote this post, has been with the Fisher for almost two years. Like most of our student help, she's touched almost every aspect of what we all do daily at the Fisher: cataloguing, social media, gift listing, and creating content for the web site and Flickr, along with taking regular shifts on both the reference desk and the reading room. Megan's education isn't ending with the iSchool, however. She will be moving to Wisconsin where she will begin her PhD studies. We wish her all the best and thank her for her many outstanding contributions to the Fisher.


When we talk about the history of printing, there is a tendency to focus on landmark texts-- the Gutenberg Bible, the Shakespeare First folio-- but major textual projects along this scale are the exception, not the rule. Most printing was for single-page broadsheets or job prints, and a particularly popular genre of this type are ballads. The Fisher has recently acquired and made available a collection of over 350 slipsongs (or ballads) dating largely from the 1820s to 1840s, with examples from as early as the end of the 18th century. These ballads offer an insightful - and often entertaining! -lens into popular culture at the turn of the 19th century.

By the time these ballads were published, the tradition of broadside ballads was firmly established. This genre developed out of the minstrel tradition during the middle ages, and during the sixteenth and seventeenth-century grew in popularity. By the 1840s, newspapers and chapbooks were also frequently seen in England, but in Ireland (where some of these ballads are from) and North America, ballads retained their popularity for several more decades.

Broadsides are far more common than books in these centuries in part because they are significantly easier to print. Printing only one sheet, and only on one side of that sheet, required less effort than a book: no need to figure out complicated page layouts, and a much quicker payoff than a book that may be in productions before the printer got a payoff. Furthermore, this speed allowed ballads to remain topical-- ballads often responded to contemporary news events, making fun of or supporting popular figures such as politicians or the aristocracy. Booksellers sold them in their shops, but also hawkers would sell broadsides and pamphlets on the street. The most well-known place for such peddling is Grub Street, where in London hawkers would gather to share incendiary news or entertainment, popular periodicals, and broadside ballads. These ballads highlight events such as famous battles and affairs.

Today, we owe much of our knowledge about day to day life in the early modern period through the nineteenth century to collections like these. Broadsides were not bound and not necessarily meant to be kept - there is an ephemeral element to these documents, and we do not know the contents of a great many of the ballads that were printed. The entertainment that sustains and brightens our days offers as a revealing key into the minds of people in past centuries. Broadside ballads remained popular for hundreds of years because the offered respite and hilarity to day to day troubles and cares.

Megan E. Fox, Graduate Assistant, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

Collection of broadside ballads