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MS Thr 556

American minstrel show collection, 1823-1947: Guide.

Houghton Library, Harvard Library, Harvard University


Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 USA

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Location: b, pf, pf drawer
Call No.: MS Thr 556
Repository: Houghton Library, Harvard Library, Harvard University
Title: American minstrel show collection,
Date(s): 1823-1947.
Quantity: 1 collection (9 linear feet (23 boxes)
Language of materials: Collection materials are in English.
Abstract: Images of performers, playbills, clippings, and other material concerning American minstrel shows.

Immediate Source of Acquisition:

Received from various sources, various dates. Some items are marked: from the Al Davis collection; the gift of Mrs. Phillip Hale; and some are noted as part of the bequest of Evert Jansen Wendell.

Processing Information:

Series I-III processed by: Bonnie B. Salt. Series IV processed by: Betts Coup, 2018 March.

Conditions Governing Access:

There are no restrictions on physical access to this material.

Preferred Citation for Publication:

American Minstrel Show Collection, 1823-1947 (MS Thr 556). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Related Materials

Other collections of documents concerning American minstrelsy are held by the Harris Collection at Brown University, the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Princeton University, the Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, and the State Library of Ohio in Columbus.

Biographical / Historical

Minstrelsy was a type of popular entertainment in the United States, principally of the 19th-century, which consisted of the theatrical presentation of elements of African-American life in song, dance, and speech. At first this was performed by whites impersonating blacks, and later was participated in by blacks. By the end of the 1820s there had evolved an indigenous and novel American, or blackface, minstrelsy. The performer blackened his face with burnt cork and wore costumes that represented a caricature, to the white audience, of the 'typical black' person. The classic age of blackface minstrelsy was from ca. 1840–1870. An important change was the development of minstrel troupes consisting of black performers. Whereas the few that had existed in the early days had not been considered important, black companies attained true significance after the Civil War. Often under the management of whites, but occasionally led by blacks, these troupes provided a showcase for the talents of black musicians. By 1890 African Americans were firmly established in American show business. By the turn of the century most professional troupes had turned from classic minstrelsy to burlesque.
Source: "Minstrelsy, American." Oxford Music Online, 2010.


Arranged into the following series:

Scope and Contents

The collection includes images of minstrel performers and troupes, playbills and programs of performances, and other miscellaneous materials concerning minstrel shows.
The images are of individual minstrel performers and troupes, primarily from American minstrel shows ca. 1830s to 1890s. A variety of formats are included: lithographs, photographs, a few etchings and cabinet photographs, printed clippings, photomechanical prints, 1 tintype, and others. Some prints are hand-colored and images depict performers both in character (in "blackface"), as well as in street clothes. For the most part, sheet music in this series is not complete, but are only covers that were collected for the images of the performers. This series also includes other materials such as photomechanical copies of playbills and broadsides, clippings with images and biographical text, some complete sheet music, programs, manuscripts, and drawings.
The playbill series includes "true" playbills (long sheets, printed on only one side) and also printed advertisements, programs (printed on both sides), and programs with sheet music. Also included are a few photomechanical reproductions of playbills.
Some important groups represented in this collection are: Bryant's Minstrels, Buckley's New Orleans Serenaders, Callender's Georgia Minstrels, Campbell's Minstrels, Christy's Minstrels, Ethiopian Serenaders, Haverly's Minstrels, Ordway's Æolian Vocalists, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, Virginia Minstrels, Virginia Serenaders, White's Minstrels, Wood's Minstrels, many female minstrel groups, as well as many others. This collection also includes materials for American troupes performing abroad. Names for the various groups often changed. The same group might be filed here under different names, depending on what was printed on the playbill or image.

Container List