A Riot of Words: Proclamations and Broadsides

Atkinson House Furnishing Co. advertisement, ca. 1890

Atkinson House Furnishing Co. advertisement, ca. 1890

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Text by Eric Eaton and John Mayer

Images from Maine Historical Society

Imagine a day 150 years ago. Looking down a side street, you see the buildings are covered with posters and signs.

On that street 150 years ago, large, white paper broadsides peel back, revealing older messages. Small half-sheets are posted in repetition in an effort to outshine the dozens of announcements that surround you, overlapping, undercutting and obscuring one another.

Streetscapes were filled with large and small printed sheets announcing news, advertising goods and services, proclaiming public events and entertainments, or seeking to influence public opinion.

A young woman sings a verse from a new ballad set to an old tune. A man hands her a nickel in exchange for a copy of the ballad.

The woman singing a ballad also sold printed curiosities, intrigues and cautionary tales to passers-by.

Nineteenth-century Maine was defining itself. A growing middle class was inventing, advertising and hocking its wares. Opportunities for leisure and entertainment abounded.

Communities debated morality and patriotism. The printed word was everywhere, reflecting the dimensions of community life.

The pieces from this scene that survive today are now historical documents that let us glimpse a hundred moments, plucked from the millions recorded by such public expressions.

This online exhibit is based on a gallery exhibit that was at the Maine Historical Society from January to June 2006. John Mayer, Maine Historical Society Museum Curator, and Eric Eaton, curated the exhibit.

View slideshow: Part I, Proclamations and Broadsides

View slideshow: Part II, Ballads and Posters