A Glimmer in Time
America on the brink of War
By Bruce McKinney
Beneath the firm ground of books, long documented, recorded, saved and frequently valued lies an uncertain, quixotic mass of "un" material that is the emerging moveable feast of the collector of works on paper. This is the extraordinary mass of mostly unknown, unappreciated, undocumented and more than anything else, unexpected material that is the blood [oxygen] of the new collecting. It is easy to miss.
When collectors search the principal listing sites there are tens of millions of items available. Most are books. Checking one site or another, the sheer volume of books overwhelm all else. The occasional random pamphlet, broadside and ephemera simply disappear. The lack of author, title and sometimes even date and place often render such material mute. At first glance it's logical. Books were expected to survive and were printed and bound with that expectation. Pamphlets and ephemera were expected to perish and usually did. When such perishables did survive it has usually been random chance. Their connections to subjects were often slim, a movie program for a Rudolph Valentino opening in 1919, an im-memorium for a soldier killed at Gettysburg, family photographs from the 1870's with a town in clear view, newspapers and clippings of events, often marital or marshall. In truth pamphlets, broadsides and let's include maps here, dwarf the total of all known books by something greater than one hundred times. But most of this material is invisible, if it even still exists, because it is generally difficult to understand, is under-appreciated, difficult to contextualize and describe. Of these various non-book forms broadsides are generally the most highly esteemed. They have the briefest lives and slimmest chances of survival. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a broadside, also called a "broadsheet," as "a sheet of paper printed on one side only, forming one large page."
Broadsides are of course ephemera which Dictionary.com defines as "a short lived thing" and when specific to printing "printed matter of passing interest." So, by definition, ephemera isn't kept except in rare and unusual circumstances. Add to this its fragile nature. A distant aunt's graduation program from a hundred years ago, unless carefully protected, will yellow and fall apart. And in time, unless the names, relationships, places, circumstances and relevance are noted the once obvious often becomes obscure. "Something to keep" in a few generations often becomes "who's this" and "what's this about." Time erodes connection. So ephemera must overcome two frailties; fragile structure and uncertain relationship and so everyday is the victim of attic and basement cleanings. Books tend to go into boxes, ephemera into the trash. And it's a shame for such material sometimes tells us a great deal. Randomly, such material is purchased, when it can be found, by book scouts, eBayers and traditional dealers and then makes its way into collections, ephemera and book fairs, onto listing sites and increasingly [it seems to me] onto eBay.
So it was in January that I ran across several theatrical broadsides posted on eBay by Merry and Marty Lapidus of Brandon, Vermont [merrylap on eBay]. They had bought the broadsides as part of a mixed lot of Kingston and New Rochelle material at the JMW Gallery Auction Gallery in Kingston in November. The lot descriptions mentioned that these broadsides were the first of a larger group - all identified with that place, a place I know well. I both collect Kingston-Rondout as a subject and maintain a Wiki Bibliography about it [click here for wiki]. These first broadsides were advertisements of staged events in 1857 and 1858. Over the course of 6 weeks I bought all offered - 11 in total - for $172.97 plus shipping.
A Glimmer in Time
High drama in the 1850s
The prices were low probably because the material was, while absurdly rare, difficult to describe, unknown and certainly unexpected. Most collectors and to a lesser extent dealers, rely upon collecting references. This material was invisible. For such things, while indirect references exist, they are deeply obscure. In the New York Times archive there is reference to Horace Greeley speaking to an empty auditorium at the dedication of the Music Hall in Kingston [August 12, 1858]. One of the broadsides is for this event. There were probably also local newspaper accounts as, at that time, Kingston and Rondout [then separate], with a reported population of 16,640, were supporting six newspapers: the Argus, Rondout Courier, Kingston Freeman, Kingston Press, Ulster Democrat and Ulster Republican. I believe the Argus was one of Horace Greeley's newspapers. He, of "Go west young man" fame, was the leading publisher in New York State. The population of Ulster County, of which Kingston was both its largest community and its county seat, was 74,772. Dutchess County's population was 62,800, Orange County's 61,700. Ulster was both important and populous.
That the city was supporting so much culture, as evidenced by these theatrical broadsides, seems as much a reflection of the times as of the place itself. An examination of Odell's Annals of the New York Stage for references to New York theatrical productions in that period suggests that threatres were many and the productions never-ending. Kingston, a mere 90 miles distant by train and steamboat was not only off-Broadway, it was a cultural backwater. The actors listed in the broadsides, with only two exceptions, fail to appear in any of the well-documented New York stage records. The two that are listed, Kate and Sallie Singleton, played supporting roles.
Of the ten productions advertised [there is one duplicate] the most interesting neatly dovetail the start of the Civil War. Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12th, 1861. The last three broadsides, by date, are April 10th, April 11th and April 13th 1861. Whether the show on the 12th was canceled is unknown. I of course looked to see if John Wilkes Booth, an actor before he was an assassin, might have been on the bill as hostilities broke out. Alas no, unless he performed under an assumed name.
The broadsides themselves tell an interesting story. The first five advertise performances over 8 days in 1857: August 8, 10, 11, 13 and 15. There is more or less a cast of 11, seven who appear in every production. They begin on the 8th with MacBeth, the Tyrant of the North, and follow with Romeo and Juliet or, The Italian Lovers on the 10th, Don Caesar de Bazan or A Match for a King on the 11th, Castle Spectre or the Unnatural Brother on the 13th and Pizarro or The Spaniards in Peru on the 15th. For those patrons too easily sated an under card was also offered every night: Rival Footman, or Johnny from York and Paddy from Cork on the 8th followed by Mischief-Making or the French Washerwoman; Spectre Bridegroom or a Ghost in Spite of Himself; Bee Hive or Industry must Prosper; and Two Gregories or Where did the Money Come From? All performances and all seats are twenty-five cents. No music is mentioned.
Another broadside announces the opening night of the Music Hall. It's dated Thursday eve. August 12th and appears to refer to 1858. This is "dedicatory exercises" featuring first an address by Horace Greeley then followed by a musical performance by what appears to be local talent. At the conclusion there is a Promenade Concert. For the men admission is $1.00, for the ladies fifty cents.
The final group of broadsides announces theatrical productions on April 10, 11 and 13, 1861. These productions again include both main and second presentations: Le Tour de Nesle or, the Chamber of Death followed by Country Cousin, on the 10th, Ingomar or, The Son of the Wilderness on the 11th followed by the Night Wanderer, and Black Eyed Susan, or All in the Downs and Paddy Miles Boy on the 13th. News of the shots fired at Fort Sumter certainly reached Kingston on the 12th. Theatrical tradition requires that the show go on and the evidence suggests it did. As to whether there were other performances on following days I don't know. With Lincoln barely sworn in the ground swell of anxiety and indignation was just beginning to take hold and the next drum beats heard were probably regimental calls to arms.
A Glimmer in Time
If you can't go west, go north!
President Lincoln, the Hudson Valley's and America's deis ex machina over the next four years, isn't known to have visited Kingston or Rondout but it is known that he made a melancoly stop across the Hudson River when his funeral train paused for a few minutes on April 25, in 1865 for citizens to pay their respects to the fallen President. That train would continue north to Albany, then west on its way to Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln would have been the first to insist that order be restored, the threatres opened, the music played. In time no doubt good spirits and good humor revived and new traveling companies again returned to Kingston-Rondout. But I have to take this on faith as I have no later broadsides to confirm it.
The material is fascinating. It suggests that a complex world of ephemeral printing existed and was mindlessly dispatched as "of no importance." Today, holding such vestages to the light, I would give anything to slip back across the continuum into those long past moments to see first hand the place, hear the voices and sounds, and breathe the air. Then given the chance I would inquire of Rip Van Winkle who slept his famous twenty years nearby. He had long established that there is magic in the place. "I'm just trying to put a lighting bug into a bottle." I would ask what has become of all the broadsides stapled and nailed those many years ago on the signboards of Kingston and Rondout for surely more survive. I certainly hope so. Until I hear from Rip I'll continue to look on eBay. You have to take magic where you find it.
Merry and Marty Lapidus have been selling on eBay for eleven years and have accumulated more than 6,000 feedbacks in that time. Click here to see their listings on eBay.