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Leeds Playbills website

The amazing Leeds Playbills website contains nearly 5,000 medium-to-high resolution scans of vibrant playbills dating from the late 1700s up through the 1990s. The database, part of the Leodis digitization project, represents all the playbills in the Local Studies Library collection, with samples from a variety of historic theatres in the city of Leeds, as well as a group of related circus bills. Interestingly, the project is funded by the UK National Lottery‘s Big Lottery Fund (formerly the New Opportunities Fund).

Many of the prints showcase an impressive array of large and ornamented types. Not surprisingly, the circus bills are among the most vibrant on the site, many utilizing multiple colors with chromatic typefaces, illustrations, and sensationalist prose. There are also a few non-typographic lithographs with elaborately colored lettering and illustration.

Other than the obvious wow factor (!!!), the prints are interesting for several typo-historic reasons. First of all, they show many typefaces that aren’t seen as frequently on this side of the Atlantic, and perhaps even in the UK. Furthermore, it shows the type in real-world use (not as in self conscious type specimens), revealing how the printers organized the information through variations in letter style and layout. One advantage of the higher resolution enlargements is that you can get a sense of how much care was put in to the printing of each piece (the range is wide). Many of the bills also have a credit line citing which print shop ran the job, allowing an evaluation of each shop in comparison with others, and giving info about which venues employed which printers. Finally, some of the items give an interesting view in to the practice of updating information by pasting on additional slips of paper or overprinting.

Unfortunately the small thumbnail images make browsing a bit tedious, and some of the full-resolution images show streaking from faulty scanning equipment. The site does have some useful functionality though, including the ability to filter content according to dates, keywords, and venues.

While wide time range is represented, the most interesting material to me, typographically, is that from the mid-to-late 1800s — coincidentally also the same period in which wood type was at its height of production and use. I’ve compiled a collection of details from some of the more interesting samples below, each linked back to the original page where you can access an enlarged, un-cropped, view.

Breathing Broadsheets at St Bride

St Bride broadsheet

For most of June, coinciding with the Story of London Festival, the St Bride Printing Library in London will host Breathing Broadsheets, an exhibition of some of the 19th-century broadside prints from the Library’s collection. Given the both the topic and the host, there are bound to be some prime examples of material printed using large and/or wood type.

The exhibition is tied in with a “promenade” performance titled Broadsheet Ballads created by the Occam’s Razor Theatre Company. I have no idea exactly what a 30-minute long walking play about broadside prints would be like, but it sounds… interesting. As I won’t be able to attend any of the events, I’d be curious to hear from anyone who does have a chance to go.

The Story of London website gives a bit more insight into the exhibition and performance:

A grant of £9,200 has gone to the St Bride Foundation which aims to serve the educational, social and cultural needs of Fleet Street and the surrounding areas. The project focuses on the St Bride Library’s collection of 19th Century Broadsheets. Some 30 young people will research the broadsheet collection, record their thoughts, write contemporary broadsheets and dramatise their findings. The results will feed into a piece of promenade theatre Broadsheet Ballads created by Occam’s Razor Theatre Company. An educational pack will be created in conjunction with the project to promote the use of St Bride Library’s collections and heritage materials to inspire learning in history, literacy and the arts. A small exhibition which will feature broadsheets, historical pictures of the local area, and information on the history of Fleet Street will also be produced. Histories of local inhabitants, Fleet Street and St Bride Church during the late 19th century will all be explored through this project.

When: June 6–July 3, 2009
Where: St Bride Library; 14 Bride Lane, London [map]
Admission: Free; call ahead to check availability