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The following list grew out of small beginnings. When in the Public Library of the City of Boston I amused myself in noting any broadside issued in Massachusetts between the years 1774 and 1783, on a half-formed scheme of utilizing the items in a study of the civil aspects of the War for Independence. The list was not completed and later, in the Library of Congress, was added to only as occasion offered, on no systematic plan. The growing interest in broadside material has suggested a full check-list, which would be a better guide were it extended to include all broadsides issued in Massachusetts from the earliest introduction of printing into the colony to the year 1800. On consulting Evans' American Bibliography I estimated that double the number there recorded would be ample, but I was soon obliged to alter my opinion, and the result in numbers speaks for itself.
In England the broadside served many purposes in the sixteenth century. From a proclamation by the King, or an act of Parliament, to a notice of a town by-law, authority used it to inform officials and the people of duties and regulations. In controversy, political or personal, the broadside served as a weapon of offence and defence, costing little and lending itself readily to a quiet circulation, difficult to counter or to trace to its source. The news-sheet, out of which came the newspaper of to-day, was probably suggested by the broadside, and soon supplanted the broadside on mere matters of news, but by no means deprived it of a wide field of service. Poets put out ballads which, if popular, proved profitable to printer and hawker; satires, directly or indirectly levelled against abuses, wrongs or individuals, if spiced with wit or humor the broader the better - gave an opportunity to start a reform, gratify revenge, retort to impudence or smother an opponent in ridicule. The newspaper “extra” of to-day was foreshadowed in the leaflet announcing a battle on land or sea, the death of a royal personage, a voting list on a measure of wide importance, a brutal murder or a dying confession. The
collections in the Chetham Library, Manchester, in the Society of Antiquaries of London and in Lord Crawford's library, indicate frequent and effective resort to this form of issue and the various forms it assumed.1
The earliest examples of English broadsides that have survived were associated with church and papal authority. The first known printed royal proclamation, issued in the year 1486, contained the papal Bull in favor of Henry VII, known only by an imperfect copy in the Society of Antiquaries of London. There exist a number of plenary indulgences issued under directions of the pope in the opening years of the sixteenth century, but not until 1640 was the earliest known political sheet printed — "A Balade agaynst malycyous Sclaunderers” – which was a defence of the memory of Thomas
— Cromwell. From that time the use of the broadside becomes increasingly common, and covered a large number of purposes.
Massachusetts did not take kindly to the broadside, though the first issues of its press were in that form of official regulations. It was long before a broadside other than of government or of college was used for personal or mortuary ends. The earliest known issue of the press set up in Cambridge was in the form of a broadside — the "freeman's oath" (1639) and twenty years passed before the first known sheet of "verses" appeared in 1659. Nearly the same time elapsed before the broadside on smallpox was issued, probably by the aid or direction of government, and that is one reason for doubting “Innocency's Complaint” (1677) as an issue of the New England press. If a genuine issue it stands as the first political broadside in New England, not to be repeated until the coming from England of Benjamin Harris, whose experience at home had given him a thorough knowledge of the use and abuse of broadside literature, an experience he was to repeat in Massachusetts. As the idea of a Massachusetts news-sheet came from him, it is more than probable that he introduced the broadside other than official or mortuary.
For nearly a century this form of publication enjoyed a somewhat uncertain existence, if what has survived offers any test of use and popularity. Government adopted it and in time of war extended its availability, partly because of the quick and ready printing and dispersion of the sheets, partly because of the saving they made in the preparation of reports and returns, both civil and military. Even in this last de
i Catalogues of these three collections of broadsides have been printed.