The Afterlives of Playbills: the journey to 100,000 contributions on In the Spotlight

Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott is a PhD researcher at the University of Portsmouth studying the presentation of nineteenth-century magicians in biographies, literature, and the popular press. She is currently a research placement student on the British Library’s In the Spotlight project, cleaning and contextualising the crowdsourced playbills data. She can be found on Twitter at @beeashlell and you can join the In the Spotlight project at playbills.libcrowds.com.

Working with the British Library on their In the Spotlight project – a site which provides easy access to thousands of digitised nineteenth-century playbills and invites users to transcribe their titles and dates – has definitely been a learning curve. For someone who had no clue how to get an API key and was petrified of the terminal screen during my first week, I now feel surprisingly at home in the world of data! This is in large part thanks to the amazing staff who work on this project, but also because the data is in itself fascinating, and provides such a remarkable insight into the ephemeral world of the nineteenth-century stage.

The playbills themselves are remarkable objects, capturing the excitement and variety of a day or week from two hundred years ago in a way that was never meant to last. For my PhD research, one of my most interesting trips so far has been to a furniture restorer to look at an antique chest plastered with playbills for Mr. Moon, a regional magician, with the playbills being used alongside other pieces of scrap paper and letters as a lining – strange to think that these objects which are so intriguing for us now were the spam mail of their day! But luckily for us they have lasted, and now through digitisation and projects such as In the Spotlight, a whole new audience is able to get in touch with the often weird and wonderful world of theatre. The data which is generated by a diverse and dedicated group from our community of users makes my life quite easy – my main roles have been to clean the transcriptions for titles and dates, help to improve the user experience on the website, and to contextualise some of what we see on the playbills.

The project was initially interesting to me due to my research topic of Victorian magic, and conjurers and ventriloquists are just one subsection of the perhaps unexpected performers who emerge from the playbills alongside the more standard Shakespeares and Sheridans. Now with the new tagging feature, it is incredibly easy for users – be they researchers or interested passers-by – to group linked playbills by their variety of unique performers. This will undoubtedly be of great use to anyone working on nineteenth-century theatre or performance studies, and will save hours trawling through individual items on catalogues and databases. These tagged collections will also be crowdsourced and defined by users, making them unique – a great visual representation of collective knowledge!

The data has also provided me with some surprises about the world of nineteenth-century theatre. For a start, many of the plays being performed were written and first performed earlier, suggesting a longevity which doesn’t seem to have followed them into the twenty-first century. There were also, although without wanting to make broad generalisations about the period, many more female playwrights than I would have anticipated. Just as magic in the Victorian period was often a very male-dominated industry, I had expected that to be more or less the case across performance more widely. But figures such as Elizabeth Inchbald, née Simpson (1753–1821), the triple threat of actress, novelist and socialite, made it into the top ten of our most popular playwrights, and left a legacy which carried on well into the Victorian period, with her ‘diligence and capability’ (1) still being admired in 1891.

It’s especially gratifying, however, to be writing this post in the run-up to hitting 100,000 contributions being made to the project, showing that there is an appetite for nineteenth-century ephemera even today. With users across a wide range of backgrounds, not just academia and heritage, In the Spotlight has flourished by making the past accessible and fun to interact with. The unique aesthetics and colourful characters of these playbills is undoubtedly their main attraction, so I’ve highlighted a selection of my favourite playbills from the Victorian era collections:

ashton elliot1

A collection of Playbills from Miscellaneous Plymouth Theatres 1796-1882. Plymouth: S.n.], Web.

This playbill, showing the popular Cinderella story being performed as a ‘Grand Pantomimic Ballet’ in 1837, is a great example of the creativity at work in many of the designs for nineteenth-century playbills. The change of font also adds to its eye-catching design below the shoe itself – there’s no chance that a passing Victorian punter would miss this one!

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 From A collection of Playbills from Miscellaneous Plymouth Theatres 1796-1882.Plymouth: S.n.]. Web. Access here.

Naturally I was drawn to this playbill due to its content: ventriloquism! Stage magic and ventriloquism were often closely aligned in the nineteenth-century, with many performers being able to do both, seen in texts such as the popular magician Signor Blitz’s autobiography Fifty Years in the Magic Circle (1871), which relates comic (and often horrifying) incidents of ventriloquism. This is a playbill for Joseph Jacobs, a relatively well-known conjurer and ventriloquist, with a fantastic image of his ‘ventriloqual characters’, reminiscent to me of similar images of authors, such as Robert William Buss’s later painting Dickens’s Dream (1875).

Some playbills adopt the ‘biggest font’ wins approach, and this is perhaps an understandable attitude in the race to grab the public’s attention. The subject of the below playbill is a member of the Cooke Family Circus, Mr. Cooke Junior, whose main skill is apparently a ‘grotesque trembling fit’… I admire the relative simplicity of this one – it does what it says on the tin but also provides a visual image just in case you’d missed the glaringly big font!

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 From A collection of playbills from miscellaneous theatres: Nottingham – Oswestry 1755-1848 Collection Item, ([British Isles]: s.n.], 1755-1848) (Volume 2 on ItS) Access here.

These are just some of the extraordinary insights into Victorian popular entertainment which can be gained from the In the Spotlight project. To help the project reach its 100,000 contribution, get involved at playbills.libcrowds.com – whether you can spare a minute or an hour, every addition helps to give these playbills a new digital life!

Works cited

H. Davenport Adams. ‘The Lady Dramatists’. In Hearth and Home (London, England), Thursday, December 31, 1891; pg. 202; Issue 33.

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