Broadsides are single-sheet documents that are printed on only one side. They’re sometimes also called broadsheets. They’re different from handbills, which are smaller and printed on both sides. Broadsides should also not be confused with leaflets or booklets, which are folded from a single sheet of paper. The size of broadsides varies greatly, but they are generally smaller than posters and billboards.
Early broadsides didn’t include illustrations. They were simple documents printed in black ink. As printing processes got more sophisticated over time, the broadside also evolved. They began to include stock illustrations done from copper or wood engravings and eventually bore more intricate and relevant illustrations.
The Emergence and Decline of Broadsides
In Europe, broadsides came into use almost as soon as the printing press was invented. They first appeared in the United States during the seventeenth century, which the technology of moveable type and the printing press finally made its way to the colonies. For centuries, the broadside was the preferred format for delivering public announcements. They were also a cost effective way to distribute poetry, songs, and satire.
Perhaps the most famous broadside in the United States is the broadside version of the Declaration of Independence published by John Durham on July 4 and 5, 1776. Thanks to this document, news of the declaration swept through the colonies. The John Durham broadside is a perfect example of how these artifacts can encapsulate a pivotal moment in history. Only a few decades earlier, Prince Charles of Wales had used a broadside to make a truly shocking announcement. He declared Parliament illegitimate and branded its participants as traitors. The broadside captures the heat of the Jacobite rebellion.
Before the end of the nineteenth century, broadsides had begun to fall into disuse. They’d been replaced by newspapers and radio for delivering news. Posters and billboards had replaced broadsides as advertisements. Today the occasional fine press artist produces a broadside, but the form has been rendered obsolete by technology.