Playbill collection

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The Folger has approximately 250,000 playbills, most from late 18th and 19th century Britain and the United States. Unlike programs, which are multi-page documents, a playbill describes a performance on one side of one sheet of paper. Most surviving playbills are small handbills, though some are poster size.

Finding playbills

Searching for "playbills" with one of Hamnet's genre/form options will return a partial selection of playbills, mostly ones that are bound into print or manuscript volumes, or ones that were acquired after 1997 (see "Other locations" above).

For assistance with the Craven and Henderson collections, please consult Reading Room staff.

Three card catalogs are available for the main playbill collection, in the card catalog area off the Reading Room. The main file is organized by city, then theater, then season; additional files are organized by former owner, and chronologically. Very little information is provided on the cards beyond theater and date range. The cataloging department is in the process of making records for each theater searchable in Hamnet, but in the meantime, the card catalog is still the main method of access. (See the list of playbill call numbers below for information about which sub-sets have been added to Hamnet so far.) Please see Reading Room staff if you need assistance.


Bill boxes and bill volumes

Most playbills in the Folger collection are arranged in City - Theater - Date order in boxes ("BILL Box" call numbers) or in bound volumes ("BILL Vol." call numbers). They are indexed on cards in the "Special Collections" section of the catalog room (the metal drawers on the right as you enter), but no information on the performances themselves are provided (no play names, no actor names). However, the London playbills in the collection were used by George Winchester Stone and others to compile The London stage, 1660-1800: a calendar of plays, entertainments & afterpieces, together with casts, box-receipts and contemporary comment (see Hamnet record) so their content can be found through that publication. Playbills personally examined by George Winchester Stone have a penciled "GWS" on the front (NOT a practice that continues).

Call numbers

Playbills with BILL Box and BILL Vol. call numbers are assigned two cutters (subdivisions) based on city + theater, or on country + city. For country + city combinations, the second cutter may have two small letters appended to signify the theater (for instance, BILL Box Z5 P47ns 1852 is the call number for the Nemzeti Színház [National Theatre] in Pest). The two cutters are always followed by a range of dates.

"BILL Box" is used in the examples below, but BILL Vol. call numbers follow the same pattern. Many of these call numbers are not represented in Hamnet yet, but can be used to search the card catalogs.

Call number Geographic grouping In Hamnet?
BILL Box G2 London theaters yes
BILL Box G3 English provincial theaters in progress
BILL Box G4 Edinburgh theaters yes
BILL Box G5 Other Scotland theaters yes
BILL Box G6 Ireland theaters no
BILL Box G7 Channel Islands and Isle of Man theaters no
BILL Box G8 Canada theaters no
BILL Box G85 Australia theaters no
BILL Box G9 Wales theaters no
BILL Box U4 New York theaters in progress
BILL Box U5 Boston theaters no
BILL Box U6 Philadelphia theaters no
BILL Box U7 Other United States theaters no
BILL Box Z5 Other theaters elsewhere yes

Craven collection

453 playbills collected by Babette Craven are stored in the Art Vault, and indexed in a Filemaker Pro database that is currently only available to staff, or with staff assistance. Most are late 18th and early 19th century, from England.

Henderson collection

7,188 playbills form the bulk of the Henderson collection.

Other locations

Playbills acquired since about the 1980s are shelved at the end of the BILL Box/Vol section on Deck C, in accession number order, identified by a six-digit accession number and the prefix or suffix "PLAYBILL." Those acquired after 1997 have minimal-level records in Hamnet. Many other playbills have been bound into extra-illustrated books (particularly actor biographies and Shakespeare's works), manuscript volumes, and scrapbooks. Some of these are listed in the Playbills card file in the "Special Collections" section of the catalog room; some are briefly mentioned in Hamnet in Folger copy notes for the books.


Due to their prohibitively large number, the Folger does not generally catalog playbills individually. Playbills acquired after 1997 receive minimal-level records in Hamnet. Many playbills acquired before 1997 are not in Hamnet. They can be located through three public card catalogs (organized chronologically, geographically, and by former owner). The shelflist (that is, cards in call number order) for BILL Box/Vol is stored in staff areas.

Between 2016 and 2019, preliminary records were created for some sections of the pre-1997 playbill collection; see the table above for information on which sections. This recon project followed the guidelines below.

Treat playbills as Vault material. As most playbills are fragile, collection-level records will be created based on catalog cards, and confirmed with the physical items only as necessary to save wear and tear.

  • Code records as LDR/06 (Type) a and LDR/07 (Blvl) c (signifying that the record describes a collection of language material).
    • If it is only a single playbill, code the record as LDR/06 (Type) a and LDR/07 (Blvl) m.
  • Consider the theater for which the playbills were created to be the main entry, unless there is a clear indication otherwise. Add in a 110 field, with "issuing body" as a relationship designator.
  • Most titles will probably be something like "Collection of playbills from Covent Garden Theatre." Do not enclose the statement in brackets (in line with RDA; do include a 500 note on the title source. Follow the main devised title with a date range in subfield ‡f.
245 10 ‡a Collection of playbills from Covent Garden Theatre, ‡f 1800-1900.
500 ‡a Title devised by cataloger.
  • Give the extent in terms of items (and volumes when appropriate). Do not provide dimensions.
300 ‡a approximately 260 items + ‡e 2 volumes (approximately 317 items)
  • Add a summary of the contents in a 520 note. Example:
520 ‡a Collection of playbills from the Adelphi Theatre (London), for theatrical seasons ranging from 1819-1820 to 1855-1856.
  • Add subject headings for theaters, and for the specific theater.
610 20 ‡a Covent Garden Theatre.
650 0 ‡a Theaters ‡z London.
  • Add a genre term for Playbills.
655 7 ‡a Playbills. ‡2 aat
  • Add 751 and 752 fields for the location of the theater.