Playbill collection

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 form/genre options will return a small 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, see please 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. 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).

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. Most 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.

Starting in November 2016, the Cataloging department has begun creating brief collection-level records in Hamnet to improve access to playbills.