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Originally broadsides were single sheets of paper printed on one side only.
They were chiefly textual rather than pictorial, and were printed to be read unfolded and posted up in public places.
At first they were used for the printing of royal proclamations and official notices. Later they served as a vehicle for political agitation and what is now known as 'popular culture' such as ballads, songs and scaffold speeches.
Early form of tabloid press
For almost 300 years until the mid-19th century, this form of ephemera filled the place which is occupied today by the tabloid press.
Broadsides were sold on the street by hawkers and pedlars — street performers in their own right — and cost a halfpenny or a penny. 'Broadside' is a term now applied to a variety of single sheets, printed on one or both sides.
Full Hawkie image
Newspapers and the 'penny dreadful'
The mechanisation of the printing industry at the beginning of the 19th century saw a phenomenal increase in the output of all types of street literature, including broadsides.
However, by the middle of the century, the cheap newspaper and latterly the 'penny dreadful' (sensational novels) were gradually taking over from the earlier forms of street literature.
By the 1850s, the penny used previously to purchase a broadside ballad could now buy a part issue of a novel or a cheap newspaper or a weekly magazine.
In Scotland, Glasgow — and in particular the Saltmarket — was at the heart of the production and distribution of broadsides and other forms of street literature.
For printers such as Robert MacIntosh, James Lindsay and Matthew Leitch, proprietor of the Poet's Box (a name used by publishers of street literature in Glasgow, Dundee and Belfast), this was the mainstay of their business.
A catalogue of Lindsay's dated 1856 lists no fewer than 200 slips (narrow sheets) each with two songs.
Broadsides in our collections
Broadsides are in many of the named collections at the National Library of Scotland — in particular the Blaikie Collection and the Crawford Collections, but also in the Lauriston Castle Collection and the Rosebery Collection.
You can access records of broadsides in the main catalogue by using the title keyword 'proclamation' and by carrying out a shelfmark search using the following shelfmarks:
Full broadside image
Almost 1,800 broadsides are online in our searchable website 'The word on the street', including reports of crimes and executions, humorous and incredible stories and ballads.
- Anderson, Patricia. 'The printed image and the transformation of popular culture 1790-1860'. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. See introduction and chapter 1 (HP2.94.5960)
- Cameron, William. 'Hawkie: The autobiography of a gangrel'. Glasgow: D. Robertson, 1888 (Hall.242.g)
- Collison, Robert. 'The story of street literature: Forerunner of the popular press'. London: J M Dent, 1973 (NG.1195.f.9)
- Cowan, Edward (ed.). 'The ballad in Scottish history'. East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2000 (HP2.201.0949)
- James, Louis. (ed.) 'Print and the people 1819-1951'. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978 (P.med.3109/4)
- Shepard, Leslie. 'The broadside ballad: A study in origins and meaning'. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1962 (NG.1560.g.5)
- Glasgow University Library's site on broadside ballads