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COLLECTION Identifier: MS Thr 1848

Harvard Theatre Collection on Blackface Minstrelsy

Scope and Contents

The collection includes images of blackface minstrel performers and troupes, playbills and programs of performances, and other miscellaneous materials concerning minstrel shows. The images are of individual minstrel performers and troupes, primarily from American Blackface minstrel shows from the 1830s to 1890s. This collection has been arranged into eleven series by material type: I. Photographic Images, II. Sheet music and songbooks, III. Playbills, IV. Programs, V. Illustrations and prints; VI. Clippings, VII. Posters, VIII. Manuscripts, IX. Scripts, X. Ephemera and publications, and XI. Large format materials. There is some overlap of contents between the series, with multiple performers and groups appearing across multiple or all series, and some materials may be misfiled during the reprocessing. It should be noted that Series XI contains multiple formats, including large-scale playbills, posters, prints and illustrations, and ephemera, among others. The materials have been integrated into one collection from several; the original call numbers for materials in each series have been noted. It should also be noted that very occasionally, materials included in this collection do not relate to Blackface minstrelsy, but instead to Black American performers and performance during the height of minstrelsy's popularity.


  • circa 1833-1906

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Materials may be fragile and require the use of a surrogate. This includes all materials in Series III, IV, VI, VII, VII, IX, X, and XI. Please consult curator for more information.


21.54 linear feet (52 boxes and 147 folders)

Biographical / Historical

Blackface minstrelsy is a popular entertainment form, originating in the United States in the mid-19th century and remaining in American life through the 20th century. The form is based around stereotypical and racist portrayals of African Americans, including mocking dialect, parodic lyrics, and the application of Black face paint; all designed to portray African Americans as othered subjects of humor and disrespect. Blackface was a dominant form for theatrical and musical performances for decades, both on stage and in private homes. The Harvard Theatre Collection includes Blackface minstrelsy materials for the benefit of scholars seeking to better understand the role racial performance has had in shaping Western culture.


Collection is arranged into the following series: I. Photographic images, II. Sheet music and songbooks, III. Playbills, IV. Programs, V. Illustrations and Prints, VI. Clippings, VII. Posters, VII. Manuscripts, VIII. Scripts, IX. Ephemera, X. Large Format Materials. Series I. Photographic images is separated into two subseries: A. Photographs and B. Cartes-des-Visites. All series and subseries are arranged alphabetically by performer surname. Unidentified materials follow each alphabetical run.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Most of the materials that make up this collection have no accession number. Various sources, various dates.

2010MT-11. Gift of Thomas Garrett, 2010. (Includes all materials formerly processed as MS Thr 730 and MS Thr 951).

2020T-61. Purchased from James Arsenault and Company in 2020 with the Frank E. Chase Bequest.

2021MT-27. Purchased from Auger Down Books with the Frank E. Chase Bequest, 2021 February 15. (Includes all material formerly processed as MS Thr 2097).

Related Materials

Other collections concerning American minstrelsy are held by the Harris Collection at Brown University, the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Princeton University, the Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, and the State Library of Ohio in Columbus.

Processing Information

This finding aid was revised in 2021 to address racist, euphemistic, outdated, and harmful descriptive language. During that revision, description was changed in the collection-level notes, and multiple collection finding aids were unified for easier access. If you have questions or comments about these revisions, please contact Houghton Library. For more information on reparative archival description at Harvard, see Harvard Library’s Statement on Harmful Language in Archival Description.

MS Thr 1848 is a combination of materials previously processed as MS Thr 556, MS Thr 730, MS Thr 951, TCS 82, and MS Thr 2057, among other single item materials as part of a reprocessing project. This reprocessing was carried out by Betts Coup in 2021, with assistance from Dorothy Berry; the project was based on research done by Berry, and collection level notes were created in collaboration.

MS Thr 1848 was originally processed by Sarah Mirseyedi, 2018. MS Thr 556 was originally processed by Bonnie Salt, with large format materials (now series XI) processed by Betts Coup. MS Thr 730 was processed by Ashley Nary. MS Thr 951 was also processed by Bonnie Salt.

Previous finding aids are available for researchers upon request.

Processing Information

Historical titles have been used to describe items and folders of related items, and may include offensive, racist, pejorative, innacurate, and troubling terminology. Those titles are derived from the troupe or performance names and were used in order to provide access for those searching for specific productions or shows. General groupings were described by the processing archivist without using historical language.

Harvard Theatre Collection on Blackface Minstrelsy, circa 1833-1906 (MS Thr 1848): Guide.
Houghton Library, Harvard University.
September 18, 2018
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Houghton Library Repository

Houghton Library is Harvard College's principal repository for rare books and manuscripts, archives, and more. Houghton Library's collections represent the scope of human experience from ancient Egypt to twenty-first century Cambridge. With strengths primarily in North American and European history, literature, and culture, collections range in media from printed books and handwritten manuscripts to maps, drawings and paintings, prints, posters, photographs, film and audio recordings, and digital media, as well as costumes, theater props, and a wide range of other objects. Houghton Library has historically focused on collecting the written record of European and Eurocentric North American culture, yet it holds a large and diverse number of primary sources valuable for research on the languages, culture and history of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Houghton Library’s Reading Room is free and open to all who wish to use the library’s collections.

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