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Minstrel Show Collection, 1831-1959 (bulk 1860-1940):

An Inventory of the Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Harry Ransom Center
Title: Minstrel Show Collection
Dates: 1831-1959 (bulk 1860-1940)
Extent: Original inventory: 34 document boxes, 21 oversize boxes (osb), 54 oversize folders (osf) (circa 30 linear feet) Addition: 1 document box, 4 oversize boxes (osb), 2 bound volumes (bv), 4 oversize folders (osf) (circa 2 linear feet)
Abstract: The Minstrel Show Collection, 1831-1959 (bulk 1860-1940), contains 4,000 items documenting the minstrel show and other entertainments that used blackface makeup. The bulk of the collection documents individual performers and minstrel show companies, including touring companies. It is organized into six series: I. Minstrel Show Companies and Performers, 1831-1959 (31 boxes, 42 oversize folders), II. Playbills and Programs, 1847-1914 (1.5 boxes, 10 oversize folders), III. Scrapbooks, 1835-1927 (4 boxes), IV. Printed Music, 1834-1934 (7.5 boxes, 1 oversize folder), V. Songsters, Jokesters, and Miscellaneous Booklets, 1833-1908 (6 boxes), and VI. Miscellaneous, 1858-1931 (3.5 boxes, 1 oversize folder).
Call Number: Performing Arts Collection PA-00059
Language: English
Access:

Open for research. Due to their fragile condition, photocopies of some clippings, programs, sheet music, and songsters must be used, when available.




Acquisition:

Assembled from various Theater Arts collections, including the Albert Davis and Messmore Kendall Collections and others.

Processed by:

Helen Baer and Antonio Alfau, 1999; Helen Adair, 2008, 2011

Repository:

The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center


The Minstrel Show Collection, 1831-1959 (bulk 1860-1940), contains 4,000 items documenting the form of entertainment known as the minstrel show and, to a much lesser extent, other entertainments that used blackface makeup. Minstrel shows featured white Americans appearing in blackface in a three-part show, performing what were billed as "genuine" Negro songs and dances. The earliest minstrel shows appeared in the early 1840s and were very popular until they were eclipsed by vaudeville in the 1890s. At their height, dozens of minstrel show companies toured the United States; some even played theaters in England. By 1910 the genre was nearly obsolete, as attested to by advertisements appealing to nostalgia about an age of minstrelsy already past. Though the minstrel show had all but vanished, some variety performers and motion picture actors adopted the minstrel's blackface makeup in the 1920s and 1930s, notably Al Jolson.

The bulk of the collection documents individual performers and minstrel show companies, including touring companies. It is organized into six series: I. Minstrel Show Companies and Performers, 1831-1959 (31 boxes, 42 oversize folders), II. Playbills and Programs, 1847-1914 (1.5 boxes, 10 oversize folders), III. Scrapbooks, 1835-1927 (4 boxes), IV. Printed Music, 1834-1934 (7.5 boxes, 1 oversize folder), V. Songsters, Jokesters, and Miscellaneous Booklets, 1833-1908 (6 boxes), and VI. Miscellaneous, 1858-1931 (3.5 boxes, 1 oversize folder).

The Companies and Performers series, 1831-1959, comprises the bulk of the collection and contains photographs, prints, letters, sheet music, clippings, programs, playbills, scrapbook leaves, and a small number of tintypes for over 700 minstrel show companies and performers, arranged alphabetically by name. Included are the performer-managers Dan Bryant, George N. Christy, Frank Dumont, Lew Dockstader, Billy Emerson, Dan Emmett, Al. G. Field, Eddie Leonard, and George H. Primrose, and ensembles the Big 4; Haverly's Minstrels; McIntyre and Heath; the San Francisco Minstrels; and Thatcher, Primrose, and West's Minstrels. This series also includes photographs of motion picture actors and variety performers from the 1920s and 1930s who utilized blackface makeup in their routines, as well as female impersonators and banjoists. Very few female or African American minstrels are represented in this series or elsewhere in the collection. (See the folder of "lady" minstrels in the Miscellaneous series.)

Notable items include the unpublished manuscript of the memoirs of the minstrel show performer-manager Samuel S. Sanford (d. 1905), and autograph vocal and instrumental parts used by blackface comedian and dancer "Hi-Brown" Bobby Burns. With few exceptions, the correspondence in the Companies and Performers series (letters, telegrams, and postcards) was addressed to Greene's Opera House in Middletown, Conn., having been taken from the Greene's Opera House Records. (Researchers may wish to consult these records, which also form part of the Performing Arts Collection.) Notable correspondents include Bobby Beach, Neil Bryant, Frank Dumont, Al. G. Field, and J. H. (Jack) Haverly.

Many of the photographs from the 1920s and 1930s are publicity photographs that were previously in the possession of the Palace Theatre's Photograph and Press Bureau in New York. Aimé Dupont was frequently the photographer, and most of the photographs are gelatin silver prints. Composite portraits and unidentified items are located at the end of the series.

(See Notes Concerning the Folder List for Series I following this Scope and Contents note for an explanation of how the contents of the folders were described.)

Series II contains playbills and programs, mostly for New York City theaters, 1847-1914, arranged alphabetically by name of company or performer. Companies represented by five or more items warranted a separate folder; others are filed in alphabetical groupings.

The Scrapbooks series, 1835-1927, contains photographs and clippings mounted in two intact scrapbooks, one disbound scrapbook, and about 50 loose scrapbook leaves, the latter grouped according to provenance insofar as this could be determined. (Scrapbooks in this collection were previously handled in several ways: individual leaves were acquired, as were entire scrapbooks, and some scrapbooks were disbound and the leaves distributed into Series I. Groups of scrapbook leaves should not be considered complete.) Photographs in the "Minstrels 1835 to 1891" scrapbook are cross-referenced in the folder list for Series I.

The bulk of the Printed Music series, 1834-1934, comprises sheet music for circa 500 songs, most of which were popularized by white minstrel show performers. A small number of other songs were introduced by African American singers. The sheet music files also include several piano scores for songs. The music is arranged by date of publication, or by copyright date when no publication date is given. (In addition to the sheet music in this series, Series I contains a small number of photographs of early sheet music from the 1840s and 1850s.) This series also includes a folder of clippings about the songwriting business and three songbooks.

The Songsters, Jokesters, and Miscellaneous Booklets series is divided into two subseries: A. Songsters, 1833-1883, undated, and B. Jokesters and Miscellaneous Booklets, 1870-1908, undated. Within each subseries, items are arranged by title, except for several folders of mounted songster leaves that are arranged by date. The Songsters subseries comprises about 240 booklets of lyrics for songs which were popularized by comedians and minstrel show performers; sometimes the texts of jokes are interspersed with the lyrics. About one third of the songsters bear the name of a specific company or performer, as in Dave Reed's "Sally Come Up" Songster; others depict African American customs and lifestyles as seen by white Americans, as in Old Plantation Songster. (In addition to the songsters which are intact and identifiable by title, the Songsters subseries contains a few incomplete, but mostly intact, songsters for which titles are unknown; a small number of loose single pages from songsters; and twenty groups of related songster leaves. The latter consist of sections or loose leaves gathered into groups according to their original order, size, and subject matter.) Concluding the Songsters subseries are five folders of songster leaves mounted on heavy paper, often with an accompanying print. The Jokesters and Miscellaneous Booklets subseries contains several booklets with the texts of jokes used in minstrel shows, e.g., Burnt Cork Joker, as well as a dozen booklets on miscellaneous topics, such as books of sayings, the texts of speeches, and acting manuals.

Highlights of the Miscellaneous series, 1858-1931, include a McDonough's Opera House folder which contains letters to the manager of the Opera House in Middletown, Conn., and contracts. The banjo, a common instrument in minstrel shows, is represented by a folder of clippings, advertisements, and instruction books. In addition to the "Early History of Negro Minstrelsy" newspaper clippings, many other clippings describe the history of minstrelsy as seen through the eyes of veteran performers.

For a fuller description of the collection, see:

Brokaw, John W. "The Minstrel Show in the Hoblitzelle Theatre Arts Library." Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin, New Series no. 4 (1972): 23-30.

Note to Researchers

The finding aid for the Minstrel Show Collection is a conflation of the original inventory created in 1999, and of a small addition that was catalogued in 2008. Currently the addition is described only by a List which has been appended to the original inventory, continuing the box and folder numbering sequence. The Scope and Contents note and Index do not make reference to the addition, and the RLIN record for the collection summarizes the material in the original inventory only.

Provenance

The Minstrel Show Collection was assembled by Theater Arts staff from the Albert Davis and Messmore Kendall Collections. Other materials were added later: the "Hi-Brown" Bobby Burns papers from the W. H. Crain Collection, and letters from Greene's Opera House Records dating 1895-1906. The collection was formerly known as the Minstrelsy Collection.

Notes Concerning the Folder List for Series I

The contents of each folder in Series I are described by format ("photos", prints, clippings, etc.). Engravings and lithographs are referred to generically as "prints." Unless a date is specified, items are undated. Because many of the items bear handwritten dates added by a previous collector, the dates given may not always be reliable. In addition, items described as photos are sometimes photographs of sheet music covers, posters, or prints, not personal portraits; this is especially true for items dated 1860 or earlier. Many of the postcards are only pictorial in nature (without inscriptions). References to "box 35, p. __" indicate that a photograph of the subject can be found in the "Minstrels, 1835 to 1891" scrapbook located in Series III.

Many minstrel show performers, particularly the more successful ones, performed with more than one ensemble during their career, sometimes lending their names to the group if they owned all or part of it. Their names are cross-referenced wherever possible; e.g., for the duo Williams and Walker, the entry for George Walker points to "Williams and Walker." (However, Bert Williams is not afforded a cross-reference because he is a short step from Williams and Walker in the alphabet.) Names of individuals precede names of ensembles; thus, "Williams, Bert" comes before Williams and Walker. Regarding the names of companies, superlatives like "Consolidated" and "Enormous" were generally avoided except to distinguish those ensembles which were administratively distinct, as in the case of Haverly's Mastodon Minstrels and Haverly's Minstrels, two separate touring companies managed by J. H. Haverly.

Edward Le Roy Rice's Monarchs of Minstrelsy (New York: Kenny Publishing Co., 1911) was the primary source used to verify the names of minstrel show companies and performers.

Abbreviations used in the folder list and index of correspondents are as follows:

  • ALS autograph letter signed
  • p., pp. page, pages
  • PC postcard
  • TD typed document
  • TLS typed letter signed


Elsewhere in the Ransom Center Performing Arts Collection are circa 200 selections of minstrel show sheet music which can be found in the Sheet Music Collection.


Subjects

Allen, Johnny, 1844-1885

Allen, Paul, d. 1896

Backus, Charles, 1831-1883

Barlow, Milt G.

Beach, Bobby

Bernard, William H.

Birch, Billy

Bowers, Otis

Bryant, Dan, 1833-1875

Bryant, Jerry, 1828-1861

Bryant, Neil

Buckley, Frederick, 1833-1864

Buckley, G. S. (George Swayne), 1829-1879

Buckley, James, 1803-1872

Buckley, R. Bishop, 1826-1867

Burgess, F. E. (Fred E.), d. 1893

Carter, Billy, b. 1834

Christy, Edwin Pearce, 1815-1862

Christy, George N., 1827-1868

Cleveland, William S., b. 1861?

Cronin, Billy

Cronin, Tim, 1857

Devere, Sam, d. 1907

Dockstader, Lew

Dumont, Frank

Emerson, Billy, 1846-2002

Evans, George, 1870-1915

Field, Al G. (Albert Griffith), 1848-1921

Fox, Joseph, b. 1852

Hamilton, William H., d. 1897

Haverly, Jack, 1837-1901

Heath, Thomas K.

Hi-Henry

Hooley, Richard M., 1822-1893

Horn, Eph, 1818-1877

Hughes, Archie

Johnson, Carroll, b. 1851

Kelly, Edwin, 1835-1898

Leon, b. circa 1840

Leonard, Eddie

Lester, Billy

Mahara, Frank L.

Mahara, Jack

Mahara, W. A.

Master Martin

McIntyre, James, b. 1857

McNish, Frank E.

Moore, Pony, 1820-1909

Morris, Billy, 1831-1878

Morris, Lon, 1830-1882

Murphy, Joe, b. circa 1835

Newcomb, Bobby

Paskman, Dailey

Pell, Johnny

Primrose, George H.

Rice, Tom, 1808-1860

Sanford, James, 1843-1891

Scanlon, Billy

Seymour, Nelse

Smith, William, 1900

Sun, Gus

Thatcher, George, b. 1846

Thomas, T. F.

Trowbridge, Joseph T., 1823-1891

Waldron, Dan, d. 1905

Wambold, D. S. (Dave S.), 1836-1889

Ward, William H., b. 1852

West, William H., 1853-1902

White, Charles, 1821-1891

Wilson, Charles, d. 1893

Wilson, George, b. 1844

Subjects

Al G. Field's Minstrels

Atlantic City Steel Pier Minstrels

Barlow, Wilson, Primrose, and West's Minstrels

Beach and Bower's Minstrels

Big 4

Bryant's Minstrels

Buckley's New Orleans Serenaders

Christy Minstrels

Dailey Paskman's Radio Minstrels

Dockstader's Minstrels

Fox and Ward

Greene's Opera House (Iowa)

Gus Sun American Minstrels

Harrigan & Hart

Haverly's Mastodon Minstrels

Haverly's Minstrels

Hi-Henry's Minstrels

Kelly and Leon Minstrels

Lester and Allen's Minstrels

Mahara's Minstrels

McDonough Opera House

McIntyre and Heath

Moore and Burgess' Minstrels

Morris Brothers, Pell & Trowbridge's Minstrels

Olympic Quartet

Primrose and Dockstader's Minstrels

Primrose and West's Minstrels

San Francisco Minstrels

Sanford and Wilson

Scanlon and Cronin

Thatcher, Primrose, and West's Minstrels

Virginia Serenaders

W. S. Cleveland's Minstrels

Subjects

Blackface entertainers--United States--1920-1940

Minstrel shows--United States

Document Types

Drawings

Photographs

Playbills

Postcards

Prints

Programs

Scrapbooks

Scores

Sheet music

Songbooks

Creators

Apeda, photographer

Burns, Hi-Brown Bobby

Dupont, Aimé, photographer

Emmett, Daniel Decatur, 1815-1904. Dixie

Sanford, Samuel S., 1821-1905

Sarony, Napoleon, 1821-1896, photographer

Strand, photographer