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Broadsides were simply one-page printed sheets distributed by hand or posted in public. In nineteenth-century America, broadsides announced or promoted all kinds of events and ideas—political, religious, intellectual, and amusing. Broadsides formed a ubiquitous visual component of the public sphere, whereby people received information and discussed ideas in person and in public—on the street, at the market, and in the courthouse square. They were important to both slaveholders and to abolitionists.

In slave-holding areas, broadsides publicized the operations of the slave market. Eighteenth-century Atlantic traders posted broadsides to announce their ships' arrival in ports such as New York or Charleston, listing the numbers, genders, and geographic origins of Africans held for sale. Similarly, nineteenth-century traders advertised in New Orleans and Natchez bragging about their Virginian Negroes. Slaveholders and heirs announced estate auctions to divide up slave property. Broadsides also announced court-ordered actions, including sales of slaves seized for slaveholders' debt, the forced hiring of free blacks for nonpayment of taxes, and the binding out of orphaned free black children.

Runaway broadsides, as in similar newspaper advertisements, gave names and physical descriptions, often including: gender; age; complexion; hair; clothing; physical attributes; scars or wounds; speech patterns; and special skills (such as literacy). Slaveholders listed their own names and locations, often offered a reward, and sometimes speculated about the whereabouts of the runaway or a likely destination they might seek out. A generic runaway icon was sometimes used to catch the reader's eye.

Abolitionists frequently reproduced and quoted from slaveholders' broadsides and other advertising to reveal the cruelties of slavery. The scars and wounds described, the separation of families blandly announced, and the need for and sheer number of runaway ads themselves condemning the institution. Media-savvy abolitionists also produced their own array of broadsides (in addition to newspapers, almanacs, song sheets, books, cartoons, souvenirs, and government petitions) to spread their message across the public sphere. Some abolitionist broadsides advertised rallies, public lectures, and collection campaigns. Others spread images and ideas of abolition through printed song sheets, poems, speeches, portraits, and cartoons posted in public. Still others kept local constituents abreast of breaking news, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 involved northerners, as in the case of Anthony Burns (1834–1862) in Boston.

Unlike in slave-holding areas—where printed and public criticism of slavery was often curtailed—northern broadsides often carried controversial and antagonistic points of view. In Boston in the 1820s and 1830s, for example, African Americans commemorating British abolition were mocked in a racist series of Bobalition broadsides, which stereotyped their appearance, satirized their accents, impugned their intelligence, and spoofed their parades and public speeches.

Union and Confederate armies used broadsides for troop recruitment. Finally, in the wake of the Civil War (1861–1865), triumphant abolitionists produced celebratory broadsides, first reproducing the Emancipation Proclamation and then often depicting—in symbolic and often idealized imagery—the justice of their cause and the brightness of the country's future without slavery. Unlike more ordinary broadsides, which often did not survive, these prints were intended for decoration, display, and preservation as commemorative keepsakes of the cause.


Duke University Special Collections Library. "Third Person, First Person: Slave Voices from yhe Special Collections Library." Available from

Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, The Collection. Online Exhibits. Available from

Handler, Jerome S., and Michael L. Tuite Jr., eds. "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record." Updated June 7, 2007. Available from

Jacobs, Donald M., ed. Courage and Conscience: Black and White Abolitionists in Boston. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Library of Congress (Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture). "Influence of Prominent Abolitionists: The African American Mosaic." Updated July 5, 2005. Available from

                                 Philip Troutman