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Broadsheets, Pamphlets and Broadsides

The MHS Prints Collection holds a diverse selection of broadsheets and pamphlets.

The terms broadsheet or broadside refer to both a format and a type of print: a sheet of paper printed on one side and not folded. They carried news, royal proclamations and public announcements. A pamphlet is a short printed work without a cover. Both formats were used for the quick distribution and exchange of information in the early modern period, a precursor to the tabloid newspaper. Before 1800, broadsheets and pamphlets were printed using hand-press technology and methods, and after 1800, new innovations in printing technology resulted in further diverse forms. Broadsides and pamphlets were the most common forms of print, but because of that were considered quite ephemeral in their own time and frequently destroyed.

The prints collection holds some rare and unusual broadsheets, such as the sixteenth century Vsvs tractatio gnomonis magni… with diagram of a Sundial, printed at Bologna, in 1576 (Inventory No. 14044), which was part of the Lewis Evans Collection.  Inventory No. 14492… Tavola del Levare, e tramontare del sole a ore oltramonane, dicharazion per l’orologio oltramontano detto anche alla Francese… (1789) is a broadsheet written by Alvese Contarini, the Doge of Venice, (1601-1684).


For natural philosophers and scientists, these formats could be passed around easily for annotation, stimulate discussion and spread ideas quickly. An example of this can be seen in a pamphlet entitled De Ordinatis quibusdam in Componentes dividendis (Inventory No. 13829). This has annotations by William Jones throughout, who noted on it that he  “had this paper from C. More on ye 12th of September.”, 1724.

The museum holds very important astronomical broadsheets by John Senex, Benjamin Martin and James Ferguson. By the late seventeenth into the early eighteenth century, the rise of consumer culture met with curiosity and increasing knowledge about how the natural world worked. The astronomical broadsheet became the chosen medium to communicate this to readers and it helped to acquire a broader audience for astronomy than for other sciences such as chemistry, as it could be accessed without paying to attend a lecture or buy a detailed book.

Senex was the first paper instrument maker to produce astronomical broadsheets for this readership, starting in 1712. The prices of his designs were varied: his 1712 ‘Solar system’ was priced at 2 and a half pence. The “Newtonian system of sun, planets and comets, a summary of the Solar Scheme” around 1723 was priced at a much cheaper 1 shilling. He included advertisements on his broadsides. Ferguson and Martin purchased Senex’s plates and models and established their own (individual) businesses in the Strand in London in the 1750s after Senex’s death. Both makers were interested in wheelwork and clock-making, and used rotulas to animate their explanations.

astronomical instrument

James Ferguson’s astronomical rotula [1760] could be used the distance between the sun and moon for a range of years between 1730 and 1800, and was accompanied by informative explanatory text, created using an engraved intaglio process. Benjamin Martin, a self-educated son of a farmer from Surrey, was the most prolific scientific author and one of the most notable lecturers on astronomy of the eighteenth century. His long and varied career included founding a school, publishing and lecturing on optics, electricity and experimental philosophy. One of his broadsides depicts the 1757 comet travelling across the sky. A longer collection narrative on astronomical broadsheets can be found here.

Most of the pamphlets and broadsheets in the collection from the nineteenth century are advertisements for newly patented instruments or lectures, such as Inventory No. 14387, Advertisement Pamphlet for Pedometer, Invented by William Fraser, London, 1780-1805, and Inventory No. 14291, Pamphlet. Vrai System du Monde par Demonville. France, 1833. [….]

Further reading: Alice Walters, ‘Scientific and medical books, 1695–1780’ in the Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 5: 1695–1830, Edited by Michael F. Suarez SJ and Michael L. Turner