Amongst all the plays, programs, and magazines, the Samuel French collection at Amherst College contains about thirty boxes worth of business records. On the surface, “business records” might seem like a dry and less interesting topic for exploration when compared to annotated author manuscripts or broadsides emblazoned with advertisements for “upcoming” productions (in the 1890’s). Truth be told though, these particular business records document a fascinating cross-section of the French company’s history.
At the turn of the 20th century, playwrights, theater managers, and literary agents conducted a huge portion of their business via letter. Securing copyright arrangements, publicizing new works, and finalizing contracts frequently took place through the post. In order to maximize the impact of their missives, lushly illustrated advertisements were often enclosed along with the letter. The ad for Dr. Nikola pictured above a note from playwright Oswald Brand, who sought to negotiate performances for multiple works through Samuel French’s New York office.
Some ingenious entrepreneurs took to integrating promotional material onto the very paper upon which they wrote. Playwright Albert H. Clarke listed his available plays, while also touting his personal acting chops – Strong Character Parts or Old Men – very prominently at the top of the page.
Mr. and Mrs. F. G. Kimberley devoted more than a third of their letter’s front page to three separate advertisements. Mr. Kimberley, a theatrical manager affiliated with the Royal Theatre in Wolverhampton, wrote to the French company to talk up two plays written by his wife, a prolific playwright. Both productions were deemed to be of “high standard” and guaranteed successes.
This incredibly colorful illustration accompanied letters from theatrical director Frank Adair, who worked with Samuel French to secure American performance rights for The Painted Woman. You’ll notice that the listed author of this play is Riada, which is an anagram Mr. Adair’s last name (Adair but with a dramatic flair!). The letterhead on this particular stationery took up almost half a sheet of paper, resulting in more writing on the back of the page than on the front.
And while these design elements are definitely charming and inventive, it’s also important to note that letters like the ones in the French business records – along other materials like ledgers and contracts and books full of newspaper clippings – do the important historical work of documenting performances, noting developments in copyright, and shedding light on the inner workings of the French company itself. All these words and numbers help paint a picture of international theatrical culture as it blossomed and evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The fanciful and bold letterheads that came into vogue during this time period basically served as an engaging first act before getting down to the real business of the text that followed.
Image 1: Advertisement for Dr. Nikola”included with a letter to Samuel French, Inc. from the play’s co-author Oswald Brand (1902)
Image 2: Letterhead on correspondence to Samuel French, Inc. from Albert H. Clarke, author of Wings of Wealth (1903)
Image 3: Letterhead on correspondence to Samuel French, Inc. from theatrical manager F.G. Kimberly who was affiliated with the Royal Theatre in Wolverhampton; Bound to Win; A Sister’s Sin were plays both written by his partner, Mrs. F.G. Kimberly (1903)
Image 4: Letterhead on correspondence to Samuel French, Inc. from Frank Adair, author of The Painted Woman (1902)
Credit for all images: The Samuel French Company Theater Collection, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.
This column is part of an ongoing series about the Samuel French archives at Amherst College. View the series here.