What is a Broadside?

Mary McMahon

A broadside, or broadsheet, is a form of written communication which is typically designed to be posted in a public place. Traditionally, a broadside contains a mixture of text and images, with a large line of primary text to attract the eye of a viewer. During the heyday of the broadside, from the 1600s to the early twentieth century, the visual medium was used to convey information, issue proclamations, make revolutionary statements, or publish the lyrics to poetry and songs. Some artists still create broadsides, although they have been largely supplanted by glossy posters in the world of advertising.

Broadsides may be used to spread propaganda.
Broadsides may be used to spread propaganda.

Typically, a broadside is printed with movable type on a letterpress on over sized paper. The broadside is composed to create a strong visual impact, usually with several lines of large text such as “Attention Workingmen!” which will attract the eye. When the reader steps closer to the broadside, smaller fonts convey information or lay out a manifesto. Some traditional broadsides were also illustrated with small, simple engravings. While the broadside may be highly artistic, it is also designed to be easily readable, and broadsides were usually written in simple, clear language so that people from any educational or class background could read them.

While the broadside may be highly artistic, it is also designed to be easily readable.
While the broadside may be highly artistic, it is also designed to be easily readable.

Typical uses for a broadside include informational sheets about people wanted by the authorities, official government proclamations, special editions of newspapers, revolutionary propaganda, parodies, poetry, and songs. In the United States, the most famous broadside in history is the first widely distributed version of the Declaration of Independence, which was printed on a single over-sized sheet of paper so that it could be posted in public for all to see. In many cities and towns, a large public space was set aside for the display of broadsides so that citizens could collect information and read about issues of interest in one central location.

A broadside is distinguished from a poster because it is usually packed with information. For example, in the late twentieth century, when posters largely replaced broadsides, a poster advertising a strike or protest would contain images and a small section of text outlining who is protesting and when. In a broadside, the majority of the space on the paper would be filled with text, explaining the grievances of the marchers and the history of the movement as well as the date and time of the protest. A broadside is like a small encapsulation of an issue, while a poster assumes at least topical understanding.

In modern art, the broadside is sometimes used as an artistic medium. Some poets produce broadsides of their work, while other artists use the broadside to issue manifestos and display their typography skills. In the instance of modern art, the broadside may be minimalist, with a small amount of text, often in a variety of colors. The idea behind the modern art broadside is visual impact and an artistic statement, rather than the conveyance of information.

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