Forbes Theatre Handbills

Sometimes when you work in an archive you find undiscovered treasures when you least expect it.  There is ALWAYS a backlog of uncataloged materials in every archive and my team of trusty volunteers and I are in process of getting our backlog identified and ready to be cataloged.  Last week one of the volunteers who has been working on sorting and identifying original materials from some clippings files "discovered" an little treasure trove of theatre handbills.  Clearly, they were known about by the librarian who accessioned them and filed them, but because the contents were never cataloged and the files aren't often accessed, it's likely been quite awhile since they were "discovered" last.  

What we found were six advertising handbills of the Forbes Theatre on Westminster Street in Providence from 1855-1856.  Despite some foxing and tears, they are in surprisingly good condition - a result most likely because they were printed on rag paper rather than on newsprint as they would've been just 20-30 years later.  

A quick bit of research and I found a basic history of Forbes Theatre.  It stood at 129 Westminster Street at the corner of Arcade Street right on our current Kennedy Plaza.  It was built in 1853 following a fire which brought down the Providence Museum which had previously occupied the spot.  The Forbes Theatre opened in 1854.  Sadly, the Forbes itself was destroyed by fire just five years later in 1858 and replaced by yet another stage in the Phoenix Building.  It was in the Phoenix that John Wilkes Booth performed in 1863.

You can read more about William Forbes who managed the theatre and the various productinos in History of the Providence Stage, 1762-1891 by George O. Willard (Rhode Island News Co., 1891) in the Rhode Island Collection.   

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Kate Wells

As the Rhode Island Collection librarian at Providence Public Library, Kate Wells helps bring Rhode Island history to light by increasing access to the collection and providing research assistance to patrons. In the “Rhode Island Red” blog, Kate showcases interesting materials from the collection, provides research tip & techniques, and highlights local history. Feel free to contact her if you have any Rhode Island related questions; she is always happy to help. Email:


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