Pro Research Tip: Perpetual Calendars

So in honor of the change to 2014 and the fact that this afternoon I changed out my office wall calendar, I'm going to tell you about the magic of a perpetual calendar.  And I'm going to use it as an opportunity to tell you about our newly processed RI Theatre Collection and the kinds of activities that take place when archivists get materials organized and accessible for researchers.  

While arranging theatre materials, I can across some handbills from the Theatre Comique in Providence.   They are in pretty rough shape since they were printed on cheap newsprint and have suffered some serious acidic disintegration.  First step was to gently unfold them and place them flat on acid-free paper and in an acid-free folder.  Second step was to describe what they are and that entailed figuring out when they were printed.   I'm not sure of the reason, but it seems that theatres regularly omit the year of the event from their publications.  I'm not sure if this is intentional or just because theatre managers aren't thinking with a historian's hat on, but nevertheless, the handbills and programs often include day of the week, month and date but not year.  This is where the perpetual calendar comes in!   

Basically a perpetual calendar is a calendar that is valid for many years - both into the past and into the future.  There are many designs and they can be quite intimidating at first.   This blog post walks you through how to use a perpetual calendar from the Library of Congress and is actually pretty easy to use.   So in my example case for the Theatre Comique, I knew from the handbill that it was advertising shows for Monday, April 5th.  Using the perpetual calendar, that date combination happened on the following years:  1858, 1869, 1875, 1886, 1897, 1909, 1915, 1927 and so on.  Now comes the rest of the detective work to narrow it down.  

I turned to Roger Brett's Temples of Illusion - a standard of Providence theatre history.  He tells us that this theatre was considered quite risque and was known as a variety and burlesque house.  He says, "Over at the Theatre Comique, where leg shows held sway, there were no social pretensions at all. Much to the horror of the temperance movement, beer was peddled in the aisles and smoking was allowed throughout the house. If a lady were seen entering the place she would be called a lady no more....It was a hot and stuffy place, where tobacco smoke was thick, where tobacco juice covered the floor in pools, and where collars were rare and men and boys sat with their coats off." (pg. 61)  The theatre opened in 1874 and was destroyed by fire in 1888.  So that narrows down the two choices of our handbill production to either 1875 or 1886.  Can we narrow it further?  

I then used the city directories to identify the business advertisements.  In the top right column, I looked up "Morton, the Photographer" and while he shows up in directories for both years, the address of 75 Westminster is in 1888 and the earlier date has a different address. Thus we can conclude, with the help of the perpetual calendar and some research, that our handbill is from Monday, April 5th, 1888.    




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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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