Program or Playbill?

By the turn of the twentieth century, the modern vaudeville program or playbill was established throughout the United States. What is the difference between playbills and programs? Sometimes none, but often a playbill describes a long, narrow listing of acts with a short description, printed on one side of the paper. A cheap throwaway, like you see here. A program is a little classier—a folded piece printed on both sides; maybe even a booklet. That was the form that survived to today—when you go to a theater today, you are handed a program, not a playbill.

Both versions were cheap. Consequently, few were saved, even for souvenirs, and there are very few left today, even though there must have been hundreds of thousands printed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In spite of their rarity, the public is uninterested in them, so they sell very for almost nothing. I buy them at antique shows or on line for $2-10.

I want to buy more vaudeville playbills, but can’t find any. If you come across one, please let me know!

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Published in: on August 31, 2010 at 9:57 am  Comments (9)  
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  1. I came across your site looking for flyers for the old New York Vaudeville shows. I’m researching some family genealogy and looking for a group of acrobats called the Flying Garganis. Would you happen to have any playbills that include them? If so, it would be a heck of a find to get an image scan.

  2. I wish I did! What fun to have some vaudevillians on your family tree! I checked my reference books for any mention of the Flying Garganis, but no luck. There were so many, and for so many years . . .

  3. It turns out they also performed under the name Yoscary. New information on my end. I love your site!

    • Sorry, no information on Yoscary either. Good luck!

    • Those were my relatives.

  4. Hi, I’m looking for a program, playbill or any other information about an act called the Kasewell Sisters (sometimes spelled Kaswell). Two of my Great Aunts were in the act in 1920 and 1930’s?

    Thanks in advance

  5. Sorry, none of my playbills mention that act. A quick check on the INternet revealed only one hit for Kaswell Sisters, which I presume you also found, in a book by James Baumlin, THE GILIOZ THEATRE BEAUTIFUL, page 39 where it says the three sisters were “a thrilling ring, web and trapeze act.” (By the way, that doesn’t mean they were all really sisters; many times people billed themselves as family or brother/sister or whatever, and they weren’t.) Seems they were more circus than stage, which may be why you’re not seeing them on vaudeville playbills. BUt really, vaudeville playbills are so few and far between that NOT finding them doesn’t mean much. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful. What remarkable women your great-aunts must have been!

    • I have found 20+ references to the Kasewell (Kaswell) sisters on NewspaperArchive.com. Usually an add for an upcoming performance at a local theatre or at a fair. TWO of them were half sisters, same mother, different father and the third was the older daughter of another sister – I just found that out.

      Thanks for the reply

      • Wow, What luck! I wasn’t aware of that site. I just bookmarked it–I can use that in the future. Thanks for the tip!


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