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Before radio and television, communities relied on print to spread the word. All levels of government controlled the conduct of and ensured the well-being of their citizens by publishing proclamations, regulations, and warnings on single sheets that were posted prominently for all to read. Such "broadsides" were also used by businesses to advertise their wares and services, by cultural groups to publicize their events, and by political candidates to persuade the electorate to vote for them. Postal rates, railway timetables and fares, shipping schedules, concert bills and lecture announcements—all appeared in broadside form. In the 18th and 19th centuries such announcements played an important role in both the Canadian printer's everyday business and in the day-to-day life of the average citizen. Hundreds of thousands of broadsides were printed and posted, yet most were discarded as soon as they had served their purpose. Those that survive provide a rare glimpse into the social, cultural and commercial life of early Canadians.
Canada's earliest surviving broadside was printed in 1752 to advertise the wares of Halifax merchants Nathans and Hart. Soap, candles, tobacco, butter, building supplies and barrels of mackerel are listed, giving us a snapshot of commercial life in Halifax in the mid-18th century.
Hardly larger than a page from a Bible and printed in just a few sizes of plain roman and italic type, the Nathans and Hart Price Current is a modest sheet. Only the column layout and a line of tiny ornaments draws the eye to this piece of printing and distinguishes it from a page in a book.
Figure 1: Commodity price list of Nathans and Hart. The earliest printed artifact relating to Jews in Canada, Halifax, 1752
Permission to digitise Price Current broadside courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston, Massachusetts.
In official broadsides during this period, large text type and a coat of arms were enough to draw attention and give authority:
Figure 2: Order requiring habitants and land owners to keep open an 8-foot wide road during the winter, and for travellers to keep to the right
Figure 3: Proclamation combatting French Revolutionary propaganda being spread by U.S. agents in Canada. Copies in English and French were printed and affixed to church doors and other prominent locations in Montréal, Québec, Three Rivers and parishes in the Province
Figure 4: Proclamation concerning land grants for Upper Canada Loyalists
Few examples of non-government broadsides from 18th-century Canada survive. Those that remain are unassuming in size, typography and layout.
Figure 5: Song-sheet for a church hymn, December 7, 1788
Figure 6: Advertisement for a marionette show, Montréal, 1792
Figure 7: Notice addressed to the voters of Basse-Ville, Quebec
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