After working with various publishing concerns in New York, Samuel French set out on his own and began to produce “French’s American Drama” in 1854. The ensuing popularity of French’s catalog spurred an expansion of business--including the acquisition of Thomas Hailes Lacy’s London-based dramatic publishing company--that helped establish the Samuel French Company as one of the most prominent international theatrical publishing houses in existence. The publication of thousands of different plays, particularly those in the widely-available French's Standard Drama and French's Minor Drama series, made theatre accessible to individuals and communities all over the world. The French Company’s involvement with the development of international copyright law, their widespread marketing of scripts, and their encouragement of amateur theatrical productions all contributed to a well-respected and longstanding presence in the publishing field. Over one hundred and fifty years after being founded, the Samuel French Company continues to make thousands of plays and musicals available to performers, directors, scholars, and theatrical enthusiasts.
Cover for unidentified play (ca. 1870’s), in Samuel French Company Theater Collection, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library
Shortly after graduating from Amherst College in 1934, M. Abbott Van Nostrand (1911-1995) started working in the mailroom at the Samuel French company. He quickly rose through the ranks and eventually presided as the company’s president from 1952 until his retirement in 1990. Knowing the immense value of his corporation’s history and output, Van Nostrand approached his alma mater in 1964, offering an initial gift of Samuel French records and publications to the Amherst College Library. Over the next fifty years, the library accepted more than four hundred and fifty linear feet of unprocessed material including thousands of plays and publications, photographs, costume design illustrations, theatrical ephemera, and documentation of the Samuel French Corporation’s business transactions dating back to the mid 1800’s.
A portion of the Samuel French Company Theater Collection held in the Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library
In 2014, the Archives received a “Hidden Collections” grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources in order to process a vast portion of the French Collection materials that date from 1794-2012. With processing and an extensive finding aid due to be completed in late summer of 2016, the collection will be of incalculable research value to anyone who wishes learn more about the history of performance and theatrical publishing in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The collection’s strengths are in the following areas:
Here is a highlight of materials found in the collection during this project’s initial assessment phase:
Publicity still for “Cry Havoc” play (ca. 1950’s), in Samuel French Theater Collection, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library
Existing, partial finding aids for sections of the collection may be found here:
Be aware that these legacy finding aids are in no way definitive in terms of scope and content. They will eventually be expanded, revised, and then incorporated with the whole collection’s more-inclusive finding aid, which is currently being developed.
Processing of the collection is ongoing and research requests will be considered on case-by-case basis, with access depending on availability of materials.