The Samuel French Company Theater Collection

The History of Samuel French as Publisher

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.

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Cover for unidentified play (ca. 1870’s), in Samuel French Company Theater Collection, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library

M. Abbott Van Nostrand Brings Samuel French Materials to Amherst College

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. 

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A portion of the Samuel French Company Theater Collection held in the Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library

The Samuel French Theatre Collection Today

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:

  • Samuel French corporate history, including correspondence, ledgers, and press clippings
  • Plays published by the Samuel French company
  • 20th century play manuscripts by authors under contract with the Samuel French Company
  • 19th and 20th century acting editions (primarily Augustin Daly and T. H. Lacy) and “sides” (i.e., sheets containing the lines and cues for a single theatrical role)
  • Musical scores and sheet music
  • Playbills, publicity materials, theatrical magazines, and performance documentation

Here is a highlight of materials found in the collection during this project’s initial assessment phase:

  • Galley proofs and pre-publication play manuscripts by a host of playwrights including August Wilson, Mindy Kaling, Danai Gurira, Neil Simon, Wendy Wasserstein, Kenneth Lonergan, David Mamet, Joyce Carol Oates, David Rabe, and Linda Barry
  • Books of correspondence between the Samuel French company and regional production companies
  • Playbills for over a hundred years’ worth of performances from all over the world
  • Ledger books that document royalties, performance rights, and copyright arrangements for plays performed in the United States and abroad
  • An audio recording of a director’s seminar with Julian Beck (founder of the Living Theatre) from 1961, recorded at the Sheridan Square playhouse
  • Ephemera and theatrical documentation of all kinds including ticket stubs, broadsides for performances in the 1890’s, and set design schematics
  • Correspondence between T. Henry French (Samuel French’s son and manager of French’s US branch) and the architects McKim, Mead, and White regarding the construction and design of Madison Square Garden II
  • Extensive collections of Cumberland’s British Theatre and Duncombe’s British Theatre play editions (later published by T. H. Lacy and then Samuel French), published between 1814 and the 1860’s which represent almost 200 different authors and a yet uncounted number of productions
  • Augustin Daly acting editions from the 1880’s and 1890’s, programs from productions at Daly’s Theatre, contracts between Daly and various entities conveying copyright for publications and performances
  • A collection of bound volumes taken from the library of the Green Club Room, an early 20th century theatrical “fraternity” (social club) from New York. The librarian for the organization was Aubrey Boucicault (the son of famed actor and playwright Dion Boucicault)
  • Scrapbooks containing documentation of many amateur theatrical productions in the late 19th/early 20th century
  • Promotional photography from plays in the 1920’s-1950’s and broadside advertisements for performances in the 1890’s and early 1900’s

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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:

The M. Abbott Van Nostrand Theatre Collection Music Holdings

The M. Abbott Van Nostrand Theatre Collection, Samuel French Company Theatre Scrapbooks, 1885-1947

Samuel French Company Business Records 1847-1992 (bulk ca 1880-1920)

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.