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Chicago Theater Collection-Historical Programs

Identifier: spe-t00163

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of programs, playbills, stagebills, newspaper clippings and other material on theatrical productions in Chicago. The earliest piece is a playbill for Pizarro, which played at Rice’s Theatre in 1848. While the bulk of the collection covers the years 1880 to 1960, programs are added for historical venues in the Loop on an ongoing basis.


  • Majority of material found within 1848-2010

Language of Materials

Materials primarily in English. Few materials in German.

Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Please consult staff to determine ability to reuse materials from collection.

Biographical / Historical

The first professional theater production in Chicago took place at the Sauganash Hotel in October 1837, the same year that Chicago was incorporated as a city. By the latter half of the 19th century Chicago had become a popular theater town visited by many of the greatest American and European actors. Both grand auditoriums and smaller stages were built, many in the Loop. These theaters played host to not only straight plays, but also musicals, operas, vaudeville, burlesque, ballet and minstrel shows. Theater managers advertised their shows with playbills and handbills that were one-sided documents posted around town and passed out to potential theater goers. Playbills announced upcoming attractions and productions at the theater and remained a popular method of advertising throughout the mid-1800s. Toward the end of the 19th century theaters began to produce multipage programs that included additional production information such as full cast and scene lists as well as extensive third-party advertising. For an overview of early theater in Chicago, please consult Richard Christiansen’s book, A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago (Northwestern University Press, 2004).


48.5 Linear Feet (in 82 boxes plus 4 oversize folders)


The Chicago Theater Collection-Historical Programs contains programs, playbills and newspaper clippings from more than 5,000 productions at Chicago’s historical theaters. More than 2,000 playbills and programs of local dramas, comedies, melodramas, operas, vaudeville performances and other events between the 1840s to the 1920s are available online in the Chicago Theater Collection-Historical Programs Digital Collection.


The programs are arranged alphabetically by theater then chronologically. When the exact date for a production is unknown, the date is listed as the last day of the known month or year.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was transferred to the Special Collections and Preservation Division from what is now the Arts and Music Department of the Chicago Public Library. Additions to the collection are made on an ongoing basis.

Related Materials

  • Chicago Theater Collection-Historical Programs Digital Collection
  • Chicago Theater Collection-Historical Scrapbooks
  • E.B. Gould Collection
  • Chicago Theater Collection-Miscellaneous Programs
  • CPL’s Art and Music Department

Guide to the Chicago Theater Collection-Historical Programs
Original author unknown. Updated and ingested into ArchivesSpace by Sarah Zimmerman, 2021.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Revision Statements

  • August 2021: Edited by Sarah Zimmerman in preparation for upload into ArchivesSpace. Box and folder numbers added.

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Unit at Harold Washington Library Center Repository

Harold Washington Library Center, 9th Floor
Chicago Public Library
400 S. State Street
Chicago IL 60605 United States
(312) 747-4875