Collection of theatrical correspondence and ephemera

Collection History

Identified by the prices (in English coin) purchasers paid for them, the "penny plain" and "twopence coloured" theatrical portraits here depict renowned actors Joseph Grimaldi, Edmund Kean, Charles and Fanny Kemble, Madame Vestris and William Macready, among others.

William Worthen Appleton has collected documents and books on theatre for most of his life. A respected scholar, he taught theatre courses at Columbia University from the 1940's through the late 1970's. Professor Appleton has written widely in his field including books on Beaumont and Fletcher, Charles Macklin, and Madame Vestris. The toy theatre prints form part of a larger donation in 2001 from his extensive collection, of manuscript letters from theatre personalities-chiefly British-such as Edward Gordon Craig, David Garrick, Henry Irving, the Keans and Kembles, Sarah Siddons, and G.B. Shaw, to which Professor Appleton continues to add.


The toy theatre prints in the Appleton Collection are English. By 1811 William West of London was printing sheets of stage characters for purchasers to colour, paste on cardboard and cut out, though others treaured them as individual portraits. Single prints in black ink on white paper were called "penny plains" while those with color added by the seller were the "twopence coloured." West's first subject was Joseph Grimaldi in "Mother Goose," a role that brought him fame and lifelong success on the stage.

In "A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured," the title of a chapter by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) in his Memories and Portraits, the author recounts his childhood experience of gazing longingly through a store window at sets of prints for successful plays with renowned actors, and his first acquisition.

Related Resources

Baldwin, Peter. Toy Theatres of the World. (1992)

Garde, Georg. Theatergeschichte im Spiegel der Kindertheater: Eine Studie in populärer Graphik. (1971)

NYPL. Guide to the William Appleton Collection of Theatrical Correspondence and Ephemera, 1697-1930.

Speaight, George. The History of the English Toy Theatre. (1946, rev. ed. [1969])

Stevenson, Robert Louis. "A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured." In his Memories and portraits. (1887)

Tudor-Craig, Pamela. "Times & Tides - History of Toy Theatres." History Today (May 1997) <>

Wilson, Albert Edward. Penny Plain, Two Pence Coloured; A History of the Juvenile Drama. [c1932]

Collection Data

The William Appleton collection consists of letters, handwritten manuscripts, "penny plains" and "two-pence coloured" materials, which were small portraits of actors created for the toy theater trade, a once-popular form of home entertainment. The collection encompasses the late 17th century up through the mid-20th century, although the bulk of the material falls between the mid-18th century and the mid-19th century. The oldest item is a letter from actress Elizabeth Barry to a Lady Lisbourn, dated October 25, 1697. The latest item is a letter from playwright George Bernard Shaw to a J. T. Grien, dated November 28, 1930. The collection contains many letters from prominent theatrical figures, primarily of the English stage, including Ira Aldridge, Dion Boucicault, Edward Gordon Craig, David Garrick, Sir Henry Irving, Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready, Bernard Shaw, Sarah Siddons, Dame Ellen Terry, and others. Also included are black and white portraits known as "penny plains," and color portraits known as "two-pence coloured," depicting actors and actresses of the day in their best known roles. These images were intended for home use in puppet theater-type settings, and most date from the early to mid-1800s, though some date as far back as 1799.
Appleton, William Worthen (Creator)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1697 - 1930
Library locations
Billy Rose Theatre Division
Shelf locator: *T-Mss 2001-065
Theater -- England -- History -- 18th century
Theater -- England -- History -- 19th century
Biographical/historical: William Worthen Appleton, theater scholar, author, and collector, was born in New York on December 31, 1915. He graduated from Harvard in 1938, earned a Masters Degree from Columbia University in 1939 and a P.H.D. in 1949. He taught at Columbia from the 1940s until the late 1970s, and was appointed Professor Emeritus in 1976. Appleton has written and edited works on theater, primarily the English theater of the 18th and 19th centuries. His works as author include A CYCLE OF CATHAY (1951), BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER: A CRITICAL STUDY (1956), CHARLES MACKLIN: AN ACTOR'S LIFE (1960), and MADAME VESTRIS AND THE LONDON STAGE (1974). Works edited include THE CARELESS HUSBAND (1966), THE PROMPTER: A THEATRICAL PAPER (1734-1736) (1966), and LETTERS TO DOROTHY (1988).
Physical Description
Extent: 2.25 lf. (8 boxes)
Type of Resource
Still image
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b15358301
MSS Unit ID: 21600
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 96e19f20-c610-012f-760e-58d385a7bc34
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