Today in History

Today in History: February 20

All the World's a Stage

Joe Jefferson
Joe Jefferson [seated in front], Palm Beach, Florida, circa 1904.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920
Jefferson died in Palm Beach in 1905.

Comic actor Joseph Jefferson, one of the best-known American stage personalities of the nineteenth century, died in Palm Beach in 1905. Born into a family of actors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 20, 1829, Jefferson achieved one of his first major successes in 1858 in Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin. He is best remembered for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle in an Americanized version of a German folk tale popularized by Washington Irving in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819-20). Jefferson took this play on the road for years after he originated the role, and became known throughout the United States for his portrayal.

Joe Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle
Joe Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle,
Napoleon Sarony, 1869.
History of the American West, 1860-1920: Photographs from the Collection of the Denver Public Library

The first American theaters were built in the eighteenth century--in Williamsburg, Virginia, (1716) and in Charleston, South Carolina (1730). Many theater groups of that period were itinerant. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, there were many theaters throughout the country and American actors were making a name for themselves on both sides of the Atlantic. Three of the most famous of Jefferson’s contemporaries were Edwin Booth, son of native Englishman Junius Brutus Booth and brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth—himself an actor of some note, Charlotte Cushman, and Edwin Forrest,  who was known for his vocal power and athleticism on stage.

Edwin Booth
Edwin Booth, Seated, Facing Camera, Bust,
D. F. Barry,
[1897 or 1898].
History of the American West, 1860-1920: Photographs from the Collection of the Denver Public Library

Junius Booth, half-length portrait
Junius Booth, Father of John Wilkes Booth, in Theatrical Costume, studio of Mathew Brady, circa 1844-1852.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864

Charlotte Cushman
Charlotte Cushman, Half-length Vignetted Portrait, Facing Right,
[ca. 1855].
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864

Edwin Forrest, head-and-shoulders portrait
Edwin Forrest, studio of Mathew Brady, circa 1844-1860.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864

The Library of Congress is rich in materials on the performing arts.