The Seymour Family and American Theater History

The William Seymour Family Papers (TC011) were donated to the Princeton University Library in 1936 to be the nucleus of the Library’s Theater Collection, originally called the William Seymour Theater Collection. William Seymour (1855-1933) was a prominent American theatrical stage manager, director, and actor, whose seventy-year career is documented in the papers. Seymour was born into an Irish-American theatrical family, the only child of well-known actors James Seymour (1823-64) and Lydia Griffith Seymour (1830-97), who by 1858 were engaged at the Varieties Theatre in New Orleans under the management of Lawrence Barrett. It was there that Seymour began his acting career, notably playing Hendrick to Joseph Jefferson’s Rip Van Winkle. Seymour continued to work as an actor for the next several years while gradually moving into stage management. Beginning in 1869, he worked at Edwin Booth’s Theatre; and in autumn 1871 moved to Boston’s Old Globe Theatre, where he played alongside Edwin Forrest. He became a touring actor and stage manager, first with Lawrence Barrett’s acting troupe from 1872 to 1875, and then as assistant stage manager under A.M. Palmer at Union Square Theatre in New York City from 1875 to 1877. Seymour was then engaged by John McCullough for his stock company at the California Theatre in San Francisco from 1877 until 1879 when he returned to Boston to serve as stage manager for Richard M. Field’s Boston Museum. Remaining there for almost a decade, he gradually took on the responsibilities of an artistic director, occasionally also acting in productions.

In 1882, Seymour married a member of Boston Museum’s company, May Marian Caroline Davenport (1856-1927) ,with whom he had several children. May also came from a theatrical family. She was the daughter of the prominent tragedian E. L. (Edward Loomis) Davenport (1814-77) and sister to Fanny Davenport (1850-98), one of the reigning American actresses of the day. After leaving the Boston Museum, Seymour worked as manager to several producing organizations, including Abbey, Schoeffel & Grau (1889-1897), working principally at the new Tremont Theatre, Boston (1897-98) and for Maurice Grau from 1900 to 1901 at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York—that is, the Old Met, located at 1411 Broadway, between 39th and 40th streets. From about 1897 to 1900, Seymour also worked as an independent producer-manager with E. H. Sothern, Julia Marlowe, and Maude Adams. Seymour’s longest and most well-known association was with Charles Frohman and the Empire Theatre in New York where he worked as general stage director from 1902 to 1915. Seymour’s remaining active years in the theater were spent directing, managing, and acting in shows for various organizations and producers, such as George C. Tyler.

Contemporary accounts of the well-publicized donation of Seymour’s massive collection by his children to Princeton in 1936 note that the collection included a significant number of files of correspondence, photographs, and other personal material as well as about eight hundred bound volumes, three thousand play scripts and prompt books, many heavily annotated, several thousand playbills, and a large number of programs, clippings, magazines, production notebooks, musical scores, and various stage mementos. The collection would have included even more materials; however, papers, artwork, and objects related to New York City theatrical productions were presented to the Museum of the City of New York as Seymour’s oldest daughter, May Davenport Seymour, was the curator of its Theater Collection. Moreover, since this collection was acquired almost eighty years ago, many materials—particularly particularly photographs, playbills, play scripts, artwork, and objects—have been dispersed and integrated into form-based collections within the former Theater Collection; the Rare Book Division, such as the 19th-century Playbooks Collection (TC023), currently described in the Princeton University Library catalog; and the Graphic Arts Collection.

As it now stands, the William Seymour Family Papers (TC011) consists primarily of Seymour’s correspondence with various prominent actors, directors, stage managers, and producers of the period, and numerous production-related materials, such as playscripts and prompt books, notes, diaries, scene sketches, sheet music, ephemera and memorabilia among others. The scope is principally Seymour’s connections with the New York, Boston, and New Orleans stage, though other cities are also represented. Other materials include some family correspondence; articles and essays that Seymour authored about his career and about the theater; newspaper clippings; and a few personal documents. Among Seymour and Davenport family members who were active in the theater, Fanny Davenport (1850-98) is probably the most important. Correspondence, production materials, ephemera, and newspaper clippings document her career. Researchers interested in Fanny Davenport will likely also be interested in viewing the Fanny Davenport Collection (TC108).

The William Seymour Family Papers (TC011) is one of numerous theater and film-related collections that were incorporated into the Manuscripts Division. Strengths of these collections include 19th-century British and 20th-century American theater, as well as popular entertainment, such as the circus, minstrel shows, and movies. Click here to see a comprehensive list of these collections. For information about using the William Seymour Family Papers (TC011), researchers can consult the online finding aid or contact

William Seymour

Fanny Davenport
Fanny Davenport