Contents and Arrangement Expanded View

Collection Overview

Seymour, William, 1855-1933
William Seymour Family Papers
Manuscripts Division
Permanent URL:
1733-1967 (mostly 1870-1933)
89 boxes and 42 linear feet
Storage Note:
  • Firestone Library (scamss): Box 1-89


Consists primarily of the professional papers of prominent late 19th- and early 20th-century American theatrical stage manager and director William Seymour (1855-1933). The majority of papers include correspondence as well as numerous production-related materials, such as playscripts, promptbooks, and sheet music. Family members, particularly other well-known theater figures, such as Seymour's sister-in-law Fanny Davenport (1850-1898), are also represented in the collection through correspondence, production materials, ephemera, and newspaper clippings.

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

This collection consists primarily of the papers of William Seymour (1855-1933) that he created and collected throughout his lifelong involvement in the theater as an actor, stage manager, and director. The majority of Seymour's papers include correspondence with various prominent actors, directors, stage managers, and producers of the period, and numerous production-related materials, such as playscripts and promptbooks, 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. There is also some family correspondence; articles and essays that Seymour authored about his career and the theater more broadly; newspaper clippings; and a few personal documents.

Other Seymour and Davenport family members, particularly those who were prominent theater figures, such as Fanny Davenport (1850-1898), are also represented in the collection through correspondence, production materials, ephemera, and newspaper clippings.


The collection is organized into the following series:

Collection Creator Biography:

Seymour, William, 1855-1933

William Seymour was a well-known American theatrical stage manager and director whose 70-year career, spanning from the mid-19th to the early 20th century, coincided with theater's dominance in American popular culture. Born into an Irish-American theatrical family on December 19, 1855 in New York City, William was the only child of James Seymour (1823-1864) of Belfast, and Lydia Griffith Seymour (1830-1897) of Philadelphia, both well-known actors. His father, born James Cunningham, and popularly billed as "The Irish Comedian," immigrated to the United States in 1835, taking the name of his then-manager.

By 1858, Seymour's parents were engaged at the Varieties Theatre in New Orleans under the management of Lawrence Barrett, where they met many prominent theater personalities, including Edwin Forrest, E.L. Davenport, Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Adams, Joseph Jefferson, and Charlotte Cushman. Seymour remained close with many of these. Seymour maintained close ties with many of these figures throughout his career. It was there, at the age of seven, that Seymour made his official acting debut. There, he also played Hendrick to Joseph Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle.

James Seymour died in New Orleans in September 1864. Several months later, Lydia Seymour left New Orleans with her son for New York where Seymour remained for a time with Joseph Jefferson's company. 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 until Forrest's last performance on April 2, 1872 as Richelieu with Seymour as François.

Seymour began working as 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 from 1875 to 1877. Seymour was then engaged by John McCullough for his stock company at the California Theatre in San Francisco from 1877 to 1879. It was in California where Seymour befriended producer, director, and playwright David Belasco.

At the end of 1879 at the age of 24, Seymour returned to Boston to become 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. (Seymour worked at Madison Square Theatre in New York for a brief period from 1881 to 1882.)

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 (1814-1877) and sister to Fanny Davenport (1850-1898), 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 in Boston (1897-1898) and for Maurice Grau at the Metropolitan Opera House (1900-1901). 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 beginning around 1902. He was replaced in this position after Frohman's death in 1915, but continued to work as a regular director for two more years before resigning.

Outside of his full-time work as a stage manager and director, Seymour was very involved in the theater profession in other ways; for example, often writing editorials, articles, and opinion pieces about current theatrical topics in New York and Boston newspapers primarily. He was also on the board of trustees of the Actors Fund of America, a charitable organization supporting performers and behind-the-scenes workers in performing arts and entertainment. In 1917, Seymour stage managed the J. Hartley Manners special production of "Out There" that included an all-star company, including such George M. Cohan, Laurette Taylor, George Arliss and James Hackett. All of those involved donated their time to play one-night benefits in seventeen cities to raise over $600,000 for the American Red Cross war effort. After the tour President Wilson invited Seymour along with the rest of the company to Washington to receive medals for their contribution.

Seymour's remaining active years in the theatre were spent directing, managing, and acting in shows for various organizations and producers, such as George C. Tyler. He also lectured and directed community and high school theater groups near his home in South Duxbury, Massachusetts and contributed a special interest column called "Notes and Queries" to the Boston Evening Transcript. Seymour officially retired from the theater in 1928. He died a few years later in Plymouth, Massachusetts on October 3, 1933.

The following provides some genealogical information about the Seymour and Davenport family members represented in this collection:

William Seymour (1855-1933), son of actors of James Seymour (1823-1864) of Belfast, and Lydia Griffith Seymour (1830-1897) of Philadelphia, married May Marian Caroline Davenport (1856-1927), daughter of the well-known tragedian Edward Loomis Davenport (1814-1877) and Fanny Elizabeth Vining (1829-1891).

E.L. Davenport and Fanny Vining Davenport's other children included: Fanny Lily Gypsy Davenport (1850-1898), a renowned actress of her day, who married Edwin H. Price (1848-1929) and William Melbourne MacDowell (1856-1941); Blanche Maria Davenport (1851-1937); Edward C. W. Davenport (1855-1855); Florence Cecilia Davenport (1858-1937); Adele C. Davenport (1860-1871); actor Edgar Loomis Davenport (1862-1918) who married Lucy R. Davenport (1868-1918); and actor Harry George Bryant Davenport (1866-1949).

William Seymour and May Davenport Seymour had several children. Their oldest child was May Davenport Seymour (1883-1967), founder and curator of the Theater and Music Collection at the Museum of the City of New York, who married William S. Eckert (1870-1929). May and William had two children: actress Anne Seymour (1909-1988), and Edward William Eckert (1913-1988). William Seymour and May Davenport Seymour's other children included: Hazel A Seymour (b. 1887); Edward Loomis Davenport Seymour (1888-1956), horticultural editor, of New York; Fanny Lydia Davenport Seymour (1891-1968) who married Princeton professor Richard Montgomery Field (1885-1961), the son of Richard Montgomery Field (1834-1902), owner of the Boston Museum; Leah A. Seymour (b. 1892); James William Davenport Seymour (1895-1985) who worked as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers and at the American Embassy in London as secretary and press attaché for Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.; and John Russell Davenport Seymour (1897-1986) who married Abby Lewis.

Collection History


The main portion of the papers were donated by William Seymour's five children, May Davenport Seymour, Edward Loomis Davenport Seymour, Fanny Lydia Davenport Seymour Field, James William Davenport Seymour, and John Russell Davenport Seymour, in 1936 . Additional materials, specifically correspondence between William Seymour and his daughter, May Davenport Seymour, were donated by William Seymour's granddaughter Anne Seymour in 1971 ; other materials may have been donated by William Seymour's daughter, Mary Davenport Seymour, who served as curator of the Theatre Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, as well as by others closely associated with Seymour.

Custodial History

Many materials that had been part of William Seymour's original collection, including papers, artwork, and objects related to New York City theatrical productions, were presented to the Museum of the City of New York in 1936 as Seymour's oldest daughter, May Davenport Seymour, was the curator of the Museum's Theater Collection.

The correspondence that forms part this collection was transferred from the Theater Collection to the Manuscripts Division in July 1950 (AM 14099).


During 2015 reprocessing, materials relating to the acquisition of the collection in 1936 were removed and added to the collection file. Also, non-related materials with definitive provenance were removed from the collection to be integrated into collections of the same provenance or made into separate collections.

Since this collection was acquired in 1936, many materials, particularly photographs, playbills, playscripts, artwork, and objects, have been dispersed and integrated into form-based collections within what was the Manuscripts Theatre Collection as well as the Rare Books Theatre Collection, for example, the 19th-century Playbooks Collection (TC023) that's currently described in the Princeton University Library catalog, and the Graphic Arts Collection.

Processing Information

Basic conservation work to some of the sheet music was completed in 2008.

This collection was processed in 1999.

Reprocessed by Faith Charlton in 2015 with assistance from Nicholas Williams '2015.

Finding aid updated by Faith Charlton in 2015. Folder inventory prepared by Nicholas Williams '2015 and Kristine Gift (GS).

Much of the organization by document type that was established when the collection was originally processed was maintained during 2015 reprocessing.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. For instances beyond Fair Use, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

William Seymour Family Papers; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Firestone Library
One Washington Road
Princeton, NJ 08544, USA
(609) 258-3184
Storage Note:
  • Firestone Library (scamss): Box 1-89

Find More

Related Materials

Fanny Davenport Papers (TC108)

Separated Materials

Since this collection was acquired in 1936, many materials, particularly photographs, playbills, playscripts, artwork, and objects, have been dispersed and integrated into form-based collections within what was the Manuscripts Theatre Collection as well as the Rare Books Theatre Collection, for example, the 19th-century Playbooks Collection (TC023) that's currently described in the Princeton University Library catalog, and the Graphic Arts Collection.


Jensen, Mary Ann. "The William Seymour Theater Collection: A Curator's View." In Princeton University Library Chronicle 68 no. 1 (Autumn 1986). Miller, Ralph Earl. "William Seymour American Director." PhD diss. Wayne State University, 1973.

Subject Terms:
Actors -- United States -- 19th century.
Actors -- United States -- 20th century.
Actresses -- United States -- 19th century.
Actresses -- United States -- 20th century.
Stage managers -- United States -- 19th century -- Sources.
Stage managers -- United States -- 20th century -- Sources.
Theater -- United States -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
Theater -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
Theatrical producers and directors -- United States -- 19th century -- Sources.
Theatrical producers and directors -- United States -- 20th century -- Sources.
Theatrical productions--Louisiana--New Orleans--19th century--Sources.
Theatrical productions--Massachusetts--Boston--19th century--Sources.
Theatrical productions--Massachusetts--Boston--20th century--Sources.
Theatrical productions--New York (State)--New York--19th century--Sources.
Theatrical productions--New York (State)--New York--20th century--Sources.
Genre Terms:
Sheet music.
Stage props.
Boston Museum (1847-1903)
Boston Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts
Abbey, Schoeffel & Grau
Varieties Theatre (New Orleans, La.)
Tremont Theatre (Boston, Mass.)
Davenport family
Seymour family
Davenport, Edward Loomis, 1815-1877
Davenport, Fanny, 1850-1898
Frohman, Charles, 1860-1915
Seymour, James William Davenport, 1895-
Seymour, May Davenport, 1883-1967