The Mitchell's collection of almost 3,000 single sheets or slips from the Glasgow shop called The Poet's Box, founded and owned by Matthew Leitch, is the largest collection of songsheet broadsides from a single publisher in Britain. Typically, the text of each broadside is prefaced with the following: "Copies of this highly popular song can only be had in the Poet's Box, 80, London Street, Glasgow. All kinds of music supplied to order on moderate terms." Another address sometimes given is ‘The Poet's Box', No. 6 St Andrew's Lane, Glasgow.
Broadsides were single sheets, printed on one side of poor quality paper. They often commented on topical subjects, scandalous crimes or the latest news. The majority of the items in The Mitchell's collection are poems or songs, but dialogues and recitations were common too. As literacy grew, these sheets became very popular, especially as they were relatively cheap and cost around a penny or a halfpenny. Originally perpetuated by word of mouth, the lyrics of many ballads survive today only because they were printed as broadsides. Musical notation was rarely used, as tunes were usually established favourites.
The Poet's Box in Glasgow was in operation between 1849 to 1911. Matthew Leitch was the first proprietor at 6 St. Andrew's Lane, a narrow street on the south side of Glasgow, and remained there until 1858. His son William Munsie Leitch took over the business from 1859 to 1865. He moved the shop from St. Andrew's Lane and carried on business from various addresses in London Street (London Road) until 1911.
Many of the broadsides in the collection are dated and some carry advertisements. Songs about Ireland and Irish themes are common, reflecting the mass immigration to Scotland during the years of industrialisation. There were other ‘Poet's Boxes' in Dundee, Edinburgh, Belfast and Paisley and, like the one in Glasgow, each sold similar titles but sometimes had local variations e.g. 'bothy' ballads were popular in the Dundee shop. It is possible that they earned the title of "poet" by offering to provide verses to order for any occasion – e.g. Valentine's Day, weddings, birthdays and University rectorial campaigns.
The exact connection between the different ‘Poet's Boxes' is unclear although they certainly sold each other's sheets. It is known that John Sanderson in Edinburgh often wrote to the Leitches in Glasgow for songs and that later his brother Charles obtained copies of songs from the Dundee Poet's Box.
Microfilmed copies of the originals can be viewed in Special Collections and a list of titles is available. Although a few items have been encapsulated, most of these original broadsides are extremely flimsy and can only be viewed at the discretion of the librarian.