Enthusiastic About Ephemera
by Maxine Carter-Lome
Merriam-Webster defines ephemera as “something of no lasting significance – paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use.” Yet to collectors, these pieces of history on paper are anything but “minor transient documents of everyday life,” as they were once viewed.
Today, the word “ephemera” embraces many categories of documents and types of items. Attend a “paper” show and you will find everything from posters, autographs, and advertising to trade cards, postcards, comic books, newspapers, broadsides, photographs, show programs, note cards, banners, and all other manner of our printed collectible past. As a result, general collectors tend to use the word ephemera to mean any printed material that is not a book.
Among historians, museum curators, libraries and academics, an interest in ephemera tends to focus on items of more historic significance such as personal correspondence and diaries, manuscripts, newspapers, and broadsides, and such documents of public record as birth and death certificates, wills, and probate records. Some institutions, such as libraries, have tended to focus on the size and format of an item in determining whether it should be classified as ephemera, while others make a distinction between a hard-bound work of a certain size (considered a book) and smaller works such as pamphlets, leaflets, brochures, booklets, etc (considered to be ephemera).
The Library of Congress has amassed a collection of ephemera that consists of more than 28,000 items (10,172 of which can be viewed online) dating from the seventeenth century to the present day, including broadsides, posters, playbills, song sheets, notices, invitations, proclamations, petitions, timetables, leaflets, propaganda, manifestos, ballots, tickets, menus, and business cards. Each is a piece of history in its own right; as a collection, they shed a light on 300 years of the dissemination of print-based information.
Under the “ephemera” umbrella you will also find paper dolls. This popular children’s toy was first published in America in 1812 by J. Belcher of Boston but came to this country with a much older story. A set of rare hand-painted figures dated late in the 1780s can be found in the Winterthur Museum of Winterthur, Delaware. It shows coiffures and headdresses for sale at the shop of Denis-Antoine on Rue St. Jacques, Paris. In 1791, a London advertisement proclaimed a new invention called the “English Doll.” While these 18th century early examples were true works of art and were played with and handled as such, it was paper dolls as everyday toys, popularized in America in the second half of the 19th century by the McLoughlin Brothers, and to a lesser degree Peter G. Thompson, that captured the time and imagination of generations of young children and collectors. Today, rare and in excellent condition, early 19th century examples can bring in hundreds to several thousands of dollars when up for auction.
The emergence and increased accessibility of printed material in the 19th century, and the advent of color lithography printing and the artistic use of typography and graphic design, created works of art on paper that were worth collecting and preserving, which became all the craze in the Victorian Era, as was scrapbooking as a way to creatively present one’s collection of memories.
In an article contributed by Richard Sheaff, current president of The Ephemera Society, he notes that the term “Artistic Printing” was a term adopted by letterpress printers in the 1880s. These printers pulled a number of tricks out of their sleeves to try to compete.
What the interest in collecting ephemera shows is the enduring power of print as a medium for presenting information and leaving a lasting impression. Items initially designed to be read and discarded are today valued for the stories they tell about our past, and the light they shed on the historical record.
Historical events, expressed in the language, experience, and viewpoints of the era in which they were published, are brought to life through broadsides and newspapers. Magazine articles become cultural time capsules, reflecting the topics of social and cultural interest of their day. Photos create a human connection with the past and capture and define the look of an era. Trade cards showcase the dawn of modern advertising and the evolution of printing technology. Print advertisements illustrate the creative use of typography and promotion in selling goods and merchants.
As a publisher of print-based publications I am often told that print is dead and digital is now the preferred method of disseminating information, from news to advertising, which makes me wonder about the future of ephemera as a print-based artifact, and the loss of the art forms that gave rise to their popularity and today drive their collectability and value. Try collecting and scrapbooking digital bytes of information! Which will only make paper-based ephemera all the more interesting and worth collecting and preserving for future generations.