Historical Ephemera: American History on Paper
Historical ephemera? What is it? What does it mean?
In addition to rare books and manuscripts, our firm buys and sells historical ephemera of American origin or context, created in the 18th, 19th, or early 20th century. In our world, when we talk about “ephemera” we mean any item printed for a short-lived purpose or function. So, yes, if it’s “ephemera” it’s ephemeral.
To understand the idea of ephemera think of a theater program, a trade card given out by a business, a flyer announcing a political rally, or a broadside posted to herald the news of the sudden death of an American president.
For a modern day example, think of your grocery store receipt. A slip from an ATM machine. A daily special menu at your favorite restaurant. A movie ticket you hand over before you watch a film at a theater. These are all examples of ephemera. Ephemera often implies something trivial, fleeting, but not always so.
American history was often recorded, almost in real time, through printed ephemera. Printed ephemera often meant ‘on the fly’ printing—done up hurriedly, done on the quick, done on the cheap. This could mean in moments of crisis—when a regiment had to be raised to defend against an enemy—or, in times of peace, when an American merchant wanted to get news out quickly to their customers of their just-imported goods.
Collectors of ephemera will often focus on a particular time period, format, or type of historical ephemera they find meaningful or explanatory of lives, things, and events now past. One collector may only seek out and buy American bookplates, another may just collect eighteenth century tavern licenses, another is only interested in railway ephemera from a particular railroad company. How about Western execution broadsides or burial papers from the 19th century? All are examples of historical ephemera collected, somewhere, by someone.
How do you find out about ephemera, who collects ephemera, what kinds of ephemera can be collected and what has been collected?
The Ephemera Society of America is an excellent resource for all things ephemera. For a modest membership to this non-profit organization you receive their informative publications and entrée into a convivial and eclectic world of collectors, academics, and dealers. There is a variety of interests here that in their breadth and specialization will astonish. From their website:
The Ephemera Society of America, Inc. is a non-profit organization formed in 1980 to cultivate and encourage interest in historical ephemera and the history identified with it; to further the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of ephemera by people of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of interest; to promote the personal and institutional collection, preservation, exhibition, and research of ephemeral materials; to serve as a link among collectors, dealers, institutions, and scholars; and to contribute to the cultural life of those who have an interest in our heritage as a nation or a people, both nationally and internationally.
Another excellent resource and reference to learn about the history of ephemera (available for sale via the Ephemera Society website) is Maurice Rickards’ Encyclopedia of Ephemera.
Published in 2000, this is a spectacular reference to keep by your desk and a browsing pleasure to keep on your reading table. Beg, borrow, or find this book in your local library. You’ll be glad to read it.
So the next time you go to the movie theater, or a concert, or to an Occupy Wall Street march; save that ticket, save that poster, save that flyer. You have not only just collected a piece of interesting American history, but an example of historical ephemera that may survive as a totally unique representation of a bygone event, place, or happening.
Meanwhile, here’s a few more examples of early American ephemera: