Remnants of Everyday Life: What is Ephemera?

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Stemming from the plural form of the Greek word ephemeron, meaning something that lasts through a day, the definition of and articles associated with ephemera have evolved over the centuries. The preeminent ephemerist Maurice Rickards defined it as “minor transient documents of everyday life,” while The Ephemera Society of America expands this notion to describe the material as “a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use.” Within libraries, in terms of collection management ephemera represents the materials, often mixed-media, that do not fit into the well-established categories of book, manuscript, visual material, or artifact. Nonetheless, these “transient documents,” along with the more permanent materials constructed from them, like scrapbooks and albums, serve not only as sources of striking imagery but also as primary evidence in the reconstruction of popular movements and visual cultures.

Beginning with the purchase of the Du Simitière Collection in 1785, the Library Company has amassed one of the largest, most important, and most varied collections of historical ephemera.  In 2012 the Library Company completed a two-year project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to arrange, catalog, and digitize nearly 30,000 pieces from these holdings. The items shown here provide an introduction to some of the collection’s most significant themes. The wooden souvenirs, trade cards, labels, and mixed-media circulars, handbills, and display cards represent the rise of promotional advertising to consumers in the 19th century. The ink blotter “paper doll”, handmade tunnel book and envelope, and the negative box typify the recycling and repurposing, which ironically are so often part of the life cycle of material that is disposable, yet often also collectible. The postcards (8) and stereographs attest to the commercialization of photography and changing ideals of recreation and leisure. Across genres – from blank forms to mendicant prints to work passes – the ephemera collections speak eloquently to ongoing revolutions in typography and graphic design.

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