Introduction: Printed EphemeraThe Raw
Materials of History
Florence M. Jumonville
"I have also a flower," declared the little prince as
he tried to describe his planet to a geographer. "We do not
record flowers," said the geographer. "Why is that? The
flower is the most beautiful thing on my planet!" "We
do not record them," said the geographer, "because they
are ephemeral." "What does that meanephemeral?"
the little prince persisted. Eventually he learned from the geographer
that ephemeral things are "...in danger of speedy disappearance."1
The word ephemera may be singular or plural. From the Greek
ephemeros, lasting about a day, it refers to something short-lived.
Americans pronounce it ephemmera, while the British are as
likely to say epheemerathose few, that is, who say
it at all. According to Maurice Rickards, founder of the Ephemera
Society, "...it was never a word for the man on the street.
It lurked for centuries in the half-light of semi-learned talk,
to be trotted out in one guise or another for want of anything better,
then to be put away for a generation or two till it had been almost
Some of those who knew and used this obscure word were naturalists,
who employed it as a synonym for the name of the delicate mayfly;
physicians, who applied it to transient fevers; and poets, to whom
it described mortal beings.3 More recently, ephemera
has come to refer to materials that are intended to be used briefly
and then to be discarded: letterheads, tickets, menus, calendars,
schedules, labels, advertisements, broadsides, playbills, programs,
and invitations are but a few examples.4 With the publication
in 1962 of designer and typographer John Lewiss authoritative
book Printed Ephemera, this phrase came into wide use.5
To librarians, ephemera forms "a class of printed or near-print
documentation which escapes the normal channels of publication,
sale, and bibliographic control. It covers both publications which
are freely available to the general public and others which are
intended for a limited and specific circulation. ... It is in part
defined by the fact that it tends to resist conventional treatment
in acquisition, arrangement, and storage, and it may not justify
Ephemera dates from the dawn of printing, preceding both the Gutenberg
Bible and the Bay Psalm Book. Much of it was produced in
large quantity, but with the passage of time many examples met the
fate for which they were createdthe wastebasket. Survivors,
therefore, are rare. If ephemera was meant for disposal, is not
collecting it contradictory? If it is problematic to manage bibliographically,
what justifies the special effort? AB Bookmans Weekly
editor Jacob Chernofsky wrote, "There is something about ephemera
that makes such material more interesting to historians than even
books or formal documents. Ephemera is, in fact, raw, unedited historythe
purest kind, and as such should generate great interest for the
historian who seeks to approach the place, time, and people under
study as closely as he possibly can."7 Similarly,
Marcus McCorison, director of the American Antiquarian Society,
has described ephemera as "a window into the center of a culture."8
The theatergoer who saves programs, the mother who treasures her
childrens school certificates and report cards, the belle
who keeps invitations to social events, the businessman who retains
examples of his firms advertising brochures, the librarian
who maintains a vertical file of menus from local restaurants, all
are unwitting collectors of printed ephemera. (Librarians who issue
borrowers cards, subject bibliographies, or schedules of special
programs also create it.) Sentiment, a perceived need to refer to
these materials in the future, or admiration for their physical
appearance impels persons to preserve items of personal or professional
interest. Sometimes this only delays their eventual disposal. Other
souvenirs, however, find their way into private collections or public
Generations of prescient collectors have sought ephemera, either
for its intrinsic value or for the challenge of the quest. The collecting
of ephemera began in England with historian John Selden (1584-1654),
who accumulated street literature because of its usefulness for
indicating "the complexion of the times." Celebrated diarist
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) assembled the first general collection
of ephemera. Americas first great ephemerist was Isaiah Thomas
(1749-1831), founder of the American Antiquarian Society and a printer
who recognized the significance of printed ephemera as part of the
evidential record. Today these and other important collections are
housed in libraries such as the Pepys Library at Magdalene College,
Cambridge; the American Antiquarian Society; and the New-York Historical
A burgeoning interest in printed ephemera inspired the establishment
of the Ephemera Society (London) in 1975, followed by the Ephemera
Society of America five years later and by similar groups in Australia
(1987) and in Canada (1988). Dealing in printed ephemera has become
a specialized activity of the antiquarian book trade. With the recognition
that these materials are inextricably entwined with political, economic,
religious, military, and social history has come the realization
that they are within the purview of historians, scholars, and librarians.10
Increasingly, editors and authors are selecting ephemera to
illustrate books on various topics.11 A growing body
of literature on ephemera exists and cannot be ignored. Most of
this literature consists of broad introductions to the subject.12
or of publications devoted to certain types of ephemera.13
There has been little effort to chronicle the general ephemera
of a geographic area.
This theme issue of LLA Bulletin describes examples of the
diverse printed ephemera produced or used in Louisiana. Following
a survey of sundry forms of ephemera are three studies that highlight
selected aspects of the subject: Faye Philips discusses political
items and addresses broader concerns of preservation and collection
that relate also to other types of ephemera; John Magill comments
on invitations, programs, and other memorabilia engendered by the
New Orleans carnival; and Earl Hart examines materials associated
with advertising and trade and the printing techniques used to create
them. Finally, Kate Adams suggests a sensible arrangement librarians
can use to organize the ephemera entrusted to their care.
Often lacking anything resembling a title page or even an author
or a title, and impossible to order from any standard source, ephemera
is the stuff of which catalogers and acquisitions librarians
nightmares are made. Yet it encompasses some of the most unusual
and charming materials, not unlike the little princes flower,
that will repose on a librarys shelves or in its files. The
purpose of this theme issue is to focus attention on these fragile
documents of everyday life and to encourage their preservation and
1Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little
Prince, trans. Katherine Woods (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1971, c1943), 65-66.
2Rickards, Collecting Printed Ephemera.
(New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), 13.
3W.H. Auden, for example, declared in "The Lullaby,"
"...the grave | Proves the child ephemeral," and in "Aristophanes
Apology" Robert Browning wrote, "May I, the ephemeral,
neer scrutinize | Who made the heaven and earth and all things
there!" Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson
(New York: Random House, 1976), 131; Browning, Balaustions
Adventure, Aristophanes Apology. Pacchiarotto, and Other Poems
(Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1886), 263; Alan Clinton, Printed
Ephemera: Collection Organisation and Access (London: Clive
Bingley, 1981), 14; Rickards, Collecting Printed Ephemera, 13.
4For definitions of these and selected other types
of ephemera, see Katherine J. Adams, "Organizing an Ephemera
Collection: Some Principles," in this issue. Rickards, Collecting
Printed Ephemera, 31, and Chris E. Makepeace, Ephemera: A
Book on Its Collection, Conservation and Use (Brookfield, VT:
Gower Publishing Co., 1985), 220-223, provide lengthy but nevertheless
incomplete lists of kinds of ephemera.
5Lewis, Printed Ephemera: The Changing Uses of Type
and Letterforms in English and American Printing (Ipswich, Suffolk,
Eng.: W. S. Cowell, 1962) 14-15.
6 Clinton, Printed Ephemera, 15.
7Chernofsky, "Editors Corner," AB
Bookmans Weekly 85 (March 5, 1990): 943.
8 Quoted by William Frost Mobley, "Introduction,"
Ephemera 2 (1989): 1.
9 Rickards, Collecting Printed Ephemera, 37-49
10Ephemera Society of America, "An Invitation to
Membership" (Schoharie, NY: The Society, [1989?]), unpaged;
Chernofsky, "Editors Corner," 943.
11 E.g., the Southern Heritage Cookbook Library,
18 vols. (Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House, 1983-1985); Donna R. Braden,
Leisure and Entertainment in America (Detroit, MI: Henry
Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, 1988). Printed ephemera inspired
Christmas Keepsakes (Little Rock, AR: Leisure Arts, 1990),
a selection of needlework designs based on nineteenth-century
chromolithographs and greeting cards, and motivated Cynthia Hart,
John Grossman, and Priscilla Dunhill to compose A Victorian Scrapbook
(New York: Workman Publishing, 1989), illustrated with examples
from Grossmans magnificent collection.
12 E.g., Lewis, Printed Ephemera; Rickards,
Collecting Primed Ephemera.
13 E.g., Reynaldo Alejandro, Classic Menu
Design: From the Collections of the
New York Public Library (Glen Cove, NY: PBC International,
1988); Robert Jay, The
Trade Card in Nineteenth-Century America (Columbia, MO:
Missouri Press, 1987).
Florence M. Jumonville is head librarian at the Historic
New Orleans Collection.
The Ephemera Society acknowledges with thanks the editor of Louisiana
Libraries for granting permission to reproduce this article from
Volume 53, Number 2, published in Fall 1990.