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By Bruce Shyer
Ephemera is the plural form of the Greek word ephemeron (epi=on, about, round; hemera=day). Editor’s Introduction, Rickards, Maurice, Encyclopedia of Ephemera, New York: Routledge, 2000. “Literally, it refers to something that lasts through the day, which is the case of some winged insects.” Thus, the word “ephemera” originally emphasized the essence of things that were very temporary or short-lived.
Printed Matter in Relation to the Word Origin
Drawing upon the original meaning of the word “ephemera”, Maurice Rickards, the famous authority on ephemera and noted scholar, suggested that for collectors of printed material, the word refers to “minor transient documents of everyday life The use of the word “transient” implies that once these printed items had served their intended function. They were “generally expected to be discarded.” See, Ephemera Definition of John Grossman.
Examples of items not intended to be kept are bus and theater tickets, calendars (to be tossed out at the end of the year), package labels, place cards and party invitations. This definition, with its implied emphasis on the potential value of saving the seemingly unimportant and commonplace, has proved helpful in elevating these objects in the public mind. Rickards notes that “the essential appeal of most forms of ephemera lies in their fragility, their vulnerability,–the very improbability of their survival.” Rickards.
However, as discussed below, in present day usage of the word commonly refers to a substantial amount of material that is neither intended to be short-lived or minor.
Maurice Rickards understood the severe limitations of defining ephemera as “minor transient documents of everyday life.” Presently, the word has come to embrace many categories of documents that are not transient or intended to be discarded such as birth and marriage certificates, banknotes, and cigarette cards. In addition, some items that were not designed to be kept were, nevertheless contemporaneously saved by the original recipients. As John Grossman notes: “Some ephemera were deliberately preserved in family albums or attic trunks because they were beautiful images, held sentimental value or marked an event of historical importance. Trade cards, die-cut scraps, invitations and newspaper articles are some examples.”
In present-day common parlance, ephemera is not restricted solely to printed matter. Some manuscript material falls within the ambit of ephemera.
In defining ephemera, 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. Some institutions make a distinction between a hard-bound work of a certain size (considered a book) and smaller works named pamphlets, leaflets, brochures, booklets, etc (considered to be ephemera) At least in some quarters, ephemera has come to mean any printed or manuscript material that is not a book.
Categories of Ephemera
Ephemera has sometimes been rather tautologically defined by the type of categories subsumed by the word. The Encyclopedia of Ephemera, , does not define ephemera in this manner but does engagingly discuss more than one thousand types of ephemera—from ABC primer to zoetrope strip/disc. Using the categorical approach, if an item belongs to a listed or recognized category, it may be deemed to be ephemera. While such an approach may not be the most helpful in defining the word, a study of the incredibly varied types of ephemera is very useful to those concerned with “documents as records of social or business history, or with the conventions of written language, graphic design, and printing…” . Certain categories of ephemera, (e.g. postal stamps and postcards) have such well-developed organizations and language that they are often erroneously not classified as ephemera.
Difficulties in Defining Ephemera
From the above discussion, one can readily see the difficulty of providing a universally accepted definition of ephemera. More than thirty years ago, Maurice Rickards recognized the difficulty of ”precisely defining ephemera“ In the 1980’s and 90’s the task of clearly defining ephemera remains too much for anyone. The best we can manage is a generalized description of its qualities: on the whole it is made of paper, generally printed but sometimes handwritten; generally two-dimensional (though it may be a package or a pillbox); generally transient (though it may be a marriage certificate or a royal proclamation); generally an incidental, unself-conscious fragment, like a school attendance card (although it may be a multi-colored prize certificate.”)
Why Collect and Study Ephemera
While it is of course somewhat useful to have a general understanding of the meaning of the term “ephemera”, a perfect “dictionary definition” is by no means necessary to understand the purposes for collecting and studying ephemera. In some cases, ephemera may be primary evidence documenting an historical event, such as an early printed ballot setting forth the candidates for an election. Ephemera may be a way in which a particular social attitude of the time is evinced. For example, a trade card promoting an agricultural product, which depicts a child’s head on a pig’s body, might
demonstrate a nineteenth century goal of eliminating underweight children in marked contrast to today’s concern about obese youngsters. Ephemera, as artifacts of history, inevitably contains facts, prejudices, and other aspects(such as language, art and social organization) reflecting their particular time and place, and is now widely used in academic programs, sometimes falling under the rubric of “material culture.”
Ephemera is revered not only for its content, but also for the beauty of its presentation which may involve interest in its graphic design, typography, a printing process such as chromolithography, or its format, such as a cobweb valentine.
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