Regional Meeting at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston

On Saturday, April 15, 2000 the Ephemera Society held a regional meeting in Boston at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, familiarly referred to by its acronym, SPNEA.

SPNEA was founded in 1910 to protect New England's cultural and architectural heritage. Its mission is to preserve, interpret, and collect buildings, landscapes and objects reflecting New England's daily life between the mid-seventeenth century and today.

In tandem with operating 35 historic properties in five states, SPNEA maintains an impressive research archive that numbers over one million items and that includes various kinds of resources, especially ephemera. Such ephemeral items as postcards, greeting cards, clippings, programs, broadsides, advertisements, guidebooks, menus, tickets, invitations, rewards of merit, trade catalogues, architectural drawings, and illustrated invoices instruct users about material culture, the history of advertising, the evolution of graphic design, and the history of technology in New England.

In addition, more than 300,000 photos depict buildings; domestic and commercial interiors; streetscapes and landscapes; people at work, relaxing, and at play; and different kinds of transportation.

Our day started out with coffee and pastries at SPNEA's headquarters at One Bowdoin Square, located close to Fanueil Hall and across the street from Beacon Hill.

We were then treated to a slide presentation by SPNEA President Jane C. Nylander on the role ephemera played in her research on the Asa Knight General Store at Old Sturbridge Village. Originally, Knight's store was located in Dummerston, Vermont. Staff at Old Sturbridge Village acquired the building to save it from the wrecking ball, relocated it to its own site, and decided to exhibit it as it would have appeared in 1838. Thankfully, a store inventory that Knight had kept came to light and was greatly informative. Beyond this single document, however, Jane needed to find out how stores of the period were furnished and what their role was in their community's life.

Jane and her colleagues examined various kinds of ephemera for different reasons. Proving especially valuable were children's schoolbooks. Prints in these volumes typically showed familiar scenes commonplace to children of the time, and as it turned out, many featured images of general stores. Since they contained illustrative vignettes of goods sold by general store proprietors printed billheads were also helpful. Surviving papers used to wrap products, especially soap, provided firsthand evidence of the size and shape, and sometimes smell, of some store goods. Likewise, surviving boxes for hats, dominoes, and other commodities revealed how goods were packaged. Probate inventories of Knight's counterparts demonstrated that a typical storekeeper had 50% of his investment in cloth and 25% in fancy goods.

Were it not for information brought to light by studying ephemera, Old Sturbridge Village's interpretation of Asa Knight's store would not be as informative as it now is.

After Jane's talk, we walked to the Somerset Club for a buffet lunch in a private dining room. The club is located at 42 Beacon Street, opposite Boston Common, in a house that was designed in 1819 by Alexander Parris for David Sears, a prominent nineteenth-century Boston city planner and developer. Along the way, Society members who were familiar with Boston's Beacon Hill guided us past local landmarks and pointed out architectural styles and details of the buildings that we passed.

Having finished lunch, Society members walked to the Harrison Gray Otis House, located nearby on Cambridge Street. Designed by Charles Bulfinch and constructed in 1796 by Otis, a Boston politician and developer, it exemplifies the elegant life led by Boston's governing class right after the American Revolution. Owned by SPNEA, the Otis House, in addition to being open for tours, is home to SPNEA's library and archives.

Lorna Condon, SPNEA's archivist, introduced us to the research resources of the archives, speaking about the scope and content of the collection, how the holdings were being developed, and SPNEA's plans for a new archival facility. Specifically, Lorna highlighted materials associated with the John Hancock house and its unfortunate destruction, a marvelous collage album compiled during the late nineteenth century, trade literature, various prints, and other materials. After her presentation, Lorna invited Society members to examine a selection of items that she had taken from storage for us to see.

Our keepsake for the day, a reproduction paper sheet used to wrap shot from the Saint Louis Shot Tower, F. Kennett, proprietor, was generously provided by The Sun Hill Press.

E. Richard McKinstry

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

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