The Encyclopedia of Ephemera

Maurice Rickards. The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian. London: The British Library; New York: Routledge, 2000.

This book should be the standard reference source for the foreseeable future for everyone interested in ephemera. It was compiled over many years by Maurice Rickards, a graphic designer, photographer, author, and ephemera collector who established the Ephemera Society of the UK in 1975 and five years later assisted in the founding of the Ephemera Society of America. Unfortunately, Rickards died in 1998 without seeing the Encyclopedia of Ephemera in print. It was left to Michael Twyman, recently retired Professor of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading and Director of the Centre for Ephemera Studies at Reading, and several other writers and advisors to guide the volume through publication.

The launching of the encyclopedia took place this past October 3rd in London at a champagne reception held at the British Library bookstore. About 60 people attended the gathering, including Ronald Stegall, Vice President of the Ephemera Society of America. Through special arrangements the bookstore remained open past normal closing time, and a reporter from the Associated Press covered the event. By all accounts, this special event was a success, and the American ephemera society was fortunate to have had a representative in attendance.

The Encyclopedia of Ephemera includes over 400 pages, features 370 color and black and while illustrations, and contains well over 500 entries, many of which conclude with references for further reading and study. Introductory remarks by Michael Twyman, acknowledgments, a comprehensive three column index of 26 pages, a selected bibliography, a list of publicly held collections of ephemera, and names and addresses of ephemera societies round out the volume. As the dust jacket points out, it "is the only book to define, document, and describe the huge variety of ephemera produced over the centuries."

The purpose of the volume is to create a link to the past, as well as to give ephemerists a broader view of the specific areas that mean so much to them. Collectors of crate labels, trade cards, Valentines, and posters may find little that is new to them in the entries, but the encyclopedia as a whole gives them an opportunity to examine their personal interests in a broader context and perhaps in a different light.

From the first topic to be discussed, ABC primers, to the last, the zotrope strip/disc, Rickards leads his readers through a world of "minor transient documents of everyday life," which actually is his definition of ephemera and the one that today has gained the widest currency. As editor Twyman writes about the author, "underpinning the entire work is his view that ephemera can bring the past to life more vividly and often with greater particularity than many other forms of documentation."

Beyond ephemera, the encyclopedia gives Americans a glimpse into English society. We share some things in common, including rewards of merit, invitations, comic books, and almanacs. But, to an American, what is a Gretna Green marriage certificate, a bellman's verse, a burial in woolen affidavit, and a servant's registry paper? Likewise, English readers are given a special look into American life and customs with essays covering such topics as Currier & Ives prints, American seamen's certificates, and Civil War papers. The compilers recognized English language differences of both countries when they constructed the title of the entry for biscuit/cracker labels.

By the way, and for those who are interested, eloping couples got a Gretna Green marriage certificate, chiefly between 1738 and 1856, just to be on the safe side when they ran away to Scotland to get married. First appearing in the 17th century, a bellman's verse conveyed Christmas cheer from night watchmen, or bellmen, to local residents. A burial in woolen affidavit confirmed that a corpse had been buried in a shroud made of wool as opposed to any other kind of cloth; in 1667, this became mandatory in England as a way to support the declining woolen industry. And, servant's registry papers were actually handbills issued to organize the hiring of servants in various English cities and towns.

Those of us in the Ephemera Society of America wish our counterparts in the UK great success with their splendid encyclopedia!

Learn more about ordering a copy of The Encyclopedia of Ephemera.

E. Richard McKinstry

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

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America