Ephemera Society Exhibitions
Over the years the Ephemera Society has staged nearly 30 exhibitions
from Boston, Massachusetts, to Pt. Richmond, California, from Ann
Arbor, Michigan to Williamsburg, Virginia. Subjects have covered printmakers
Currier and Ives, ephemera associated with American drugstores, paper
toys, American political life, and the list goes on.
Our first exhibit coincided with Ephemera 2, held in Rye, New York,
in 1981. Speakers at the conference that year contributed informal
displays of ephemera that related to their presentations. Each year
since 1981, the society has featured an exhibition at its fair and
In addition, during the 1990s, the Ephemera Society scheduled exhibitions
at its five symposiums. In 1991, we met at the Strong Museum in
Rochester, New York, and displayed a show entitled "Understanding
Ephemera"; in 1992, we gathered outside Wilmington, Delaware, at
the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, where we were informed
and entertained with a presentation called "Designing American Life,
1780-1980"; two years later, in 1994, at the American Antiquarian
Society, Worcester, Massachusetts, "The American Play Ethic" helped
illustrate our speakers' presentations; also in 1994, this time
at the William Clements Library at the University of Michigan, Ann
Arbor, we were treated to "The American Spirit of Transportation";
and in 1995, at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, "Job Printing in
America" came to the fore.
Although all of the symposium shows were wonderful, the first,
in 1991, especially stands out. Our host, the Strong Museum, had
its own exhibition on display, "Selling the Goods: Origins of American
Advertising, 1840-1940", and the talks and exhibit at the Ephemera
Society's symposium also dealt with this broad topic.
There were five parts to the society's exhibit, two of which were
on ephemera representing 19th century medicine. One dealt
with medical advertising through popular song, the other patent
medicine advertising. A third considered the marketing history of
Hallmark cards. As label text pointed out, the word "hallmark" could
be thought of in terms of the work of medieval guilds, when artisans
created their products in "halls" and stamped them with their "marks."
The other two parts of the show highlighted caricatures used in
American advertising. Santa Claus existed in the minds of children
as a fantasy figure, but to adults, he was a "super salesman" whose
image was an advertising vehicle on trade cards, calendars, magazine
ads, and brochures. Chinese figures appeared on ephemera in less
than enviable ways, due in large measure to the influence of the
Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882. American businesses
portrayed Chinese people as foreign sojourners with curious habits
who were often linked to working in laundries.
The Ephemera Society continues its tradition of putting on exhibitions
with its latest, "Dolls as Advertising Gimmicks," curated by Diane
DeBlois. Without doubt, it has the potential of being seen by a
larger audience than all of our other shows combined, since it is
on our web site (www.ephemerasociety.org).
As Diane says, "dolls were one of the most common design motifs
on 19th century trade cards. In combination with attractively
dressed, winsome children, they helped project a Victorian ideal
of domestic beauty and tranquillity to the consumers of the new
Middle Class. Choosing such a design to promote a product all but
guaranteed the trade cards inclusion in ubiquitous parlor scrapbooks."
The exhibit begins with an example of how businesses "borrowed"
images for their own purposes. Not exactly stock cards, but with
illustrations looking incredibly similar, Miller & Umbdenstock
of Chicago and Buck & Lindner of New York City co-opted the
same design of a young girl taking her magnificently dressed doll
for a walk in a baby carriage. Next are depictions of dolls in various
settings with young girlstheir "mothers"either
holding them or close by, used to market such items as sewing patterns,
books, corn starch, life insurance, cologne, and blood bitters.
Within the exhibition are several sections with sub themes: "Playing
with Dolls as Rehearsal for Adult Life," "Playing Doctor,"
"The Tea Party," "The Sewing Circle," and "Wash
Day." Each section features trade cards illustrated with colorful
pictures of dolls, all of which served as marketing devices for
companies in the burgeoning American economy of a century ago.
Many thanks to Robert Dalton Harris, longtime Ephemera Society
member, for sharing his recollections of our exhibits, and more
importantly, for organizing most of them.
E. Richard McKinstry
[This article originally appeared in the Northeast
Journal of Antiques & Art.]
View the current online exhibition!