Regional Meeting at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC

The Ephemera Society of America held its first regional meeting in Washington, DC, last May 15th, 1999 Society Vice President Ron Stegall and Smithsonian Archivist Fath Davis Ruffins organized the event, and a good number of members were able to attend. Some individuals came from as far away as Pennsylvania, while others lived only a few DC Metro stops away.

At 10:15 A.M., we met at the Smithsonian's Archives Center, located on the third floor of the East Wing of the Museum of American History building, right on the Mall, not too far from the Washington Monument, and next to the Natural History Museum. Fath gathered us together and gave us a tour of the Center, first by summarizing the collections she oversees and then by letting us see some of the treasures they contain.

The Archives Center supports the Smithsonian's mission of documenting America's history and its diverse cultural heritage. It encompasses 670 collections, occupying more than 10,000 linear feet of shelving. Subject strengths include the history of radio, television, the telegraph, computing, and other aspects of the history of technology. The Center holds a particular interest in documenting the history of invention; advertising, marketing, and entrepreneurship; such commercial visual ephemera as postcards and greeting cards; and American music and instruments. These and a wide range of other subjects are recorded in business ledgers, personal papers, and extensive holdings of motion picture film, video and sound recordings, historical photographs, oral histories, and ephemera.

Of particular attention to members of the Ephemera Society was the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana. The collection was assembled over the years by Isadore Warshaw, a bookseller from New York. In 1928, Warshaw became concerned about the business community's lack of interest in its past and began collecting the materials that many companies were throwing away. Most of the collection dates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though the 18th century is represented by a few choice items. The collection features vast numbers of trade cards, posters, trade catalogs, pamphlets, labels, lithographs, and business letterheads, as well as advertising artifacts, including packages and outdoor signs.

The thousands pieces of ephemera and images in the collection illustrate many aspects of American culture, revealing how Americans perceived themselves or wish to be perceived, how they saw others, their work patterns, and their recreational habits. They provide alternative sources to written and printed historical materials, sometimes conveying information about values and practices not otherwise documented.

After viewing portions of the Warshaw Collection and other selected items, society members talked about their hopes for the organization and its programming in the coming years and how we might increase our membership. We then left the Archives Center, walked across the Mall, and had an excellent buffet lunch at the Smithsonian Castle's Court Restaurant. The Castle is an 1846 building, and the Court Restaurant décor is highlighted by shields of famous British scientists, inventors, and artists that were used at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City.

For readers with Internet access who might be interested in exploring the Smithsonian's archives online, go to http://www.si.edu/organiza/museums/nmah/archives/ac-i.htm.

The Ephemera Society looks forward to holding other regional meetings to give members opportunities to get together and to see other collections. A meeting scheduled for next April in Boston is in the planning stages. We will be hosted by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. It is likely that Society members will gather late next fall at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, near Wilmington, Delaware, to see the highlights contained in the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, as well as Winterthur's Yuletide exhibition. In addition, we are exploring the possibility of holding a meeting in New York City.

E. Richard McKinstry
President

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

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America