Early history of The Ephemera Society of America

Diane DeBlois

The Ephemera Society of America was born with Ephemera USA 1, at the Harrison Inn, Southbury, Conn., in May 1980.  It was the first event in World Ephemera Year, a concept created by The Ephemera Society in England, “a non-profit body devoted to the conservation, study and presentation of printed and handwritten ephemera” since 1975.

   The Ephemera Society’s first North American initiative in 1977 had been called This Is Ephemera, which provided the title not only for an exhibition at the Bennington Museum, Vermont, but also a book printed by Stephen Greene / Gossamer Press in Brattleboro, Vermont. It was written by Maurice Rickards, founder of UK’s Ephemera Society. Rickards was a tireless promoter of the importance of ephemera, keen to establish the word and concept in the public imagination. He collected energetically, mounting exhibits on uniform panels of gray card to enable quick display in any venue. His aim to establish a research collection was realized, as his collection now resides at the The Centre for Ephemera Studies, The University of Reading, England. His desire to document his researches resulted in a book, The Encyclopedia of Ephemera, edited by Michael Twyman, published in 2000 by the British Library in London and Routledge in New York

    Calvin P. Otto of Vermont was also a founding member of The Ephemera Society, and in 1980 was nominally in charge of World Ephemera Year events in North America. A World Ephemera Congress gathering in London dubbed Ephemera 80 was sponsored by Sotheby Parke Bernet & Co., and planned for September of 1980. William Frost and Emily Davis Mobley and Bill’s employer, antiquarian bookman Sam Murray, contacted Otto in the spring of 1979 with the idea of holding a paper fair and conference to complement the London event. Marv and Victoria Morgenstein, show promoters of the Westchester Book & Paper Show at Iona College, agreed to promote the event, and recommended the Harrison Inn as a venue. The Mobleys drafted a formal proposal to the British society, and it was accepted. At the Cambridge Antiquarian Book Fair in the Fall of 1979, Golden, Otto, and the Mobleys drafted proposals to launch the event as the first for an American branch of The Ephemera Society, not solely part of World Ephemera Year.

    The first planning meeting was held at a Sotheby’s on-site auction in New Hampshire in 1979, with Sally De Beaumont from The Ephemera Society, Otto, and the Mobleys an attendance. Dates in May 1980 were set and thus the seeds of the American Ephemera Society were sown. At a conference of the American Historical Print Collectors Society, Elizabeth Baird introduced graphic designer  Jack Golden to the Mobleys and he offered to design a poster for the ephemera event. Otto agreed to have it printed. (Golden also designed a poster “The Permanence of Ephemera” for the Fifth Annual Conference of the American Printing History Association at Columbia University in September 1980). 

   The program for Ephemera USA 1 shows how ambitious were the hopes of this small group for the future of the American offshoot of The Ephemera Society. Among the speakers, private collectors were represented by Golden and Rickards, institutional collectors by Wendy Shadwell of the New-York Historical Society, and auction houses by David Margolis of Swann Galleries as well as representatives of Sotheby Parke Bernet of London. Golden, Shadwell, and Otto also spoke at Ephemera 80 in London, as did Marcus McCorison of the American Antiquarian Society. McCorison’s observation that “Ephemera can open windows into details of lives far removed in time or place from our own, and can provide us not only with pleasure, but with the raw materials of historical research” was quoted often in the early promotion of The Ephemera Society of America.

    The list of booth-holders at the 1980 Fair show how widely the Mobleys recruited for the best among antiquarian book, autograph, and antique dealers who were already known to have interest in what was then called “paper Americana.” Most continued as loyal supporters. Beth Baird, Kit Barry, Lynnette Bohling, Diane DeBlois & Robert Dalton Harris, Valerie Jackson-Harris, Alfred P. Malpa, David Margolis & Jean Moss, Willis Monie and Stephen Resnick were long active, and some still are. The support of Leonard & Jackie Balish, Jean Berg, Rocky & Avis Gardiner, Bob Lucas, Jan & Larry Malis, Barbara Meredith, Sam Murray, Stephen Paine, and John Simon continued until the ends of their lives.

    The first annual meeting and election of officers of The American Ephemera Society, affiliated with The Ephemera Society of London, was held on May 11, 1980. Planning for Ephemera USA 2 immediately began. The fledgling organization received its 501(3)c non-profit status in June of 1981 as The Ephemera Society of America, Inc.

    Having begun with an event on a grand scale, the Society has always faced the difficulties of juggling the aims and contingencies of both a major commercial fair and an educational conference. The Morgensteins promoted the annual events until 1986, changing locations from Rye, NY to Windsor Locks, CT to Sturbridge, MA, searching for an affordable venue that would offer not just a hall for the fair but appropriate conference facilities. Jacqueline Sideli promoted the event in 1987 in Boston, then moved it to the Hyatt Regency in Old Greenwich, CT in 1988, where—except for two years trying other nearby hotels—it has been held ever since. Oliver & Gannon became its promoter, then Flamingo Eventz; for the past several years, Marvin Getman and his Impact Events Group has been our promoter.

    The consistency of the annual event has its advantages, but in addition the Society has continually supported initiatives in other parts of the country. In early 1981, Emily Davis Mobley began a Society Bookstore, through which members could order relevant books at a discount. This service to members was managed for several years by David and Judi Hayward, and then by Bill Mobley until 1995. Regional and international correspondents began contributing to Ephemera News in Summer 1989. Society sponsorship of regional fairs was most prevalent in the northeast (for example, the New England Regional Ephemera Collectors Bazaar, begun in 1981 under the leadership of Al Malpa), but for several years also received a good response in California (produced by Kingsbury Productions beginning in 1992). In 1987 the Society celebrated the emergence of The Ephemera Society of Australia and in 1988 helped Barbara Rusch found The Ephemera Society of Canada. Our Ephemera Society mounted exhibits at its own events, but also at other conferences. The most ambitious sponsorship was of the 1992 exhibit at the Princeton University Library, “Graphic Americana: The Art and Technique of Printed Ephemera” with a catalog designed by Jack Golden and a poster co-designed by Greg Smart, Dale Roylance, and Allen Scheuch. The Society provided more informal help for members’ publication ventures: John Grossman, Cynthia Hart, Allison Kyle Leopold, Nancy Rosin, Starr Ockenga, Leslie Cabarga, and many others. It published handbooks on the Atlantic telegraph cable, cameo imprints, and metamorphic trade cards. The Society helped the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Librarians produce an Ephemera Conference in 1996. In 2013, the Society co-sponsored a conference with The Library Company of Philadelphia.

    In 1990 the Board decided to hold an Ephemera Symposium in the Fall, separately from the Spring annual event (which would still offer a fair, collector forums, exhibits, the annual meeting, etc.) to showcase different institutional collections, to encourage member participation in different parts of the country, and to provide scholarly articles for a proceedings journal to be distributed to all members. The first such symposium, “Understanding Ephemera,” chaired by Robert Dalton Harris, was hosted by The Strong Museum in Rochester, NY and co-sponsored by The Ephemera Society of Canada; the second, “Designing American Life 1780-1980” was hosted by the library at Winterthur Museum, DE.; the third, “The American Play Ethic: Ephemera of Recreation,” by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA; the fourth, “The American Spirit of Transportation,” by the Clements Library, Ann Arbor, MI; the fifth, “Job Printing in America,” by Colonial Williamsburg, VA. In 1995, the Board decided that such a split format was too costly, and that conference activities should rejoin the annual Spring fair event. 

    Ephemera News was launched with Volume 1 Number 1 Summer 1981. Linda Campbell Franklin introduced herself as editor saying, “I have often said that I live in a furnished wastebasket.” Her comic strip “The Little Ephemera Girl”, which debuted in Number 3, elicited a some negative responses and so was dropped after four episodes. Franklin’s last issue as editor was a new Volume 1 Number 1 in Spring 1983, printed on coated paper stock. Richard Friz took over as editor for fourteen issues, through Winter 1987, followed by Diane DeBlois until Summer 1995. With Volume 14, Number 1, the Ephemera News was handled by professional editor and designer Michelle McGrath until Spring 2000, followed by Eric Johnson with Mary Beth Malmsheimer as designer. Mary Beth continued as Diane DeBlois took over as editor in the Fall of 2011 when the publication changed to a monthly eNews (a version of which had been created by Arthur Groten). Diane also edits The Ephemera Journal, a publication issued three times per year in September, January, and May. This publication assumed the numbering sequence of a periodic journal that had debuted in 1987 with 13 volumes published by 2011. 

The Society’s first logo—a classic oval with an eagle—was designed by Carol Resnick and introduced in 1985 for our fifth anniversary. In 1989 this design was revised by Andrew Rapoza to facilitate  reproduction, and appeared on all Society publications and advertising until gradually phased out in 1995. Our current logo was designed by Richard Sheaff.

    Our first Merit Award for distinguished service in the field of ephemera was first bestowed upon Maurice Rickards in 1985, and has since been named The Maurice Rickards Award. Every recipient has been honored with an embossed silver medal bearing an adaptation of the 1876 Centennial Philadelphia Exhibition Medal depicting a female America overseeing Commerce (from which most ephemera floweth). There have been various special awards granted over the years to honor those who have contributed a great deal to the Society. In 2014, an ESA Reward of Merit was established, and an Honor Roll created to establish a lasting record of Ephemera Society recognitions.

    Named for the charter member who donated the initial funding, the Philip Jones Fellowship for the Study of Ephemera annually grants a $2,000 stipend for studies relevant to the goals of the Society. 

    Like most volunteer-based organizations, The Ephemera Society of America has had its growing pains. The initial group of individuals in place by year two shouldered the work load, and kept shuffling the titles among themselves (Jack Golden, Cal Otto, Bill Mobley, Al Malpa juggled the presidency from 1980 to 1995) but that proved not to be a pattern of organization that could succeed over the long haul. Membership became 375 by year three, 500 by year five, and has topped 1,000 at times. On numerous occasions, donations apart from membership dues have underwritten many of the Society’s accomplishments. Jay T. Last underwrote a succession of computers for our editors, John Sayers funded visits by curators and librarians to the annual Board meeting to provide fresh ideas about broadening our outreach. Numerous other members have donated generously for various projects and purposes, most recently the total overhaul of our long-outdated website. A part-time salaried administrative manager was funded by Steven and Leslie Rotman for the year 1989-90. By 1999 our budget was able to support the services of Administrative Assistant Susie Johnson, followed for the past several years by Administrative Director Mary Beth Malmsheimer. Donations paid for color printing for the Society’s first Journal in 1987, and by 2004 our budget could support  The Ephemera Journal. Production of a quality publication—always a priority—continues to tax the resources of our small organization.

    The biggest single crisis the Society has weathered was the over-estimation of a market for our 1986 Reward of Merit book project, began in 1986 to honor the memory of Rockwell Gardiner. The book, co-authored by Al Malpa and historian Patricia Fenn, and designed by Jack Golden, was a very handsome production, an excellent book and a credit to the Society. But when it finally came out in 1994, it very nearly bankrupted ESA both financially and emotionally. It had cost a lot of money to produce, but did not find a wide audience.

    In 1995, under the leadership of President Carol Resnick, the Board enlisted the energies of new volunteers and recovered from its financial crisis. Succeeding Presidents E. Richard McKinstry, Ron Stegall, Nicolas Ricketts, Georgia Barnhill, Arthur Groten, Nancy Rosin, Bruce Shyer and now Richard Sheaff have ensured that the Society endures and works to grow. In 2005, the Ephemera Society in Great Britain hosted an “Anniversary Tour to London”, a gala event that was  being topped in 2015 by a joint anniversary celebration in England for our 35th  birthday and their 40th. At our upcoming 40th conference, “Women Challenging Expectations” in March of 2020, we shall celebrate our own 40th anniversary.