June – August 1991

Printed ephemera and historical research – is there a relationship between these seemingly contradictory terms? Before that question can be answered, yet another one must be asked, “Exactly what is ephemera?”

For the purpose of this exhibition, ephemera is defined as any item which was printed to represent a specific enterprise or to announce a specific event, satisfying a short-lived purpose. By this definition ephemera includes greeting cards, advertising or trade cards, calendars, playbills, catalogs, posters, bookplates, post cards, stationery letterheads and menus, to name but a few examples.

And how does this relate to research? Basically, it is open to one’s imagination. Printed ephemera was and is encountered in all phases of everyday life. It represents the raw unedited data of earlier times. Each piece is a visual record of a cultural, economic, and social history. In addition to complementing other printed and manuscript resources for research, these materials, in many cases, may be the only source of much needed information. For example, theater playbills are a primary resource on what was popular at a given time, on the lives of the artists, and on the history of theater itself. The advertisements in those playbills highlight fads and fashions and are an important source for the commercial archaeologist. Letterheads, posters and handbills offer the opportunity to explore graphic design and typography which may inspire the revival or modification of older designs or the creation of new typefaces. Use of these items as illustrations in books has a greater impact than would a lengthy narrative description.

This exhibition was prepared by Richard Kolbet and Judith Macy, with the assistance of Pam Spitzmueller.