A few months ago I took a phone call from a farmer in another state. The man and his son were restoring a piece of farm equipment made in the 1890s. His dilemma was not knowing what color(s) to paint the machine. His research led him to our website, where he found an inventory for a collection of agricultural literature, including advertisements and brochures put out by the manufacturer of the machine being restored. I told him I would get back to him soon, hopefully with evidence of the machine’s original paint-job.
I began examining the companies’ ephemera. Most of it was illustrated in black and white: nice, precise work, probably supplied to the printer as engravings. The brochures, pamphlets, etc. were very wordy by modern advertising and marketing standards, but none of them mentioned the products’ color. Everything imaginable was detailed, except color and finish!
Later, I was relieved to find a few cards featuring color illustrations (shown above; the backs carry text). The farmer was pleased with the information I gave him. I thanked him for pointing me in the right direction at the outset; the work had gone quickly. Now he had at least some evidence to consider when painting his piece of 1890s farm equipment. Ephemera in an archive had been the key.
Archives collect and preserve ephemera, among other things. It’s a pretty word that, outside of archives, I’ve encountered most often as the adjective “ephemeral.” It comes to us from the Greek for “lasting only a day.” There are ephemeral things that literally last one day; for example, an old medical text refers to “that Feaure [fever] which we call Ephemera, not exceeding foure and twenty houres.” Nowadays the noun form is typically used the way archives use it, and for this, Wikipedia gives an adequate definition: ephemera is “any transitory or printed matter not meant to be retained or preserved.”
A crucial distinction, then: it is the ephemera’s intended use or purpose that is ephemeral. The item itself could be saved indefinitely. But why would someone save “such things as a bus ticket, a circus poster, a Christmas card or a Valentine, a police summons, […] a train timetable, or a travel brochure,” after their intended purposes are fulfilled?
The most general answer is that human beings repurpose things. It’s nice to know why something was made, by whom and for what purpose—we can’t fully understand the thing without such knowledge—but we’re free to use things (and ideas) differently. We decide what’s significant and how; we decide what it all means.
Perhaps most ephemera should be recycled. So much ephemera is produced that saving it all is not an option, but where do we draw the line?… I’m raising questions that I cannot begin to answer. I do know that experts are best-prepared to assess the significance of ephemera related to their areas of expertise. I know that ephemera is never enough in itself. A historian, for example, needs other sources, sound methodology, and a great deal of creativity. That being said, ephemera is indispensable.
The subject is a deep one that I plan to explore further. I hope to have inspired you to think about the ephemera in your life. You don’t have to save it, but what if you did? What could it be used for, other than the obvious?
(Except as noted, quotations are from Ephemera: a a book on its collection, conservation and use by Chris E. Makepeace. 1985.)