What is historical ephemera

Historical ephemera include transitory materials from the past that were intended to have a one-time or temporary use. We can learn much from studying about the past using historical ephemera. Most of the ephemera that we have today were kept because they represent something significant to us. Personal ephemera, such as memorabilia, can provide an authentic entry point for students to learn about the past using evidence. Because ephemera are all around us, most children will have easy access to various types of ephemera, particularly mementos saved by family members.

Ephemera can be different things under different circumstances. Some may consider anything that is not an official record or an intentional relic to be an item of ephemera while others may have a much more narrow definition. The Ephemera Society of American describes ephemera broadly, but points to this definition from John Grossman (http://www.ephemerasociety.org/def.html)

Ephemera is the plural form of the Greek word ephemeron which means something that lasts only a very short time. When applied to collectibles, ephemera refers to the minor transient documents of everyday life that were intended to be used and generally expected to be discarded. Greeting cards, product labels, tickets, calendars, invitations and paper dolls are classic forms of paper ephemera.

But not all ephemera can be regarded as minor or even transient. Birth and marriage certificates, mourning cards, banknotes, sheet music, manuscripts and bookplates are examples of ephemera with considerable importance to the user or owner. Baseball cards, holiday ornaments, paper dolls and souvenir items are also considered ephemera, yet they were designed to be kept.

Some ephemera were deliberately preserved in family albums or attic trunks because they were beautiful images, held sentimental value or marked an event of historical importance. Tradecards, diecut scraps, invitations and newspaper articles are some examples. Still other forms of ephemera were inadvertently saved by routine storage year after year. Billheads, catalogs and annual reports come to mind. Whether by intention or accident, ephemera survive as treasures of material culture and as reminders of our past and present history.

Written by John Lee

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