Recap: “Unmediated History” ephemera conference at the Library Company

Warner’s safe rheumatic cure, Library Company of Philadelphia

Contributed by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Alina Josan

On September 20, 2013, the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Ephemera Society of America co-hosted a conference, “Unmediated History: The Scholarly Study of 19th Century Ephemera”. Perhaps you read the announcement on the DVAG blog several months ago that made me so eager to attend. The conference did not disappoint.

After introductions, the day kicked off with  a session about building ephemera collections. Russell Johnson spoke of UCLA’s collection of patent medicine ephemera. UCLA began this collection relatively recently, as part of a concentration within the university on the history of pain research and pain management. As the collection develops, there has been an effort to promote it beyond use merely as illustrations. Researchers increasingly recognize ephemera as valuable primary-source texts ripe for analysis and interpretation.

UCLA’s patent medicine ephemera collection was built practically from nothing, harvested from sources Johnson cited as, “donors, dealers, and eBay.” By comparison, Terry Snyder spoke of the Hagley’s vast collection of World’s Fairs ephemera. To develop that collection into the enormous resource it is today, Snyder explained, she leveraged the important core of related materials that already existed at Hagley. An exhibition about World’s Fairs, 1850-1982 was planned with a conscious goal of engaging the nostalgia of attendees who had visited World’s Fairs in their youths and inspiring them to donate personal materials to build Hagley’s collection. The successful exhibition tied in community events to promote Hagley’s visibility and expand its collections.

After a lunch break, the conference continued with fascinating presentations about verisimilitude in photographic ephemera and the impact of photography on the way reality was visualized and represented in the 19th century. Jeremy Rowe spoke convincingly about the usefulness of photographs as a primary-source research tool, calling on archivists to catalog them with appropriately detailed metadata and researchers to take advantage of the same. Rowe then offered an overview of the history of several key photographic processes. Photography’s capacity to represent detail triggered a corresponding move among artists and illustrators toward greater realism (until, of course, Impressionism became the vogue). Meanwhile, photography grew rapidly in popularity, especially in the form of stereographs and real photo postcards. Rowe illustrated some clues helpful in dating such forms with the caveat that certain common manipulations make determining a precise date with certainty very difficult. As he demonstrated, the devil is in the details.

Picking up on the themes of postcards and image manipulation, Chris Pyle spoke next about the Curtis Teich Postcard Archives. After summarizing the chronology of postcards’ invention and popularity boom, Pyle described the extensive archives at Curtis Teich. Job files illustrate the lives of travelling postcard salesmen and the changing tastes of American culture. They also betray the changes made to original photographs in generating advertisements. Rowe dazzled the audience when he described a daguerreotype in his possession in which, reflected in the pupil of the sitter, it is possible to make out the tiny image of the photographer taking the picture. Pyle made us laugh when she told us how Teich’s artists airbrushed out an entire person from a restaurant advertisement because his “look” was unfashionable. Apparently, no sooner was the capacity for unrelenting photographic accuracy developed than that level of detail was deemed undesirable.

Richard Sheaff presented a succinct review of 19th century printing innovations, from copperplate engraving to lithography, generously illustrated by examples from his personal trade card collection.  The small surface space of the trade card presented a frequent challenge to the commercial printer.  Faced with the difficult task of fitting the whole of a customer’s message in an eye-catching manner, the printers resorted to an impressive range of techniques.  Favored design tropes of the time included “Gaslight style” where strategically placed shadows created the illusion of backlit shapes. Typesetters and letterpress printers in particular had to compete with the flashy displays of the new color chromolithograph process. Inventive letterpress printers bent on creating beautiful work from a relatively limited set of elements (lead type and brass rulers) started a movement that called itself “Artistic Printing”. The pleasing, relatively uncluttered aesthetic of this movement was at least partly born of mechanical innovations. Naturally, some of the best examples of this work can be found in the trade cards that printers made to advertise their own trade and Sheaff shared many striking examples.

Ellen Gruber Garvey likes to compare the practice of early scrapbook makers to that of contemporary bloggers and other informal collectors and arrangers of digital information. The books themselves ranged from repurposed ledgers that compilers glued their ephemera onto to commercially available products such as the “self-paste” albums patented by Mark Twain. Garvey is particularly interested in African American scrapbooks as creative outlets for interpreting media. An example of this is a collection of clippings kept by Charles Hunters. Two newspaper reports of crimes committed by two different men, one white and one African American were clipped and pasted in the album. The crimes are similar but not the penalties and the disparity is made acutely clear by the simple placement of the two accounts side by side. Much of the insight offered by scrapbooks comes from this purposeful juxtaposition of its contents as well as the context offered when the identity of the maker is known. For this reason when it comes to the question of disassembling a scrapbook, Garvey answers with a vehement: No!

The conference is over, but if you are still hungry for a taste of the action check out the Library Company’s exhibition, “Remnants of Everyday Life: Historical Ephemera in the Workplace, Street, and Home,” on view through December 13, 2013.

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