What is ephemera?

By , October 12, 2015

What is “ephemera”? And how do you pronounce it, anyway? Ephemera (pronounced: “i-FEM-ur-uh”), refers to anything short-lived. Today we may be more familiar with the adjective, “ephemeral,” used to describe fresh-cut flowers, a misty morning, or the rapidly changing colors of a fading sunset. But the noun, used in a library or archives setting, more often refers to two-dimensional objects, usually made out of paper, designed for limited use, often for just one day. It can include items such as tickets, advertising broadsides, performance programs, handbills, and a variety of other items.

In the Special Collections Division at the Nashville Public Library, we use the term a little more broadly, encompassing those materials described above, but also including items that may be more enduring or substantive, such as essays, booklets, promotional literature, catalogs or other materials. In this instance, think of ephemera as a broad “miscellaneous” category. Typically, it is individual items that have come to us in isolation, without any accompanying materials and often no information about the item’s background. It might be a pamphlet someone found at a garage sale; a ticket stub between ancient floorboards; or any number of other items found under various circumstances.

For ease of access, we have grouped these random items into general subject categories, such as Businesses, Schools, Communities (including neighborhoods), Biography, Parks, and innumerable other headings. Let’s take a look at a few examples, to get a better sense of the variety of materials that come under this broad heading of “ephemera.”

Eddie Jones for Mayor, 1987

 

Eddie Jones for Mayor brochure, 1987

This brochure, from Eddie Jones’ 1987 campaign for mayor outlines his experience and qualifications for the job, his vision for the city, and encourages supporters to get involved in his campaign. He lost the election to Bill Boner. (Source: Biography Ephemera Subject Files).

 

Community Bridge and Liberation Message, 1972

 

Cover of Community Bridge magazine 1972

This is the cover from a local publication serving Nashville’s African-American community in the early 1970s. It includes articles about a national meeting of black social workers held in Nashville; the inequitable attention given public works projects in the Music Row area, while neighborhoods in North Nashville needed maintenance and upgrades; and other subjects. Advertisements for black-owned businesses and events of interest to the community are also included. (Source: Black History Ephemera Subject Files).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nashville Conservatory of Music Recital, 1905

 

Nashville Conservatory of Music recital program, 1905

 

As a student at the Nashville Conservatory of Music, Ellen Lovell gave a piano recital on Jan. 27, 1905. This program shows her portrait on the cover, as well as a full listing of the performances and performers at the recital. (Source: Schools Ephemera Subject Files)

 

 

 

 

 

Although the majority of materials in the Special Collections Division’s Ephemera holdings date from the 20th century, it’s not uncommon to find items from the 19th century as well.

 

Fearless Railway Threshing Machines, ca. 1878

 

Ad for horse powered saw 1878

This illustration is from a catalog brochure for products of the Fearless Railway Threshing Machine Company, dated around 1878. George Stockell was a Nashville dealer who served as an agent of the company, which was headquartered in New York state. Most of the company’s products used literal horse-power, with one or more horses walking on a treadmill-like device to drive gears, belts, and machinery – which included devices like a thresher or a saw. This particular contraption was listed with a retail price of just over $200 – but did not include shipping charges from New York to Nashville. (Source: Businesses Ephemera Subject Files).

The Ephemera Subject Files in the Special Collections Division at the Nashville Public Library contain literally hundreds of documents related to a tremendous variety of subjects relating to Nashville’s history. Search the catalog for “Ephemera Subject Files” to learn more.

- Linda B.

 

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