What You Can Find in the Library Part VII: Ephemera

Hannah D. Cox, Archivist/Librarian

Do you collect concert tickets or baseball cards? Congratulations! You have an Ephemera Collection! Ephemera is material that was intended to be used briefly and then discardedsuch as business cards, calendars, restaurant menus, concert programs, ticket stubs, advertisementsmatchbooks, and many other things. The very nature of such items means that there were usually many of these made, but few survived because people did exactly what they were supposed to do – they threw them out! Fortunately, some people developed an interest in ephemera, usually in specific kinds of items, and began collecting them. These ephemera collections add to the historical record in ways in which their original creators likely never dreamed. 
How could an item meant to be discarded ever help me in my research? For one thing, a single piece of ephemera such as a receipt or company letterhead may be all that is left that shows a business or organization once existed or that a particular person or group was involved in an event. Ephemera collections are also used to better understand what people were doing or what they were interested in at a particular place and time. Below are a few examples from the Library’s Ephemera Collection (see here for the full finding aid) and some ways in which these kinds of materials have been used
Lustro Advertising Card, 1880
Lustro Advertising Card, 1880

Restaurant Menus

Most restaurants have menus, whether they are printed on paper or appear online. Restaurant menus are chock full of useful information for researchers interested in a variety of topics. restaurant menu can show what people were eating, how tastes changed over time, the price of the meal, the intended societal class of the restaurant’s patrons, whether this was a special dinner for a particular event, and variations in dining between different regionsNote that one of the dinners below was served to newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln when he visited Albany! 
On left: Delavan House Dinner Menu Given by the Legislature of the State of New York to Honor Abraham Lincoln, February 18, 1861. On right: Delavan House Bill of Fare, 1846.

Trade, Business, and Palm Cards

Although collectors sometimes differ on the specifics of each of these cards, in general, these cards are wallet-sized with printed information promoting a particular trade, business, organization, or person. Many of us have business cards promoting our place of business and providing the person to whom we give these with our contact information. These are often printed on demand, and can be used for a variety of kinds of research, such as who was employed in a particular business, tracing a company’s logo and design changes, tracking your ancestor’s employment, or determining who was running for a particular political office in a given year 


Programs of all kinds can be useful for researchers. Concert programs and theater playbills often include a list of songs for intended performance or a scene list, names and brief biographies of those involved, financial supporters of the production, advertisements for other local venues and events, and, if part of a season, what else was showing that season. Souvenir programs, like the one below, might include photographs from behind-the-scenes, song lyrics, and interviews with the cast and crew. Programs help researchers understand what kinds of entertainment were popular at a particular place and time (including what may have been considered risqué or controversial)who was involved in a production (local people or a traveling company, a famous conductor or someone just beginning their career), and what information was interesting for audience members to know about the production or artists they were going to see. 
Official Souvenir Program for All-Hallowe'en Carnival, 1905
Official Souvenir Program for All-Hallowe'en Carnival, 1905


Tickets can also prove helpful for research. Tickets have many kinds of purposes – admission, travel, ownership of an item, to claim a prize, and so on. Think about how much information is on an airplane ticket today! Researchers can then use this information to learn prices of different things in a particular time, how people moved about and different routes they took, if certain industries offered special passes to employees and under what conditions they traveled (such as the railroad employee pass below), and much more. Consider the ticket for the Mansion House below. It includes information on the hotel, prices for accommodations, and information on train and day boat schedules. 
We hope you have enjoyed our brief look at a few items from the Library's Ephemera Collection. There is much more to see in this collection, and items are added frequently.
As always, please contact us with any questions, and next week, we will look at the final collection covered in this series: Posters and Broadsides.
14 May 2020
Program for Performance at the Royal Olympic Theatre, Yokohama, April 3, 1865
Program for Performance at the Royal Olympic Theatre, Yokohama, April 3, 1865