Regional Meeting at the Society for the Preservation of New England
Saturday, April 15, 2000 the Ephemera Society held a regional meeting
in Boston at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities,
familiarly referred to by its acronym, SPNEA.
SPNEA was founded in 1910 to protect New England's cultural and
architectural heritage. Its mission is to preserve, interpret, and
collect buildings, landscapes and objects reflecting New England's
daily life between the mid-seventeenth century and today.
In tandem with operating 35 historic properties in five states,
SPNEA maintains an impressive research archive that numbers over
one million items and that includes various kinds of resources,
especially ephemera. Such ephemeral items as postcards, greeting
cards, clippings, programs, broadsides, advertisements, guidebooks,
menus, tickets, invitations, rewards of merit, trade catalogues,
architectural drawings, and illustrated invoices instruct users
about material culture, the history of advertising, the evolution
of graphic design, and the history of technology in New England.
In addition, more than 300,000 photos depict buildings; domestic
and commercial interiors; streetscapes and landscapes; people at
work, relaxing, and at play; and different kinds of transportation.
Our day started out with coffee and pastries at SPNEA's headquarters
at One Bowdoin Square, located close to Fanueil Hall and across
the street from Beacon Hill.
were then treated to a slide presentation by SPNEA President Jane
C. Nylander on the role ephemera played in her research on the Asa
Knight General Store at Old Sturbridge Village. Originally, Knight's
store was located in Dummerston, Vermont. Staff at Old Sturbridge
Village acquired the building to save it from the wrecking ball,
relocated it to its own site, and decided to exhibit it as it would
have appeared in 1838. Thankfully, a store inventory that Knight
had kept came to light and was greatly informative. Beyond this
single document, however, Jane needed to find out how stores of
the period were furnished and what their role was in their community's
Jane and her colleagues examined various kinds of ephemera for
different reasons. Proving especially valuable were children's schoolbooks.
Prints in these volumes typically showed familiar scenes commonplace
to children of the time, and as it turned out, many featured images
of general stores. Since they contained illustrative vignettes of
goods sold by general store proprietors printed billheads were also
helpful. Surviving papers used to wrap products, especially soap,
provided firsthand evidence of the size and shape, and sometimes
smell, of some store goods. Likewise, surviving boxes for hats,
dominoes, and other commodities revealed how goods were packaged.
Probate inventories of Knight's counterparts demonstrated that a
typical storekeeper had 50% of his investment in cloth and 25% in
Were it not for information brought to light by studying ephemera,
Old Sturbridge Village's interpretation of Asa Knight's store would
not be as informative as it now is.
After Jane's talk, we walked to the Somerset Club for a buffet
lunch in a private dining room. The club is located at 42 Beacon
Street, opposite Boston Common, in a house that was designed in
1819 by Alexander Parris for David Sears, a prominent nineteenth-century
Boston city planner and developer. Along the way, Society members
who were familiar with Boston's Beacon Hill guided us past local
landmarks and pointed out architectural styles and details of the
buildings that we passed.
Having finished lunch, Society members walked to the Harrison Gray
Otis House, located nearby on Cambridge Street. Designed by Charles
Bulfinch and constructed in 1796 by Otis, a Boston politician and
developer, it exemplifies the elegant life led by Boston's governing
class right after the American Revolution. Owned by SPNEA, the Otis
House, in addition to being open for tours, is home to SPNEA's library
Lorna Condon, SPNEA's archivist, introduced us to the research
resources of the archives, speaking about the scope and content
of the collection, how the holdings were being developed, and SPNEA's
plans for a new archival facility. Specifically, Lorna highlighted
materials associated with the John Hancock house and its unfortunate
destruction, a marvelous collage album compiled during the late
nineteenth century, trade literature, various prints, and other
materials. After her presentation, Lorna invited Society members
to examine a selection of items that she had taken from storage
for us to see.
Our keepsake for the day, a reproduction paper sheet used to wrap
shot from the Saint Louis Shot Tower, F. Kennett, proprietor, was
generously provided by The Sun Hill Press.
E. Richard McKinstry
[This article originally appeared in the Northeast
Journal of Antiques & Art.]