Going to School at e-Bay?

The Internet has grown greatly over time, sites increasing in number exponentially over the years. Those familiar with the Internet know that various URL extensions--.gov, .edu, .org, and .com--identify kinds of sites: governmental, educational, non-profits, and commercial. And, each kind of site offers information distinctive to the groups they represent.

Individuals interested in studying ephemera might access a government site such as the Library of Congress to catch up on exhibitions, an education site to check an online catalog or index, an organization site such as the Ephemera Society's to find out about an upcoming meeting, and a commercial site to purchase something for themselves.

Increasingly, however, ephemerists interested in doing research on their collections or expanding their knowledge in other areas have been drawn to dot-coms for information. Intended for business purposes, most are well designed, adopting the latest technology to capture an audience and promote return visits. But, as Deirdre Donohue, the library director of the International Center of Photography, pointed out in a recent article in Art Libraries Journal, "Consumer databases provide richer 'objective' stores of information about the content of magazines, books and ephemera than do library catalogues."

A recent search on e-Bay under the general topic of ephemera yielded 127 responses. Retrieved were an old medical book from 1909; a pack of 100+ items--sometimes referred to as a dealer's lot--including postcards, stamps, cigar labels, sheet music, and advertisements; a lot of Thomas Cook & Son ephemera from 1905; and a postcard showing the Van Briggle pottery works in Colorado Springs, Colorado. However, scant information beyond an image or two in addition to ordering information was included in describing the material.

More specific search terms lessened the number of e-Bay's responses, and perhaps not surprisingly, there was more information about each item being offered for sale. A search for nineteenth century printer-chromolithographer Charles Magnus revealed just one item, a patriotic envelope showing Miss Liberty. Magnus, a patriot and known for producing such things, issued Miss Liberty in 1861 and featured the words "Dedicated to the Gallant Defenders of our National Union" under her portrait.

Palmer Cox created the marvelous Brownies in the late 1800s. A search under his name brought twenty-seven items to the screen, including not only ephemera but also salt shakers, a camera, napkin ring, refrigerator magnet, and watch stand, demonstrating the influence the Brownies had on the production of three-dimensional objects. One piece of paper ephemera in particular, "The Brownies through the Year," contained especially good information: "Although most collectors are aware of the wonderful Cox Brownies which appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine for many years, much more difficult to find are the large pages he did for Ladies' Home Journal in the early 1890s."

Children as well as adults can benefit from searching dot-com sites. Suppose that a student had been assigned to find out how images of American presidents were used over the years to sell products in the marketplace. A search on e-Bay would tell him that in the 1890s, Selz, Schwab & Co. of Chicago, makers of "Rock Bottom" shoes (also, "Ask for our A.B.C. Children's Shoes"), had circulated a series of trade cards featuring the portraits of our presidents. In 1933, Elite Cleaners, operated by Billie Mainord, Main and Shannon Streets, Jackson, Tennessee, produced a fan entitled "Presidents of the United States from Washington to Hoover," asking the question "Who will be next?" Without offerings like these on e-Bay and other dot-com sites, we may never have known about such items.

Thankful though we may be, there is a downside in relying on commercial Internet sites for information. Very simply, after a while their managers post new offerings and remove all references to what they have already sold. In a sense, ephemera offered for sale is truly ephemeral: it lasts for a short time--in this context electronically--before it disappears from view. Some sites can be recaptured by such services as The Wayback Machine (http://web.archive.org/collections/web.html), which according to its greeting "puts the history of the World Wide Web at your fingertips. The Archive contains over 100 terabytes and 10 billion web pages archived from 1996 to the present." All users need to do is type the URL of the site they wish to revisit, and if it is archived, they will be taken there. Unfortunately, e-Bay has chosen to prevent retro searches.

Students especially need to be conscious of the ephemerality of web sources since their teachers most likely require footnotes, and with out of date or unusable URLs, they are impossible to provide. Perhaps the only alternative is to append paper copies of web pages to term papers, an ironic solution for tracking ephemeral sources since by printing them out, they become more or less permanent.

E. Richard McKinstry
Past President

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America