Ephemera Society Exhibitions

Over the years the Ephemera Society has staged nearly 30 exhibitions from Boston, Massachusetts, to Pt. Richmond, California, from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Williamsburg, Virginia. Subjects have covered printmakers Currier and Ives, ephemera associated with American drugstores, paper toys, American political life, and the list goes on.

Our first exhibit coincided with Ephemera 2, held in Rye, New York, in 1981. Speakers at the conference that year contributed informal displays of ephemera that related to their presentations. Each year since 1981, the society has featured an exhibition at its fair and conference.

In addition, during the 1990s, the Ephemera Society scheduled exhibitions at its five symposiums. In 1991, we met at the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, and displayed a show entitled "Understanding Ephemera"; in 1992, we gathered outside Wilmington, Delaware, at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, where we were informed and entertained with a presentation called "Designing American Life, 1780-1980"; two years later, in 1994, at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts, "The American Play Ethic" helped illustrate our speakers' presentations; also in 1994, this time at the William Clements Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, we were treated to "The American Spirit of Transportation"; and in 1995, at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, "Job Printing in America" came to the fore.

Although all of the symposium shows were wonderful, the first, in 1991, especially stands out. Our host, the Strong Museum, had its own exhibition on display, "Selling the Goods: Origins of American Advertising, 1840-1940", and the talks and exhibit at the Ephemera Society's symposium also dealt with this broad topic.

There were five parts to the society's exhibit, two of which were on ephemera representing 19th century medicine. One dealt with medical advertising through popular song, the other patent medicine advertising. A third considered the marketing history of Hallmark cards. As label text pointed out, the word "hallmark" could be thought of in terms of the work of medieval guilds, when artisans created their products in "halls" and stamped them with their "marks."

The other two parts of the show highlighted caricatures used in American advertising. Santa Claus existed in the minds of children as a fantasy figure, but to adults, he was a "super salesman" whose image was an advertising vehicle on trade cards, calendars, magazine ads, and brochures. Chinese figures appeared on ephemera in less than enviable ways, due in large measure to the influence of the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882. American businesses portrayed Chinese people as foreign sojourners with curious habits who were often linked to working in laundries.

The Ephemera Society continues its tradition of putting on exhibitions with its latest, "Dolls as Advertising Gimmicks," curated by Diane DeBlois. Without doubt, it has the potential of being seen by a larger audience than all of our other shows combined, since it is on our web site (www.ephemerasociety.org).

As Diane says, "dolls were one of the most common design motifs on 19th century trade cards. In combination with attractively dressed, winsome children, they helped project a Victorian ideal of domestic beauty and tranquillity to the consumers of the new Middle Class. Choosing such a design to promote a product all but guaranteed the trade cards inclusion in ubiquitous parlor scrapbooks."

The exhibit begins with an example of how businesses "borrowed" images for their own purposes. Not exactly stock cards, but with illustrations looking incredibly similar, Miller & Umbdenstock of Chicago and Buck & Lindner of New York City co-opted the same design of a young girl taking her magnificently dressed doll for a walk in a baby carriage. Next are depictions of dolls in various settings with young girls–their "mothers"–either holding them or close by, used to market such items as sewing patterns, books, corn starch, life insurance, cologne, and blood bitters.

Within the exhibition are several sections with sub themes: "Playing with Dolls as Rehearsal for Adult Life," "Playing Doctor," "The Tea Party," "The Sewing Circle," and "Wash Day." Each section features trade cards illustrated with colorful pictures of dolls, all of which served as marketing devices for companies in the burgeoning American economy of a century ago.

Many thanks to Robert Dalton Harris, longtime Ephemera Society member, for sharing his recollections of our exhibits, and more importantly, for organizing most of them.

E. Richard McKinstry

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

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   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America