Ephemera at Winterthur Museum

An exhibition on ephemera from the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera at Winterthur Museum will open on January 9, 2004. The Downs Collection was established in 1955 and named to honor Winterthur’s first curator. Today, nearly fifty years later, the collection includes about 2,500 record groups of original manuscript material, art work, ephemera, and other sources used to document various aspects of everyday life in America.

Simply called “Ephemera,” the exhibition will be up in the foyer outside the main doors of the library until March 2.

A variety of items make up the display. The first exhibit case shows six trade cards with Japanesque images issued by thread maker J.P. Coats & Co., all relating to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado.” In addition, there are stereo cards illustrating the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire, a dinner menu from 1894 from the restaurant at the Lakewood Hotel in New Jersey, and a piece of sheet music with an illustrated cover from 1879, “The Quilt that my Grandmother Made.” Further items are an ornately engraved invitation to the laying of the cornerstone for the headquarters of The Commercial Travelers Home Association of America in Binghamton, New York; bookplates by graphic designer Louis Rhead; and some patriotic envelopes from the Civil War.

Case two features other kinds of ephemera: poster stamps, cigar box labels, comic Valentines from McLoughlin Brothers, a broadside for a carnival in New York City, and a trade label used by clock and watchmaker J.C. Rowley of Philadelphia.

The work of Charles Magnus is highlighted in the third case. Magnus, a favorite of collectors and a lithographer of interest to historians, produced hundreds if not thousands of items during a career that spanned most the second half of the 19th century. Included in the exhibit is a wonderful board game, “New Game of Snake,” a piece of sheet music whose illustration portrays Jefferson Davis wearing a dress, and several colorfully illustrated letterheads and city views. Perhaps most intriguing is a set of cards printed by Magnus in the 1860s portraying Confederate officers and soldiers. These cards were a precursor of the recently issued deck of playing cards depicting wanted former Iraqi leaders.

In addition to the exhibition, people who attended Fall Institute at Winterthur in September 2003 were given the opportunity to study the printed ephemera in the Downs Collection through two 75 minute workshops. For many of the participants, the workshops were eye-openers. Several had a passing acquaintance with ephemera, while others had never regarded ephemera important enough to value as historical artifacts. Some people, however, were dedicated ephemerists and offered their own perspectives to the class.

The workshops opened with a basic definition of ephemera taken from the writings of Maurice Rickards, author and founder of the ephemera societies of England and America, and the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. Next came a discussion of the importance of ephemera to historians followed by suggestions about where individuals could find ephemera to build their own collections, including an online visit to the web site of the Austrian ephemera society to see a short video of an ephemera fair in that country.

Bibliography is important, and there is no shortage of books and articles on ephemera. Workshop participants learned about a number of general writings as well as some specific studies. Neither is there a shortage of web sites focusing on ephemera. Several, including a broadside site at the College of William and Mary, baseball cards at the Library of Congress, and sheet music at Duke University, were visited.

The heart of each workshop was a hands-on look at samples of ephemera from the Joseph Downs Collection, ranging from trade cards to greeting cards, candy wrappers to printed billheads, almanacs to paper dolls. The workshops ended with suggestions about the best way to house personal collections and how to organize ephemera through databases.

Winterthur is located about eight miles northwest of Wilmington, Delaware on Route 52. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday and on Monday holidays. Call 800-448-3883 or visit Winterthur’s web site at http://www.winterthur.org for further particulars and information.

E. Richard McKinstry
Past President

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.] Photo courtesy of Carnegie Hall Archives

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America