Sunday, March 22, 2015

Women's History Month 2015: Ephemera

 Have you ever considered using ephemera in your search for your female ancestor? One example of using ephemera comes from Michael Popek, a bookseller who reports on the ephemera he finds used as bookmarks in the used books he purchases for his store. He documents these finds, many having genealogical importance, on his blog  Forgotten Bookmarks. Forgotten Bookmarks provide an important reminder that our family, and maybe even ourselves, place important, significant items in books as a way to mark our pages. While a fun look at history, ephemera is also an important resource.

All types of genealogically relevant ephemera exists for researching female ancestors. The concept of ephemera may be best understood by genealogists in relation to family history sources like scrapbooks. Scrapbooks, in the 19th century and even now, are places to hold the little pieces of paper that document events or a memory. Photos, ticket stubs, playbills, napkins, menus, newspaper clippings, flyers, programs, correspondence, valentines and greeting cards are all possible items encapsulated inside a scrapbook. 

From the collection of Gena Philibert-Ortega
I will never forget the aha moment I had about the importance of ephemera in genealogical research many  years ago at a presentation given by genealogist Birdie Monk Holsclaw. In that presentation Birdie talked about wanting to know more about an early 19th century car crash that killed the parents of a student attending the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. Birdie, now deceased, had a long term project studying the early students who attended that school. As she researched, she got the notion that she should see if she could actually find the bill of sale for the car that the family was killed in. What are the chances that a bill of sale from the early 19th century would still exist? A record that most likely over time would be trashed because it had no further use beyond being a proof that the car was purchased. Well Birdie found out that the auto dealer who sold the car to that family had sent all of their bills of sale to a local archive for preservation. Birdie found that receipt which helped her learn more about the family’s car. Ephemera can provide genealogical answers.

Defining Ephemera
What is ephemera? Simply defined,  it is paper material items that were not meant to be archived or for long term use. According to The Ephemera Society of America’s website, “ephemera includes a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or sort-term use.” They report that 500 categories of ephemera can be found in the Encyclopedia of Ephemera.[i]
For the genealogist, not every type of ephemera will be of use because the nature of the item does not include information that would be value to the reconstruction of an individual’s life. However, some items of ephemera that would be of interest to genealogists include:

  • ·         Business cards
  • ·         Greeting cards
  • ·         Invitations
  • ·         Letters/Correspondence
  • ·         Menus
  • ·         Newspapers/newspaper clippings
  • ·         Postcards
  • ·         Receipts
  • ·         Magazines
  • ·         Business documents
  • ·         Event programs
  • ·         Membership cards

Where can you find ephemera? That isn't always so easy considering you want it to be relevant to your ancestor's life, but some places to start include:
  • Home Sources
  • Auction sites
  • Manuscript collections
  • Vintage paper sales/used book sales
  • Thrift, antique and used book stores
  • Online

Ephemera is an overlooked piece in the overall genealogical research process. Consider broadening your search to include the bits of information that can help move your research beyond solely names and dates.

[i] What is Ephemera? The Ephemera Society of America <

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