Over on the History of Food & Drink blog this month, I’ve been sharing some culinary-related ephemera. Since I’m writing for both blogs this week, I’m working on a theme and to that end, located some local history pieces to share. Not sure what ephemera is? That’s okay–we can help!

Ephemera: pl. n. (ephemeron, sing.) ~ Materials, usually printed documents, created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use. (Thanks, Society of American Archivists for that helpful definition!) So, in other words, things like advertisements, flyers, tickets, or receipts. More specifically, this post is about broadsides. Not sure about that word either (we archivists sometimes like our fancy words!)?

Broadside: (also broadsheet), n. ~ A single sheet with information printed on one side that is intended to be posted, publicly distributed, or sold. Often times, broadsides take the form of flyers or advertisements for events…like these:

Floyd County Land Auction Broadside, 1859.
Floyd County Land Auction Broadside, 1859.
Crockett Mineral Springs Land and Equipment Auction Broadside, 1931.
Crockett Mineral Springs Land and Equipment Auction Broadside, 1931.

Okay, you’ve got me. The next one, since it has two sides, isn’t technically a broadside, but it is ephemeral and it is still a local auction advertisement!

Nelson R. Wilson Auction Notice, 1932. (Front)
Nelson R. Wilson Auction Notice, 1932. (Front)
Nelson R. Wilson Auction Notice, 1932. (Back)
Nelson R. Wilson Auction Notice, 1932. (Back)
Yellow Sulphur Springs Sale Broadside, 1943.
Yellow Sulphur Springs Sale Broadside, 1943.

As you may have noticed, some of these aren’t in the best of condition. Oddly enough (or perhaps not?), the oldest one, from 1859, is in the best shape. Paper-making processes in 1859 resulted in a product that was better designed to withstand time, more so than paper being made in the 1930s and 1940s. But remember, the reason we call these items ephemera is because of their expected short life span and transitory nature. Once they have fulfilled their purpose, on the surface, they may not seem to have enduring value. And to be honest, even in 1943, who would be thinking “Hey, I should really keep this flyer from that land and building sale that’s coming up this weekend in Yellow Sulphur Springs.” Lucky for us, someone did, because even ephemeral documents have research value!

Depending on the kind of information they contain, broadsides and other pieces of ephemera can be useful for a variety of reasons. Doing research on the history of a piece of land? Auction flyers might tell you about different sales over time. They’re also a great way to learn about local government officials, the closure of a business (and resulting disposition of property), and like the one from Crockett Mineral Springs, may even include handwritten notations. Broadsides don’t have all the answers, but they can often add another piece of the puzzle that is primary source research. Saved receipts can offer insight in the domestic and business purchases of an individual, family, or corporation. Tickets kept after decades can help show the change in prices or popularity of events. There are all kinds of great reasons you’ll find ephemera in special collections and archives, and it’s important to remember that your research can both take you in unexpected directions and benefit from unexpected discoveries.

So, next time you see a flyer on a building, in a community space, or on a campus, give it a brief glance. It might just be a future piece of history.

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