Friday, June 29, 2012

Victorian Ephemera

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “ephemera” as “One who or something which has a transitory existence.”(1) According to the Ephemera Society of America, it includes “a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use.”(2) Ephemera encompasses an ever-expanding range of objects from commercial items like trade cards, advertisements, and receipts to menus, bookplates, and program covers that give insight into the leisure activities of a time period and culture. The Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department at Brandeis holds a varied collection (measuring half a linear foot), featuring items from Britain and the United States, predominantly dated between 1840 and 1901.

Trade cards

Businesses used trade cards to advertise goods and services. The majority of the cards in the collection are from businesses in Massachusetts and New York, although other U.S. states, primarily in the Northeast, are represented as well. Similar in size to modern business cards, they tend to feature brightly colored images that may have little or no relation to the business being advertised. In fact, very different businesses might choose the same images for their cards. Popular themes in the collection include flowers, children, and animals.

Of particular note are the cards with Japanese-inspired imagery. These cards demonstrate the rise of interest in and popularity of Japanese culture and aesthetics following the opening of Japan to trade in 1854.


Victorian advertisers used many of the same techniques as companies today, offering free items and celebrity testimonials to promote their products.

Pierce’s Memorandum and Account Book

This book was distributed by World’s Dispensary Medical Association. In addition to the dated calendar pages featuring sentiments about the book’s usefulness, it includes pages of advertisements for Dr. Pierce’s range of remedies.

Greeting Cards

People have exchanged greeting cards for centuries, but until the mid-nineteenth century they were expensive, handmade items. Advances in printing technology, along with the introduction of the postage stamp in the 1840s, which lowered postal rates, led to a boom in the popularity of greeting cards. Although they were more affordable, they were not necessarily less ornate than their handmade predecessors.

Leisure and Entertaining

In addition to commercial items, the collection contains invitations, tickets, programs, and menus that indicate a range of events enjoyed by Victorians, several of which were sponsored by royalty.


Bookplates not only indicate the owner of a book, but reveal something about the owner as well, such as a family crest, personal motto, or aesthetic sensibility.

Description by Katherine Morley, Archives & Special Collections Assistant and M.A. candidate in Anthropology

(1) "Ephemera." n.2. Second edition, 1989; online version June 2012.; accessed 14 June 2012. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1891.

(2)"The Ephemera Society of America." The Ephemera Society of America, 2012. Web. Accessed 14 June 2012.

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