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Effusive About Ephemera

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The following is a guest post from Senior Music Reference Specialist Robin Rausch.

 

Calling card of Abraham Lincoln to director of the Marine Band Franis Scala, February 4, 1862. Music Division, Library of Congress.
Calling card of Abraham Lincoln to director of the Marine Band Franis Scala, February 4, 1862. Music Division, Library of Congress.

The Music Division assembles special displays fairly often for visiting dignitaries.  But rarely do we get a chance to bring out the Beech-Nut gum wrapper autographed by composer George Gershwin, or the sales receipts for liquor sold to comedian Danny Kaye in the 1960s.  (He was a vodka fan.)  These were among the unusual items on exhibit one recent autumn afternoon for board members of the Ephemera Society of America, in town for their mid-year meeting.  Command displays, or “show and tells” as we like to call them, are especially fun to design for an audience of experts.  And ephemera fans are experts.  Hard-core collectors, they know nineteenth-century sheet music publishing, and wax poetically about dating vintage photographs.

 

Gum wrapper with George Gershwin's autograph. Gershwin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
Gum wrapper with George Gershwin’s autograph. Gershwin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Once defined as “minor transient documents of everyday life,” ephemera is understood more broadly today.  According to the Ephemera Society, ephemera is generally paper-based and usually, but not always, printed.  The term encompasses official documents that were intended to be kept, such as birth and marriage certificates, as well as documents that held special meaning for their original owners, like concert programs or the aforementioned gum wrapper, which was saved by Doris Carson, a cast member in the original 1930 New York production of the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band.

Program from the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Music Division, Library of Congress.
Program from the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Music Division, Library of Congress.

 

 

Apart from its collectible value, ephemera can be a boon to researchers.  That train ticket stub can help piece together an itinerary, and place a subject in a particular location at a specific time.  Sales receipts might reveal tastes and spending habits:  are they from K-Mart or Saks?  For the curious researcher, special collections that are rich in ephemera offer the archival equivalent of dumpster diving.

One of the most popular items in our display was the calling card of Abraham Lincoln, with a hand-written note dated February 4, 1862, asking the director of the Marine Band, Francis Scala, to call on Mrs. Lincoln.  A close second in popularity was the first printing of the poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” better known as the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  The print run for the broadside, issued in Baltimore in 1814, is believed to have consisted of 1000 copies; very few are known to survive.  Yet another favorite was the portfolio of documents from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom from the papers of jazz drummer and civil rights activist Max Roach.

Several other Library of Congress divisions participated in this ephemeral display, which lasted a mere two hours  Amid the buzz of conversation that filled the Whittall Pavilion, it was hard to tell who was having more fun: the attendees or the curators.  I learned a great deal talking with the enthusiastic ephemerists.  I think we all did.

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