Printed and Graphic Ephemera

The word ephemera comes from the Greek “ephemeron,” lasting only one day, and has been described variably by scholars as “minor transient documents of everyday life” and “a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use.” Within libraries, in terms of collection management ephemera represents the materials, often mixed-media, that do not fit into the well-established categories of book, manuscript, visual material, or artifact. Broadsides, yearly almanacs, and advertising pamphlets (sometimes considered ephemeral) also comprise the Library Company’s printed ephemera holdings. Ephemeral material along with the more permanent materials constructed from them, like scrapbooks and albums, are sources of striking imagery and is primary evidence in the reconstruction of popular movements and visual cultures of their periods of production, distribution, and consumption. This type of material also provides different historical information than sources such as books, because they document the everyday life of the individuals of the era in an unselfconscious way.

The Library Company of Philadelphia began collecting ephemera in 1785, when it acquired the Pierre Eugène Du Simitière Collection of Revolutionary War-era pamphlets and broadsides, and has been a pioneer in the emergent research uses of early American printed ephemera. With the purchase of the Joe Freedman Collection of Philadelphia Ephemera in fall 2013, the Library’s printed and graphic ephemera collections number nearly 40,000 items and comprise diverse holdings of material related to popular and visual culture, with particular strengths in the history of women, medicine, African American history, German-Americana, and economics.

The Library Company’s collection of printed and graphic ephemera is expansive in subject, and genre, and ranges in date from the late 17th through the early 20th century. Within this area of the Library’s holdings of tens of thousands of items are almanacs that guided the daily activities of and entertained their readers with practical, noteworthy, and historical information. These include long runs of Poor Richard’s and those by Benjamin Banneker, the first African-American scientist in America.

The Library’s commercial ephemera, such as blank forms, bills of lading, labels, trade cards, certificates, bill and letterheads, trade catalogs, and prices current document past business practices, marketing tactics, and promotional rhetoric (textual and visual).

Ephemera marketed for, and found and displayed in the home serves as benchmarks of popular culture and provide evidence of the changing role of the consumer and consumerism and social mores and etiquettes. Such material includes bookplates, blotters, envelopes, scrapbooks and albums, school children’s rewards of merit, puzzles and games, post cards, and valentines within the Library’s holdings.

Additionally, while playbills, tickets, and keepsakes and souvenirs, and menus representing and promoting events, excursions, and performances in diverse venues and auction notices held in the collections record how early Americans spent their leisure time and money, notices for public meetings and Civil War recruiting posters, and official proclamations reflect the sociopolitics of their day.

And, all of the aforementioned represent a range of historical printing and graphic art processes, trades, and designs, as well as mirror the conscious, unconscious, and historical biases and prejudices of the society in which they were generated and received.

Cataloged as individual items and collections, they can be found in our online catalogs through genre search terms and by the name of collectors and collections of which a selection are provided below.

Revised January 2024

  • Richard Balzer. Peepshows: A Visual History (New York: Harry N Abrams, Inc., 1998)
  • Patricia Fenn and Alfred P. Malpa. Rewards of Merit: Tokens of a Child’s Progress and a Teacher’s Esteem as an Enduring Aspect of American Religious and Secular Education (Charlottesville, Va.: Ephemera Society of America, 1994).
  • Ellen Gruber Garvey.  Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Graham Hudson. The Design & Printing of Ephemera in Britain & America, 1720-1920
  • (New Castle, DE : Oak Knoll Press, 2008).
  • Robert Jay. The Trade Card in American History (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987).
  • John Lewis. Printed Ephemera (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Published for the Antique Collectors’ Club, 1990 [1962]).
  • James W. Milgram. American Illustrated Letter Stationary, 1819-1899 (Lake Forest, Il.: Northbrook Publishing Company, Inc., 2016).
  • Maurice Rickards. The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of
  • Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian (London: The British Library, 2000).
  • Dale Roylance. Graphic Americana: The Art and Technique of Printed Ephemera from Abecedaries to Zoetropes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992).
  • Dorothy B. Ryan. Picture Postcards in the United States, 1893-1918 (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982).
  • Barry Shank. A Token of my Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
  • Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott, and Patricia Buckler. The Scrapbook in American Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).
  • William Woys Weaver. Culinary Ephemera : An Illustrated History (Berkeley : University of California Press, 2010).
  • William R. Weiss, Jr. The Catalogue of Union Civil War Patriotic Covers (c. William R. Weiss, Jr., 1995).
  • Anne D. Williams. The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History (New York: Berkley Books, 2004).
  • Albums
  • Almanacs
  • Billheads
  • Bills of lading
  • Blank forms
  • Blotters
  • Bookplates
  • Broadsides
  • Cards
  • Envelopes
  • Ephemera
  • Games
  • Keepsakes
  • Letterheads
  • Menus
  • Pamphlets
  • Playbills
  • Postcards
  • Posters
  • Prices current
  • Puzzles
  • Rewards of merit
  • Scrapbooks
  • Scraps
  • Souvenirs
  • Tickets
  • Trade cards
  • Trade catalogs
  • Valentines
  • Helen Beitler
  • David Doret
  • Pierre Eugene Du Simitière
  • Joe Freedman
  • William H. Helfand
  • William McAllister
  • Charles Rosenberg
  • Roughwood Collection
  • Roger Stoddard
  • Michael Zinman

Philadelphia at the Table: Sleuthing the Paper Trails of Culinary History in Library Company Collections and Regional Archives