Printed Ephemera

The word ephemera comes from the Greek “ephemeros,” lasting only one day, and refers to things meant to be thrown away. Because ephemeral items were not made for posterity, they provide different historical information than more lasting items such as books, because they documented the vicissitudes of ordinary life in an unselfconscious way.

The Library Company’s substantial collection of printed ephemera is far-reaching in subject, genre, and date, including everything from product labels and bookplates to railroad tickets and menus. We have almanacs dating back to the late seventeenth century, including long runs of notables such as Poor Richard’s and almanacs by Benjamin Banneker, the first African-American scientist in America. Much like today, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century advertising was fleeting: promotional broadsides were pasted over; new editions of trade catalogs made earlier versions obsolete; and costs posted in prices current changed weekly. Playbills advertising shows in local theaters and auction notices announcing local sales recorded how early American spent their leisure time and money. Notices for public meetings and Civil War recruiting posters, and official proclamations addressed more serious concerns of the day.

Many genres of ephemera, such as broadsides, almanacs, and pamphlets (sometimes considered ephemeral), are incorporated into the Library Company’s larger collection of printed materials. Cataloged as individual items, they can be found in our online catalog. Other types of ephemera are organized by collection and can be accessed through local finding aids. They include comic valentines, playbills, song sheets, sheet music, trade cards, postcards, Civil War-related materials (including the Sanitary Fair), Centennial-related materials, and proprietary medicine advertising pamphlets.


Adelaide Hechtlinger. The Great Patent Medicine Era (New York: Madison Square Press, 1970).

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]).

Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown. Prairie Fires and Paper Moons: The American Photographic Postcard: 1900-1920 (Boston: David R. Godine, 1981).

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).

William R. Weiss, Jr. The Catalogue of Union Civil War Patriotic Covers (c. William R. Weiss, Jr., 1995).