Ephemera


Some of my favorite moments at the bench are those of quiet surprise, when turning the page of a book reveals a pressed flower, or a letter unfolds to reveal a lock of hair.  These small gifts from the past interest and delight me. These mementos communicate, in their own non-textual way, the everyday moments which ultimately make up that idea we call History.

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Letter from Mary Adams to her sister, Catherine Robb.

Recently, I was assessing and stabilizing several folders of late nineteenth-century letters from the Adams Family Papers in preparation for digitization. (Look for letters from Mary Newbury Adams to be added to our Library Digital Collections in celebration of Women’s History Month, March 2014).  As I turned the pages of the letter pictured above, I noticed that its accompanying envelope seemed a bit puffy, as if something were still tucked inside. I opened it to find two swatches of fabric which are slightly crumpled but otherwise in excellent condition, sent from one sister to another in consultation over a new dress.

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Look carefully: can you see the outline of the ephemera once tucked between these pages?

Archival materials speak to us in more ways than one. Another letter from later the same year shows evidence of “acid burn,” indicating that there was once a bit of ephemera tucked inside, something acidic such as a newspaper clipping.  Whatever was enclosed has been lost, but the physical evidence of its existence remains.

I have come across some pretty interesting things looking through the scrapbooks in Special Collections. One of the more colorful items was an album of evaporated milk can labels compiled by an alum named Adrian Zachariah Hodson.

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It was difficult to pick which labels to share because either the artwork or the names were so interesting. Here are just a few that caught my eye the day I was doing the condition assessment.

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I will admit that I might have initially thought that Adrian Zachariah had a bit too much time on his hands, but further investigation showed that he collected the labels from 1942 to 1984 to track changes in the industry over the years. An internet search showed that Doctor Hodson held two patents for instantly soluble milk powder and its manufacturing process, as well as having published two milk-related books with Cornell University during the late 1930s. I continue to be impressed by the things that the alumni of Iowa State University do after they leave campus.

So, take that, baby!

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An envelope of pressed plants arrived in the Conservation Lab recently.  These are not proper botanical specimens with identifying labels, but instead, a handful of pressed flowers and leaves tucked into a postal envelope.  This artifact belongs to the Sarah (Tefft) Underwood Papers housed in ISU Library Special Collections and University Archives, and even without botanical credentials, holds some intrinsic value for the collection.  The envelope is addressed to Sarah Underwood’s sister, Ann Tefft, who continued to live in the family’s hometown of Kingston, RI, after Sarah and her husband moved to Princeton, IA, to try their hand at a life of farming.  It’s mere speculation, but I like to imagine Sarah pressing prairie flowers and sending them back to her sister in New England as a way of sharing a piece of her new, Midwestern life with her family back home.

Envelope contents, emptied willy-nilly onto a sheet of mat board for Before Treatment photo-documentation.

Envelope contents, emptied willy-nilly onto a sheet of mat board for Before Treatment photo-documentation.

Our treatment goal for this fragile artifact was to rehouse the pressed plants in a safe and stable manner that limited handling, while also providing a visually appealing display.  Since my knowledge of praire plants is what one might generously define as “limited,” and the treatment did not warrant consulting a specialist for plant identification, I simply arranged the plants according to size and shape in a manner that gave each one its own bit of breathing space.

Close-up view of one of the windows in the final housing.

Close-up view of one of the windows in the final housing.

The two methods recommended by the literature for securing botanical specimens to a backboard are “strapping” (using small strips of archival, pressure-sensitive tape, such as Filmoplast) or adhering the specimens with methylcelluose adhesive.  Methylcellulose comes in a variety of viscosities, and the one recommended for adhering botanical specimens is Grade A with a molecular weight of 4,000.

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Using a standard, flat-pack archival document box for my starting dimensions, I cut a window mat with nine openings, reserving the upper left corner for the postal envelope, which I housed in a Mylar sheath open on two sides so the envelope could be removed for closer examination if necessary.  In the lower right corner, I secured a Mylar envelope containing plant fragments on a backing of Permalife buffered paper.  In the other windows, I secured the pressed plants with dabs of methylcellulose.

A Note About the Three-Cent Washington Postage Stamp

Although the envelope is undated, we can speculate about when it was mailed thanks to the three-cent Washington postage stamp it bears.  Congress passed a postal reform act in 1851, which allowed letters to be mailed for three cents if pre-paid (rather than the going rate of five cents for pay-upon-receipt).  The three-cent Washington stamp, available in varying reddish-brown to orange shades, was printed from 1851 to 1861 by Toppan, Carpenter, Casilear & Co., a private engraving firm in Philadelphia, PA.  The series included a Type I, Type II, and Type IIa stamp, which varied only slightly from one another along the outer border.  The stamp on this envelope addressed to Ann Tefft is likely a Type IIa, which was introduced in 1857 and discontinued in 1861.  Since it was typical to buy a pre-paid postage stamp at the time of mailing a letter (rather than purchasing a sheet or roll of stamps to keep at home, which became common later in the twentieth century), it is likely that the envelope was mailed between 1857 and 1861.

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Before barcodes became the favored means of charging out library books and tracking their return, libraries experimented with many different systems for keeping track of their inventory.  RFID tags may be the next big thing on the horizon, although many libraries are still finding them prohibitively expensive (ours included).

Many of the books in our General Collections, particularly those housed in the off-site Library Storage Building, retain relics of library charging systems past.

If you work in a library, do you come across these items of now-ephemera in your own collections?  What do you do with them — leave them in the book?  Discard them?  Remove them and archive them, or file them away to recycle as an art project?

In the Preservation Lab, we received the Martin Family Bible and to our surprise found a clear, plastic sheet containing a bright pink ribbon with foreign language characters on it, along with five individual small hair braids, four black and one blonde, each tied with either a string or ribbon.  These braids were probably from early haircuts of the Martin children, but they are unlabeled, so we don’t know for sure.  My challenge was to build a clamshell box to hold and protect this family treasure and also to decide what do to with the ephemera.

I decided to encapsulate the pink ribbon, four leaf particles found on the braids, and each individual hair braid, and then build a protective portfolio to contain all the specimens.  On the back of each encapsulated item, I attached a Velcro coin to hold each item in its place inside the portfolio.

After the portfolio was completed, I could then construct the large clamshell box to house the very ornate and heavy bible.  The pages are very brittle.  Some had come loose over the years and were gently laid back into place.  These beautiful pages hold information on several births dating back to September 15, 1857, and a few deaths and marriages of the Martin Family.

I decided to go with a Talas brown Canapetta book cloth similar to the color of the bible and a natural, textured Canapetta book cloth to simulate pages.  I like working with this book cloth because of the eye appeal, ease to work with, and durability.  After the clamshell was constructed, I then used white Plastazote to cushion the bible and its metal hinges inside the box.  The portfolio also received a sheet of Plastazote underneath it as it rests on top of the bible inside the clamshell box.  I feel the ephemera  in the  portfolio and bible will be well protected in this clamshell box for many years to come.

I would like to know more about the story behind the little braids, but in this book the story has not been recorded.

While most things that people leave in books  — Post-It notes, anyone? — may cause damage which varies from nuisance to costly repair, I will confess to enjoying the occasional pressed flower (even though the acids in plants can stain the pages between which they have been pressed).  Here are some of the things that we have found in Iowa State University Library books, both in the General and Special Collections.  I’m glad not to have a photo of the white supremacist propaganda flier (professionally printed on glossy paper and illustrated with the iconic swastika) that a patron left in a volume of Cicero in the General Collection.

An autumn leaf found in the General Collections volume, /Some Greek Poems of Love & Beauty/.

Leaves found in a Special Collections volume

Pressed flowers found in a Special Collections volume

Avery printer labels used as bookmarks in a General Collections volume

Ephemera found in a Special Collections recipe book

Mr. Robert Ryan's homework exercises for Physical Geography, ca. 1950, found in a Special Collections recipe book

A postcard found in a volume of Mao Tse Tung's Political Theory in the General Collection

Half of a school ID found in a book in the General Collection

What items have you found tucked between the pages of a book?

I love ephemera.  When I open a book and discover a pressed flower, or a newspaper clipping, or a scribbled note on a torn envelope carefully tucked between the pages, I feel a nerdy thrill at the (albeit trivial) historical mystery before me, and an inexplicable connection to the unknown predecessor who placed it there.

The non-profit Ephemera Society, which promotes the collection, preservation, and study of printed and handwritten ephemera, describes ephemera as:

…documents including leaflets, handbills, tickets, trade cards, programmes and playbills, printed tins and packaging, advertising inserts, posters, newspapers and much more.  In the words of the society’s founder, Maurice Rickards, “‘the minor transient documents of everyday life.”  Essentially produced to meet the needs of the day, such items reflect the moods and mores of past times in a way that more formal records cannot.

The manufacturer’s recipe pamphlets collected by ISU Library Special Collections are themselves considered ephemera, so when I opened the booklet Delicious Desserts and Milk Foods Made with Junket (1923) to find half a dozen yellowed newspaper clippings and a much-folded mimeograph, the experience of discovering ephemera within ephemera reminded me of Winston Churchill’s famous observation about Russia, which he called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”


I’m charmed by the evidence that this recipe booklet was once treasured by someone, and consulted often enough that she (in 1920s America, it was almost certainly “she”) used the pamphlet as a housing for other clipped recipes as well.  One of the newspaper clippings is not a recipe at all, but a Christmastide poem, which had perhaps struck her fancy as she was cutting out recipes.  The greater mystery is how (and why) Mr. Robert Ryan’s mimeographed sheet of Lab Exercises for Physical Geography came to be among these other documents.

The mimeographed lab exercises had split along several of its fold lines into fragments.  Mimeograph ink is very sensitive to moisture, so the document was mended and lined with heat-set tissue instead of paste.

The newspaper clippings were washed in an alkaline bath to remove acid degradation products before mylar encapsulation.  The recipe booklet and its encapsulated ephemera were then housed together in a CoLibri pocket large enough to accommodate them all.

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