Ephemera includes all those paper materials meant to be used and thrown away. For the student of printing, engraving, or lithography, ephemeral specimens can be studied in their own right. For broader historical questions, ephemera can shed new light on the times in which the ephemera was made, distributed, and used. Also, many pieces of ephemera have genuine artistic merit and continue to please the eye. Designed to be transitory, ephemera nonetheless has enduring value.
At the DeGolyer Library, we have both broad and deep collections of ephemera, some more accessible than others. Among our collections are such things as almanacs, advertisements, bank checks, billheads, bonds, bookplates, broadsides, brochures, business cards, calendars, catalogs, comic books, currency, greeting cards, invitations, labels, menus, newspapers, pamphlets, passes, postcards, posters, programs, rewards of merit, sheet music, songsters, stock certificates, tickets, timetables, and trade cards.
Some of these collections, such as currency, railroad passes, timetables, and broadsides, contain items of great rarity. The John N. Rowe III Collection of Texas Banknotes, for example, is the most complete collection in existence through 1865. The John Rowe-B.B. Barr Collection of post-1865 Texas Banknotes ranks with the best collections in public or private hands, given to DeGolyer Library by those generous donors in 2003. Other ephemera collections are simply accumulations that librarians, curators, and individuals have assembled over the years. These piles and boxes of materials may have no great monetary value, but we believe they have great usefulness for historical inquiries.
Access to the ephemera collections varies. Our broadsides, pamphlets, and almanacs are generally catalogued online in PONI. For other materials, we rely on various in-house checklists. Some collections have been loosely arranged by subject (“Yellowstone Park,” “California,” “Mexico”) and even more collections remain unprocessed entirely. In addition, many manuscript and archival collections contain ephemera. For example, a complete set of the J.C. Penney Co. catalogs is a part of the J.C. Penney archives. Our long-term goal is to arrange our ephemera collections by format and to add more descriptive guides to the web as they become available. We have only begun this process, however.
One such list inventories a portion of our trade catalogs, long valued as a useful genre for historical research in business history, advertising, and consumer culture. The DeGolyer Library has a remarkably rich and diversified collection of thousands of trade catalogs covering a wide array of subject areas, including agriculture, manufacturing, hardware and machine tools, railroads, automobiles, aviation, consumer products, household furnishings, leisure goods, publishing, and scientific and optical instruments. The collection ranges in date from the early 19th century through the 20th century, with the greatest concentration of materials falling between 1870 and 1950.