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Untapped E-Resources: American Broadsides and Ephemera


What is this curious artifact of daily life in 19th century America?

Rebus from advertisement for R.C. Sawdey & Co.
Rebus, forming part of an advertisement for R.C. Sawdey & Co.'s Boots and Shoes, Coldwater, Michigan, 1869

It's a rebus—a puzzle where symbols, words, and letters spell out a message for the patient decoder. This particular rebus dates to 1869 and forms part of an advertisement for R.C. Sawdey & Co.'s Boots and Shoes in Michigan. It was a sort of promotional contest: the first six respondents to submit the rebus's solution would win a free pair of shoes. Try to solve it yourself, and then compare your answer to mine. (Sadly, unlike a modern crossword puzzle, answers were not subsequently published.) This rebus, meant to be carried around, written on, and discarded shortly thereafter, is an example of ephemera.

Playbill for Boston Museum performance starring John Wilkes Booth, 1863
Playbill for a Boston Museum theater performance starring John Wilkes Booth, 1863

Ephemera is a wonderful thing. The term describes anything intended for temporary use, but libraries and other cultural heritage institutions have ensured the long-term survival of many ephemeral objects, like tweets (the Library of Congress), Chipotle cups (Yale's Beinecke Library), and menus (us!). Broadsides—documents printed on a single sheet of paper and typically hung as a poster—are often grouped with ephemera. NYPL's broadside collection includes the first ever printing and first New York printing of the Declaration of Independence and John Wilkes Booth's wanted poster.

For researchers, ephemera suggests a more fully-realized picture of a historical era. We may know what Abraham Lincoln was writing in 1862, but what was he eating? Wearing? Seeing? Ephemeral objects offer us glimpses of these day-to-day realities. For teachers, ephemera provides succint primary sources for students to read, analyze, and compare. But working with physical examples of ephemera presents certain challenges. They're difficult to describe thoroughly in library catalogs, and researchers may want to quickly look through many examples of a given type of ephemera. Teachers would ideally like multiple copies of a document to distribute in class, which could then be annotated by their students.

That is why I selected American Broadsides and Ephemera to be the first installment in my Untapped E-Resources blog series. Through this series, I hope to bring attention to some of our online resources that hold valuable content, yet may be flying under many people's radar.

Digitized from the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, American Broadsides and Ephemera contains 30,000 fully text-searchable objects dating from 1749 to 1900. Civil War-era material is particularly robust. As a NewsBank/Readex product, you can access this database on its own, or as a part of America's Historical Imprints, which brings in access to over 75,000 other historical books, pamphlets, and printed material from 1640 to 1820. Either platform is well-suited to browsing by genre of document (almanacs, calendars, obituaries, etc.), searching full text, and limiting results to a certain date range. You can access these resources at any NYPL library computer, or while logged on to library Wi-Fi.

For those just starting out, I have some favorite genres that are good places to begin researching period-specific ephemera. For a culinary perspective, try Cookbooks (look in America's Historical Imprints for this one) and Menus, where you can find gems like the first bacon recipe authored by an American:

To make the best Bacon.
To each ham put one ouce saltpetre, one pint bay salt, one pint molasses, shake together 6 or 8 weeks, or when a large quantity is together, bast them with the liquor every day; when taken out to dry, smoke three weeks with cobs or malt fumes. To every ham may be added a cheek, if you stow away a barrel and not alter the composition, some add a shoulder. For transportation or exportation, double the period of smoaking.
(Source: Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1796.)
Or, try Concert Programs, Playbills, Programs, and Songs to get a feel for the arts and entertainment of a particular time period.
1837 concert advertisement printed in Boston line
Concert advertisement printed in a braille contemporary known as Boston line, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1837

Advertisements and Advertising Cards reveal the goods and services on offer at various points in America's history, from spyglasses to chocolates to libraries. One shopkeeper's strategy? "Buy worth a Dollar when you come, / And you may drink a glass of RUM."

Advertising card for Lydia Learned, c. 1770
Advertising card for Lydia Learned, c. 1770
Advertisement for circulating music library at Maiden Lane, New York City, late 18th century
Advertising card for circulating music library at Maiden Lane, New York City, late 18th century

There's no telling what you might find in American Broadsides and Ephemera, whether you pursue a more focused search strategy or just fall down the rabbit hole for a while. (Which, if you can't tell, is what happened to me while writing this post!) See for yourself what treasures await, and share what you find in the comments!

Image Credits: American Antiquarian Society and NewsBank, Inc.


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