Printed Ephemera

R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., An Invitation. Wing MMS Middleton.
Lakeside Press. R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., An Invitation. Wing MMS Middleton.

What is Ephemera?

Ephemera is transitory material, written or printed. The word comes from Greek, where it refers to any phenomenon that lasts but a day. Printed ephemera is sometimes also called “small printing” or “occasional printing” and, since so much of it is nowadays sent through the mail, it is dismissed as “junk mail.” But collectors have been interested in it from the very start of printing in the fifteenth century.

Wing Collection Ephemera

The Newberry’s John M. Wing Collection on the History of Printing includes many examples of printed ephemera of all periods from the fifteenth century to today. Separately cataloged items may be found through the online catalog. Small collections were often classed under the call number ZC, for “small printing.” Larger collections are treated by subject (political pamphlets) or by genre (theater programs) Work by individual designers or collected by them can be accessed through the finding aids for each manuscript collection. The largest single concentration of printed ephemera, some 15,000 pieces, is in files of printing-industry related ephemera maintained by the Wing Collection curator. These can be accessed through an index of makers on the open shelf in the Special Collections reading room (4th floor).

In April 2008, the Newberry produced an exhibit on ephemeral printing.

Searching the Online Catalog

A good idea of the kinds of materials considered to be ephemera can be had by browsing the Newberry online catalog under the subject heading, “Printed ephemera.” Some more specific kinds of ephemera may be located using other subject headings in the catalog. The following search terms will lead you to books about these kinds of printed items, to individually cataloged specimens, and to groups of ephemera that occur in modern manuscript collections:

  • Advertising cards
  • Greeting cards
  • Paper money
  • Advertising fliers
  • Invitations Posters
  • Bookplates Menus Programs
  • Broadsides Pamphlets Prospectuses
  • Business cards Trade catalogs

No such general searches, however, will embrace all of the examples in the Newberry collections. Many additional specimens can be found by using subject searches for “Albums” and “Scrapbooks.” Keyword searching using a subject that interests you plus a generic word like “card” or “pamphlet” may turn up additional examples.

Other Online Resources

There are literally hundreds of web sites devoted to the special forms of printed ephemera popular with collectors. Some more general sites are these:

Ephemera Society of America

The Library of Congress “American Time Capsule”

Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection