One of the sources I love to tap into when I’m writing historical fiction is ephemera. Ephemera are paper objects meant to serve a short-term function and be disposed of at the end of their useful lifespan. Some of the many items that fall into this category are product labels, railroad tickets, dressmakers patterns and Christmas cards.
Ephemera of all types provide amazing insider information and can help you understand the concerns of the day. They can show you the relative cost of goods, what the popular jokes were, illustrate the trends from food, to fashion. These are incredibly helpful items for crafting historical characters and locations. Best of all, the nature of ephemera: fragile, prevalent and easy to scan or photograph, makes for treasure troves of images available over the web.
Here are a few of my favorite sources of ephemera, I hope they inspire you to go out and do some research of your own.
Ephemera Society of America:
Start here to get an overview of what ephemera are and why it’s important for historical research. You will find books for sale, information about conferences, and in case you become a fan, you can join the society and gain access to a network of other members. They also have a searchable database of historians and collectors talking, reviewing and arguing about the cultural importance of ephemera.
The Library of Congress:
Those outside the historical field may not realize that the U.S. Library of Congress is driven to digitize their collections of ephemera. They employ a huge staff and create outstanding reproductions using all the best technology. Plus the collection is not limited to U.S. items, although that is a big part of their holding and some iconic ephemera rest in their capable hands, like this original telegram from the Wright brothers.
The British Museum:
The age and breadth of this collection and that of the National Archives and the British Library system make these sites notable places to search for items. They are still digitizing their ephemera on a collection-by-collection basis, so the situation at these sites can only improve with time. Please remember that much of the U.K. collections are not available for reproduction, or distribution without a fee. However, looking is free.
There are countless sources of ephemera and if you’re writing about an age with widespread literacy and an abundance of paper, you’re bound to find a collection to suit your needs.