Artspotting: Philly ephemera
The Library Company of Philadelphia displays junk-mail from 19th century.
Mrs. Henrietta S. Duterte was a respectable businesswoman. That’s why she had a billhead. A billhead was a 19th-century version of a receipt. The top of the billhead often had a picture or illustration along with the address of the company and the date of transaction. Below was room to write out what had been purchased and for how much. Mrs. Duterte’s billhead is especially interesting because she was an embalmer. She may even have been the first female embalmer in the US. She was also an African American woman.
Mrs. Henrietta S. Duterte’s billhead from 1897 can be viewed at the Library Company on Locust Street in downtown Philadelphia. The billhead is in an exhibit called Remnants of Everyday Life: Historical Ephemera in the Workplace, Street, and Home. The exhibit contains menus and playbills. It contains scrapbooks filled with can labels. In short, it contains the graphic art of daily life from past ages. One particularly innovative advertisement on display is made of rough paper folded into three sections. In the first section, a man looks through a hole in a fence—the hole is cut into the cardboard. Opening to the second section reveals that the man is a looking at the naked bottom of a young woman. But when the final section is opened, we see that the butt was that of a pig standing near a woman relaxing on a hammock. The advertisement is for Imperial Metal Polish, which “cleans the world.”
The Library Company started collecting ephemera in 1785 and has been doing so ever since. That’s why they’ve got more of the stuff than almost anyone else. People come from all over the world to see this ephemera. It is important ephemera. That’s a strange thing to say, of course. The whole point of ephemera is that it is otherwise unimportant stuff. (The word “ephemera” comes from the Greek, meaning “lasting only a day”). Much of what the Library Company calls “ephemera” we call “junk mail.” It is the flyer someone hands you on the street and you immediately discard in the trash. Or it is the ticket stub that we throw away just after using.
But when you take the stuff of daily life and add time, it gets interesting. A playbill from one hundred and fifty years ago is a relic from another age. It takes on a special aura. This is true of ephemera even more than of other objects from the past. There is something grand about a gilded armoire once used by Louis XIV. But the armoire doesn’t hold and preserve the actual look and feel of past life in the same way a cheaply produced cigar ad from 1837 does. Maybe that is because the armoire was made to stand beautifully apart, transcending the age in which it was made. The cigar ad was made to stand inside the age, easily accessible to all. That accessibility gives us a glimpse of what life was like in a time unlike our own. If you are interested in such glimpses, there are thousands of them cluttered about the delightful exhibit at the Library Company through December 13th. Be sure to save your exhibit pamphlet for future generations.
Today, The Library Company of Philadelphia will be hosting, Unmediated History: The Scholarly Study of 19th-Century Ephemera, a collaboration conference with The Ephemera Society of America. On the September 25th the library will display the works of local Philadelphian cartoonists who were inspired by the ephemera exhibition. For more information about these two events log onto The Library Company of Philadelphia’s website.