Monday, March 12, 2012

Exploring Ephemera

As an intern in the Print and Photograph Department, I work frequently with the Library Company’s ephemera collection. Ephemera – a term first defined by Maurice Rickards in 1988 as the “minor transient documents of everyday life” – is a growing field of study, and the Library Company has an excellent collection that includes everything from broadsides to trade cards. I have been processing the Brightbill Postcard Collection through funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities in order to prepare a selection of the collection to be available through ImPAC, the library’s digital catalog.

While processing the postcards, I’ve noticed the incredible variety in the collection. The Brightbill collection contains images from all over Philadelphia, including automats, trains, hotels, schools, libraries, parks, hospitals, and even window displays in the subway! These images offer a series of views of Philadelphia from famous monuments to daily scenes. 

St. Joseph's Hospital

Postcards were introduced in the United States in 1861, when John P. Charlton of Philadelphia acquired a copyright for an unstamped “postal card.” The US postal service did not allow the use of the phrase “post card” by private publishers until 1901, and the divided backs that we know and use on modern postcards (message on one side, address on the other) were not allowed until 1907 (Rickards 249, Werther and Mott 12). That is why there is often text written along the edges or over the image of early postcards!

Young Friends’ Association Building, Philadelphia, PA

One of my favorite postcards is also an advertisement for Horn & Hardart Automat. The postcard shows the interior of “One of the Fifty Automat Cafeterias in Philadelphia and New York” alongside illustrated instructions on how to use an automat. I love the illustrations that accompany the text, and how the card is designed to catch your attention. This is a good example of how postcards were used for advertising products and services.


Horn & Hardart, How an Automat Works

Check out the rest of the Brightbill postcards on ImPAC at,  and see the Library Company’s flikr account for even more images!

Lydia Bello
Print and Photograph Department Intern Spring 2012

Rickards, Maurice. The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Creator, and Historian. Edited by Michael Twyman, Sally de Beaumont, and Amoret Tanner. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Werther, Mark and Lorenzo Mott. Linen Postcards: Images of the American Dream. Pennsylvania: Sentinel Publishing. 2002.

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