Witness to History: The Ephemera of Our Lives

Souvenir_of_Lowville_14-resized-600[Editor’s note: Genealogy expert Thomas MacEntee highlights some seemingly insignificant items you may have in your family archives and why they matter to your family history.]

As family historians, we tend to handle quite a bit of paper in the form of vital records, photographs and documents. If we are lucky, we also get to peruse family Bible pages, letters and diaries of our ancestors. But is there so much emphasis on the “important” stuff that we neglect other items such as souvenir books, postcards, brochures and the like?

In order to get the entire picture of our ancestors, we need to be on the lookout for items that to the ordinary eye may seem just that—ordinary. Yet if they were only ordinary, why did your family set them aside and hold on to them all these years?

Ephemera: Not So Fleeting

Unless your ancestor was a hoarder or pack rat, most likely they collected certain pieces of ephemera because they related to a place visited, an important event in history, or they brought back memories.

Ephemera is the term used to described items that were intended to exist or to be enjoyed for a short period of time. When it comes to printed materials we’re talking post cards, brochures, souvenir books, ribbons and other items. Some were used at events such as a board meeting or a church social. Others are more commemorative in nature and were given out at big events like the World’s Fair or a presidential inauguration.

At the time of issuance, the thought was that the recipient would simply consume the information and then discard it in the trash. However many people would save these paper items since they served as markers or touchstones in one’s life. Years later, when pulled out of a dusty place or a box, the collector could relate how they acquired the item, the event involved, who was there, etc. Ephemera serve as great story generators!

How Does Ephemera Help My Research?

What is obvious when you look at the postcards, pamphlets and other items, is that these meant something to someone at one time. They were important enough to warrant preserving with other collectibles, photos and documents. The not so obvious is why they mattered.

That’s part of your challenge as a family history researcher: to research the item itself, then look at your genealogy data and place the item in context. Only then can you really start to understand why it was saved, rather than not disposed of as originally intended.

What we’re talking about here is a variation on collateral research. Collateral research is the process of looking at all the in-laws, friends, neighbors and others who impacted an ancestor’s life to gain more information about your direct ancestors. Here are some ways to better understand how a piece of ephemera could relate to your family history:

  • Scan the ephemera right away, especially if it is fragile. Then preserve the original.
  • Find a date for the item and any information related to the place and the publisher.
  • Note the event related to the ephemera if there is no date. Then do your research on that event.
  • Look at letters, diaries and postcards from your ancestors and see if they mention the event or visiting the location related to the ephemera.
  • Show the scanned image to family and friends who may remember the event or location or might recall a story that someone in the family told about the event or location.

With enough sleuthing you can connect the dots and not only find out why the piece of ephemera was produced, but also why your family held on to it!

To get a better idea of how ephemera factors into family history research, look at the articles available at The In-Depth Genealogist or at Gena’s Genealogy, where Gena Philibert Ortega shares her own ephemera finds and helps you look for more around the house and in your family’s archives. There are even pinned ephemera images over at Pinterest.

Souvenir of Lowville and My Austin Ancestors

Souvenir_of_Lowville_01-resized-600With my own research, I discovered a copy of Souvenir of Lowville that I’ve written about at my blog. This 18-page booklet, printed in 1895, was among my great-grandmother Therese McGinnes Austin’s items that I inherited. You can see high-resolution images of the booklet using the link at  http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nylewis/SouvenirofLowville.html

While I could have easily just viewed Souvenir of Lowville on my own or shared it with family, I went a few steps further. I knew this was a great find and could help other researchers with ancestors in Lowville. So I scanned the pages (this was on a flatbed scanner before the Flip-Pal mobile scanner was invented) and then shared them on my blog. I also contacted the local GenWeb site for Lewis County, New York and allowed them to post the images on their site.

Souvenir_of_Lowville_02Since the booklet was published in 1895, I knew that it was no longer protected by copyright and could be shared. I also realized that I could not simply let it sit in a box or an envelope. By bringing it to light on the Internet, I’ve given it a second chance and extended its life of appreciation far beyond what the original publishers had intended.

Find That Ephemera and Let It Speak!

Now that you have a better understanding of what to look for, go find the ephemera that your family collected. Scan it, catalog it and then research it. Each item has a story to tell and it won’t do that all by itself. It needs a voice coach. It needs you.

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