Ephemera printed paper, packaging not meant to last is saved from the trash

ANTIQUES

May 24, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Ephemera. It sounds contagious. You've been exposed to it all your life. Your friends and neighbors have it too. Is it chronic?

Chances are, after seeing "Graphic Americana: The Art and Technique of Printed Ephemera," an eye-catching and nostalgic exhibition at the Princeton University Library in Princeton, N.J., through Sept. 20, you'll succumb to the ephemerist's bug; taking out the trash will never be the same.

Ephemera is printed paper and packaging not meant to last. It is yesterday's invitations, last year's calendar, business cards, cigar bands, advertisements, postcards, brochures, posters, matchbooks and other items that make good barbecue tinder or overflow your wastebasket. The word ephemera means short-lived or transitory.

Fortunately, since the 18th century, there have been ephemerists. They're a particularly compulsive group of people who collect and preserve paper scraps; they've rescued from oblivion essential evidence of social history, human progress and the richness of the printer's art. More than 800 ephemerists belong to the Ephemera Society of America, a sponsor of the Princeton show; several of its members loaned for display rare and visually arresting items from their collections, which complement the broad holdings of the university's library.

The first major ephemera exhibition at an American university, Princeton's show elevates to Ivy League status garden seed advertisements decorated with floral bouquets as well as 50-year-old candy wrappers that a member of the class of 1939 presented to his alma mater.

Dale Roylance, curator of the library's graphic arts collection, organized the exhibit and produced its accompanying catalog, a handy field guide to ephemera. Undaunted by the miscellany in his care, which he compares to an "aggregate swarm" of insects "that often defies both preservation and classification," Mr. Roylance is akin to Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th century naturalist who classified animals and plants by genus and species.

To make Princeton's collection more accessible and comprehensible, Mr. Roylance organized the myriad forms of ephemera into six broad categories:

* Social ephemera, such as birth announcements, death

certificates, stationery, calling cards and menus;

* Educational ephemera, including bookplates, diplomas and charts;

* Entertainment ephemera, such as posters, programs, games, travel timetables and luggage labels;

* Military, medical and civic ephemera, namely draft posters, discharge papers, flags and insignia; * Political ephemera, such as broadsides, campaign buttons and patriotic regalia; and

* Merchandising ephemera, including trade cards, salesmen's samples, labels and packaging.

He then arranges items in each category in alphabetical order from abecedaires (spelling games) to zoetropes (optical toys in which designs on paper inside spinning drums appear to move like animated movies).

Silhouettes and sheet music, of ten considered ephemera, were excluded from the exhibition because they were intended to survive. Published almanacs, however, made the cut. One reason: "An almanac was the first form of ephemera printed in America," Mr. Roylance said. An almanac was printed on the same press in Massachusetts that produced in 1640 America's first book, the Bay Psalm Book.

Jack Golden, a New York graphic designer, and a founder of the Ephemera Society, organized the exhibition's section on the technological progress of printing. The display illustrates differences between 19th century techniques such as engraving, woodcut, letterpress and chromolithography, which are contrasted with today's photomechanical four-color printing methods. The show is a testimonial to the skilled virtuosity of the often anonymous Victorian job printers who produced the vividly illustrated ephemera with striking typography for which collectors now compete.

"The quality of this graphic art is irresistible," said Paul Ingersoll, a Princeton graduate and ephemerist, and the Philadelphia representative for Christie's auctioneers. "I think it's an underrated art form." He particularly likes vintage cameo cards, which have uncolored embossed decoration, and colorful printers' specimen books, illustrating the variety of ornate 19th century typefaces.

"Graphic Americana: The Art & Technique of Printed Ephemera," remains at Princeton University Library's Milberg Gallery of Graphic Arts, in Princeton, N.J., through Sept. 20. Gallery hours are weekdays 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call (609) 258-3197 for further information.

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