A Glimmer in Time
By Bruce McKinney
Beneath the firm ground of books, long documented, recorded, saved and frequently valued lies an uncertain, quixotic mass of "un" material that is the emerging moveable feast of the collector of works on paper. This is the extraordinary mass of mostly unknown, unappreciated, undocumented and more than anything else, unexpected material that is the blood [oxygen] of the new collecting. It is easy to miss.
When collectors search the principal listing sites there are tens of millions of items available. Most are books. Checking one site or another, the sheer volume of books overwhelm all else. The occasional random pamphlet, broadside and ephemera simply disappear. The lack of author, title and sometimes even date and place often render such material mute. At first glance it's logical. Books were expected to survive and were printed and bound with that expectation. Pamphlets and ephemera were expected to perish and usually did. When such perishables did survive it has usually been random chance. Their connections to subjects were often slim, a movie program for a Rudolph Valentino opening in 1919, an im-memorium for a soldier killed at Gettysburg, family photographs from the 1870's with a town in clear view, newspapers and clippings of events, often marital or marshall. In truth pamphlets, broadsides and let's include maps here, dwarf the total of all known books by something greater than one hundred times. But most of this material is invisible, if it even still exists, because it is generally difficult to understand, is under-appreciated, difficult to contextualize and describe. Of these various non-book forms broadsides are generally the most highly esteemed. They have the briefest lives and slimmest chances of survival. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a broadside, also called a "broadsheet," as "a sheet of paper printed on one side only, forming one large page."
Broadsides are of course ephemera which Dictionary.com defines as "a short lived thing" and when specific to printing "printed matter of passing interest." So, by definition, ephemera isn't kept except in rare and unusual circumstances. Add to this its fragile nature. A distant aunt's graduation program from a hundred years ago, unless carefully protected, will yellow and fall apart. And in time, unless the names, relationships, places, circumstances and relevance are noted the once obvious often becomes obscure. "Something to keep" in a few generations often becomes "who's this" and "what's this about." Time erodes connection. So ephemera must overcome two frailties; fragile structure and uncertain relationship and so everyday is the victim of attic and basement cleanings. Books tend to go into boxes, ephemera into the trash. And it's a shame for such material sometimes tells us a great deal. Randomly, such material is purchased, when it can be found, by book scouts, eBayers and traditional dealers and then makes its way into collections, ephemera and book fairs, onto listing sites and increasingly [it seems to me] onto eBay.
So it was in January that I ran across several theatrical broadsides posted on eBay by Merry and Marty Lapidus of Brandon, Vermont [merrylap on eBay]. They had bought the broadsides as part of a mixed lot of Kingston and New Rochelle material at the JMW Gallery Auction Gallery in Kingston in November. The lot descriptions mentioned that these broadsides were the first of a larger group - all identified with that place, a place I know well. I both collect Kingston-Rondout as a subject and maintain a Wiki Bibliography about it [click here for wiki]. These first broadsides were advertisements of staged events in 1857 and 1858. Over the course of 6 weeks I bought all offered - 11 in total - for $172.97 plus shipping.