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Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume III, Issue 5
May 2007   

The wonder of everyday objects from the past: Ephemera in the digital stacks

The nature of ephemera is that it is often not preserved because it is seen as transitory or replaceable. Ephemera include a wide variety of material types, for example, telegrams, receipts, tickets, calling cards, programs, advertisements, menus, broadsheets, postcards and invitations. These items, when found in libraries and archives, are usually rare or unique items, often personalized with marginalia from the collector. Individually and collectively, they can provide great value to biographers, sociologists, economists and social historians. 

The Sherman-Thackara collection, featuring documents from the family of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, in Villanova’s Digital Library provides access to some illuminating examples of ephemera. Digital libraries have not generally embraced the digitization of these format types and have concentrated instead on photograph, book, journal and newspaper formats largely because these are the most privileged and traditionally collected formats in academic and public information institutions. 

Yet, ephemera can provide an intimate glimpse into everyday life. In this “Blue Electrode” column, we will look at two examples of one type of more common ephemera, the telegram. 

“Happy birthday”: A telegram to General Sherman

"We all congratulate you on your sixty first birthday and wish you many returns. Ellie sat up today for the first time. All are well.  [from]  A.W. Thackera"

This telegram from the American Rapid Telegraph Company to General Sherman on the occasion of his 61st birthday shows that the cultural practice of sending a brief message of celebration on a birthday when friends or relations could not be together was already a well established practice in the America of the 1880’s.

"The boy is lost to us"

Another telegram, also to General Sherman from the Western Union Telegraph Company, gives a health update on an ill loved one and announces the death of the child and the transportation of his remains, a grim counterpoint to the above joyous birthday greeting, demonstrating that the telegraph brought both news of weal* and woe to the individual household. 

"Minnie doing very well and holds up bravely though the boy is lost to us. The body will go to Bellefontaine by Express tonight."

What a short step it now seems to a post-9/11 world, where watching wars as they happen has become a commonplace. 

Telegraph service, called the Victorian-era Internet, served to provide individuals nearly instantaneous, albeit mediated by the telegraph company staff, communication to even small and rural population centers. Truly a communication media of another age, the last telegram was delivered by Western Union in February 2006.   

Contributed by Michael Foight

*welfare, prosperity; good fortune