Kit Barry Ephemera


Kit Barry Ephemera

written by


Kit Barry

Introduction to the Ephemera Archive for American Studies, its extent and usage:—

I have been collecting ephemera since 15 years old. By my 20’s I believed ephemera to be a vital source of information to learn about who we are and how we behave in our American culture. The Ephemera Archive for American Studies has grown out of this belief. Questions, inquiries, and comments are welcome. If you would like to visit or use the archive, feel free to call at any time for more information.

Kit Barry

The Ephemera Archive for American Studies

74 Cotton Mill Hill  #A252

Brattleboro, VT 05301

802: 380-5611



In Brattleboro there is a very unusual room dedicated to American life. It contains at the same time - the Past, the Present, and the Future of American endeavors in all aspects of our culture. It is an archive. A research archive. And when all points are considered, there is no other facility like this one in the United States.

In this room, there is not to be found what one expects to see in a library - Books. Instead what is found is ephemera. And with that confusing word now said, we will move quickly to the name of the archive, a definition, and a content description.

The Ephemera Archive for American Studies  /  74 Cotton Mill Hill, Brattleboro

~  Ephemera -  Printed or hand written material with the intent of term use and 

    then to be discarded. The spirit of intended use is not permanent.

~  Examples -Forms






Post cards






Shopping lists

Greeting cards

Application forms

Product packaging

All print advertising

~  The archive is comprised of original American material, no copies, from as 

    early as possible through tomorrow. Of the 300,000+ pieces, 70% of the 

    material is pre-1900.

~   It is organized in over 2,000 topics:

     Clothing, fur     Food, dairy     Medical, hospitalTobacco, accessory

     Clothing, pants     Food, fruit      Medical, nurseTobacco, product

     Clothing, shoes     Food, meat     Medical, medicineTobacco, publication

~  It is the largest private ephemera archive in the country, and larger than many          

     institutional collections. And, it is organized and physically housed in a user     

     friendly system.


Education. Ephemera is potentially a powerful teaching / learning resource.

Ephemera is an unself-conscious artifact of its time. It was produced to fulfill a specific need for the moment, and that was it. Ephemera was not intended to be used after its initial purpose was completed. Unlike a book, ephemera never had the self-conscious burden of being studied and analyzed repeatedly.

Ephemera provides a reveal of the culture at the time of its making. Social values, humor, fears, goals, trends, values are all conveyed through ephemera. Ephemera is a reveal of the human condition at that moment.

USING EPHEMERA - The Process:  In order for ephemera to be most effective as a research tool, it should be approached with an open mind looking to ask questions. Every element of the piece should be ferretted out and questioned. Why is that in the image? Why is that being said? And with an open barrage of questions, some might prove helpful and lead to a new level of realization. Some will not. There may be a story to be found. Or maybe not.

An individual piece may not reveal much. But one of the ways in which ephemera has power of reveal is in comparison between multiple pieces. By looking at a number of pieces laid out, stories, realizations, and questions may float to the surface. The use of ephemera is a process of discovery.

THE AMERICAN BLACK STORY THROUGH EPHEMERA - For example, in looking at advertising from the 1880’s in which Blacks were used in the imagery, there would be common shared points between the pieces. The socio-economic status was commonly depicted in the realm of agriculture based ignorance and poverty. The Black image would be commonly be poor farmer, and overall negative “joking” stereotype points at the expense of the Black.

But, a caution. It is very important to not apply our current standards against the standards of an earlier time. If one goes to this self-indulgence, objectivity is lost along with reasonable deductions. This is not an endorsement of past behaviors, but useful understanding has to come from reasonable objectivity. And understanding is critical in then knowing how to do things better. As in more humanely.

Image #1  Black farmer w/ mule

Image #1  Caption:  Most late 19th century advertising using images of Blacks are sited in the impoverished rural and farm environment. As with this trade card, dialect was used to portray ignorance.

Image #2  Black train porter

Image #2  Caption:  This c. 1885 advertising trade card reveals several things.

-  In language usage, there is a play on words, at the expense of the Black porter, with suitcase trunk & elephant trunk. The depiction of Black ethnic stereotyping often included the portrayal of the Black being a buffoon.

-  But this image also shows a very important point in the story of 19th century Blacks rising in socio-economic standing. It was common for Blacks to be train porters, and it was a critical factor in the upward mobility of the Black culture. Through this job, Blacks became friendly enough with passengers so that businessmen would give financial information - like stock investments. This single occupation was a stepping stone opportunity of such common occurrence that it was a contributor to the creation of a Black middle class.

But then put next to the 1880’s advertising examples, pieces from the 1970’s and after. There is a complete shift on the socio-economic scale. The Blacks are depicted in roles of middle class, coat and tie socio-economic roles. They are imaged with no stereotyping and on an equal level with the Whites in the same image.

There is a fantastic advertising image demonstrating this role switch between Blacks and Whites on one of Peoples United Bank on-line pages. There is a White couple sitting opposite a Black man with a Black woman next to him. There is ambiguity as to which man is the banker. However, the Black man is sitting in a chair that is more a style that would behind a desk, not in front of a desk for a customer. But either way, this image is one of racial equality that is in high contrast to 19th century advertising imagery of Blacks.

What happened? What could cause such a total change in 100 years? And herein lies the beauty of ephemera as a learning tool.  Books answer questions. Ephemera creates questions. So, we are now confronted by a question that forces us to find the answer: What explains this shift in socio-economic portrayal of Blacks in advertising from one time period to another?

We are now off on a jaunt with no map provided. We ourselves have to create the map step by step by asking questions. And after stumbling around we fall into the Civil Rights work from the 1950’s. Then we step into the 1960’s Hippie / New Culture Movement which dramatically escalated the 1950’s Civil Rights work. And in the years following when Black empowerment had become a normal hope in our culture, we start to see visual evidence of this transition through use of Blacks in advertising. And we arrive to the point today where a Black is shown as an equal in the same socio-economic role as a White.

This is one of limitless stories to be ferreted out in using ephemera for research.

ADVERTISING: THE ULTIMATE REVEAL OF THE AMERICAN CULTURE - The greatest volume of ephemera produced is print advertising. By definition of it function, advertising has to be ever changing, and replacing itself constantly. The reason for this is that print advertising’s largest sponsor is Capitalism. Being the dominant force under which we live, Capitalism has to sell in order to fulfill its own definition. Advertising is the only link between the Factory and the Public.

So advertising? What is this creature?

Advertising is ubiquitous. It is ever moving. It is a marauder. As the only connection between Product and Public, its job is simple. It goes into the Public’s brain and shuts off critical thinking. Advertising then seeks out whatever part of the Public’s psyche that is a match for the specific product being sold, and pushes that button. Advertising’s ultimate necessity is to turn the Public into a Consumer.

As a result of this dynamic, advertising, as the lynchpin of the Factory / Public / Consumer phenomenon, is a powerful analytical tool to understanding our culture. Our humor, values, fashions, and behaviors are all revealed. And the pervasiveness and effectiveness of advertising actually encourages if not establishes many of our human behaviors and values.

Image #3:  Florida motel

Image #3:  Caption

This early 1960’s advertising postcard from Florida is telling us a lot, most of which does not register consciously. But the quiet effects in this image are strong enough to make us pack our bags, leave the sleeping squirrels in their tree holes, and drive to Florida.

The 1st section tells us leave our problems behind and come on down. Blue skies are waiting.

The 2nd section tells us to leave our parking problems behind and come down to no hassle parking. No northern city crowding.

The 3rd section tells us we will not have to make our beds. That appeals to the 10 year old in all of us.

You think the 4th section tells us we will not have to cook. Better. We will not have to wash the dishes.

All the images tell us clean and neat and we do not have to sweep or vacuum.

Another point is that all these images give us a very good view of 1960’s architecture, specifically motel architecture, and really specifically, Florida motel architecture.

And yes, there is a a bit of car documentation too. The building architecture and 

car design are so compatible and fit each other so well.

WHO USES THE ARCHIVE - The opportunities of study are limitless in The Ephemera Archive for American Studies. Already with over 2,000 topics defined, if a new topic arises, it is added. There is fluidity and adaptability programed into the archive’s structure. With its function partly being to chronicle the shifts in our culture, it is critical the archive follows the nature of human behavior  - always changing.

The archive is a free use resource for all. The users range from teachers, students, historians, writers, sociologists, artists, graphic designers, psychologists, economists, genealogists, fashion / costume designers, to someone with any conceivable specific topic of interest.

Additionally, the general browser, the non-specific curious are also welcome to the archive. It is common for someone to come without a clear understanding of what is to be found, and then, once seeing the material, getting an understanding of what the material is and how it can be used. Often a person comes to the archive with no thought of future use, and then finding relevance to something that brings him back for a more detailed study.

AND THE GRAPHIC DESIGNER -  A graphic designer could be looking for a period design style to emulate. Or he may just go on a random search through the archive looking for ideas.

Artists go through similar exercises in the archive. And also, for artists there is the art history point of interest. For example, in late 19th century it was a common practice to use classical art images in advertising. This practice diminished greatly after 1900. And this in itself presents an interesting question:  What cultural shifts were there that turned advertising away from using classical art images?

Image #4:  Lenox Soap trade card w/ Village Belle image

Caption Image #4:  Proctor & Gamble c. 1885 advertising trade card Lenox Soap for Lenox Soap.

The image on this card is of Percy Moran’s painting, The Village Belle. The reverse gives details about Lenox Soap, and how to acquire a print of this painting by sending in 25 soap wrappers.

Image #5:  Statue of Liberty; w/ caption

In terms of fine art use in late 19th century advertising, the Statue of Liberty was probably the most used image. This would be predictable considering the immense symbolic value placed on her, and that value itself was from cornerstone philosophy of what defined the United States.

The use of the Statue of Liberty imagery, unlike other examples of fine art usage in the late 1800’s, did not diminish after 1900. And, again predictably, her image use would accelerate in times of war.

And in numerically ranking specific classical art images used in 19th century advertising, it leaves us with more questions to pursue. What were the cultural influences at the time that made the Raphael’s 2 cherubs on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Statue of Liberty perhaps the two most used art images in 19th century advertising?

GENEALOLGY -  BEYOND WHO MARRIED WHOM -  Ephemera, especially in the business related areas, can offer specific insight as to what specific people actually did for a living. Company letter and billheads commonly have owners’ names as part of the masthead information. And given the business focus is offered, and these papers are most always dated, one can glean specific daily life information about a relative.

GLIMPSE TOWARD THE FUTURE IN AMERICAN LIFE - This archive is centered in the Past and the Present. So how does the Future become involved?

Given that ephemera is a vehicle for American studies, what we learn from our past and present can give us indications of where we are headed tomorrow. We, like all animals, move in patterns. But unlike animals, we have the ability to shift the direction of our patterns more quickly than those on the Darwin Clock. In the United States, with our culture being driven by advertising, our patterns are constantly being urged to shift in order to maintain a constant flow of our country’s lifeblood - Consumerism.

To visit The Ephemera Archive for American Studies, call or email. Cotton Mill is easy to find, wheelchair accessible, and I will provide directions. Teachers are welcome with students, with special arrangements being made in advance. I will work with teachers and develop specific programs for them that are applicable to a given topic. The most productive grade levels would be 7th grade through college graduate school. But I am completely open to discussing ideas with an earlier grade level teacher.

Kit Barry

Cotton Mill Bldg.

74 Cotton Mill Hill,802: 380-5611

Brattleboro, VT 05301