Victorian Ephemera

Description by Katherine Morley, Archives and Special Collections Assistant and MA candidate in anthropology

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “ephemera” as “ who or something which has a transitory existence.”[1] According to the Ephemera Society of America, it includes “a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use.”[2] Ephemera encompasses an ever-expanding range of objects from commercial items like trade cards, advertisements and receipts to menus, bookplates and program covers that give insight into the leisure activities of a time period and culture. The Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department at Brandeis holds a varied collection (measuring half a linear foot), featuring items from Britain and the United States, predominantly dated between 1840 and 1901.

Trade cards

Three trading card advertisements aligned over one another, one depicting birds, another shows a snail, and the third a boy with ducksBusinesses used trade cards to advertise goods and services. The majority of the cards in the collection are from businesses in Massachusetts and New York, although other U.S. states, primarily in the Northeast, are represented as well. Similar in size to modern business cards, they tend to feature brightly colored images that may have little or no relation to the business being advertised. In fact, very different businesses might choose the same images for their cards. Popular themes in the collection include flowers, children and animals.

Five Japanesque trade cardsOf particular note are the cards with Japanese-inspired imagery. These cards demonstrate the rise of interest in and popularity of Japanese culture and aesthetics following the opening of Japan to trade in 1854.


Advertisement for Koko for the Hair. Prevents hair lossVictorian advertisers used many of the same techniques as companies today, offering free items and celebrity testimonials to promote their products.

Pierce’s Memorandum and Account Book

Collage of pages from Pierce's Memorandum and Account BookThis book was distributed by World’s Dispensary Medical Association. In addition to the dated calendar pages featuring sentiments about the book’s usefulness, it includes pages of advertisements for Dr. Pierce’s range of remedies.

Greeting Cards

Christmas card with lace incorporating birds into the designPeople have exchanged greeting cards for centuries, but until the mid-19th century they were expensive, handmade items. Advances in printing technology, along with the introduction of the postage stamp in the 1840s, which lowered postal rates, led to a boom in the popularity of greeting cards. Although they were more affordable, they were not necessarily less ornate than their handmade predecessors.

Leisure and Entertaining

Edward Saker's Annual Benefit Banquet, multiple pagesIn addition to commercial items, the collection contains invitations, tickets, programs and menus that indicate a range of events enjoyed by Victorians, several of which were sponsored by royalty.


Multiple book plates with elaborate designs including an owl, an elaborate border, tulips, a pre-columbian figure and other decorative elements, Bookplates not only indicate the owner of a book, but reveal something about the owner as well, such as a family crest, personal motto, or aesthetic sensibility.

Bookplates with symbols and crests

Bookplates: symbols and crests

Bookplates with figures

Bookplates: figures

Book plates with architecture and landscapes

Book plates: architecture and landscape

Presentation cards for Amy Helena Margaret Fairbanks to allow her to be seen by the Queen

Leisure and Entertaining: Presentation cards

Leisure and Entertaining: menus. In one menu the left border has a humourous drawing of a stack of 8 waiters piled up, each on another waiter's back below him. the other very decorative menu has initials on the left and the right in the midst of an ornate border.

Leisure and Entertaining: menus

Leisure and Entertainment: invitations and tickets for a Soiree and Ball, a university athletics club, Laying the memorial stone in the Tower Bridge (an invitation from the Queen), International Guild of Journalists

Leisure and Entertainment: invitations and tickets

Valentine's Day card with flowers. The vase portion of the card is 3-dimensional, and the flowers are cut-out.

Greeting Card: Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day card with children and flowers. It's a popup card that becomes 3-dimensional as it is opened..

Greeting card: Valentine's Day

Valentines Day greeting card with bird in a bird cage

Greeting card: Valentine's Day

Greeting card: A Joyful Christmas post card with a snowy scene including an inset image of birds

Greeting card: A Joyful Christmas post card

Advertisement for Oatine Cream. "It costs you a half-penny stamp to make a thorough trial of Oatine Cream."

Advertisement: Oatine Cream

Advertisement for Little Folks magazine for children

Advertisement: Little Folks magazine for children

Advertisement for Freeman's custard powder and custard glasses

Advertisement: Freeman's custard powder and custard glasses

Eight trade cards featuring children and animals, arranged in 2 rows of 4 cards

Trade cards of children and animals

Trade cards featuring children and candy

Trade cards: children and candy

Trade cards featuring floral designs and animals

Trade cards: floral designs and animals

June 29, 2012