William L. Clements Library

Ephemera / Realia


Ephemeral materials can reveal important aspects of American social customs, commonplace routines, and significant events in America's past. Small objects, called "realia" by libraries, can be very evocative when linked to an individual person. These materials, although often outside the traditional genres collected by the Clements, can also fulfill the mission of providing resources for a complete examination of our nation's past.

Printed ephemera such as programs, tickets, brochures, handbills, trade cards, political fliers, postcards, and billheads make up the bulk of the ephemera collection. Culinary, travel, and theater related materials are a particular strength. Many are beautifully illustrated and printed in lavish color.

Included in the realia collection are games and toys, fabrics, tea sets, relics, eyeglasses, pocket knifes, and travel souvenirs. Of note are the silk fabrics brought back from Siam by the American missionary Asa Hemenway, small objects collected by circus promoter Benjamin Brown, the geological and seashell collections of Dr. Norton Strange Townshend and his brother-in-law Thomas Martin Easterly, and a variety of American coins, tokens, currency, and commemorative medals. The Clements is also the home of the Napoleonic Medal collection of Professor Nathan T. Whitman.

History of the Collection

Ephemeral materials have appeared throughout the library in the manuscript, book, and print divisions. Classification is based on illustrative value, connection to other materials, and physical storage requirements. This challenging analysis results in similar materials occasionally being housed in separate divisions.

Realia is not an area that the Clements actively collects. Many of the objects were obtained as part of larger manuscript collections and their meaning is derived almost entirely by this context, with some exceptions.

Using the Collection

The finding aid for ephemera and realia is under construction. A database of travel ephemera will be available shortly.