You are here:Home/Research/ Library & Archives/ Dumbarton Oaks Archives/ Historical Records/ “From the Archives”/ Ephemera: The Dumbarton Oaks Disciplines as Viewed in Popular Culture

Ephemera: The Dumbarton Oaks Disciplines as Viewed in Popular Culture

Posted On September 21, 2017 | 11:29 am | by laneb | Permalink
Lane Baker (November 2016)

Scholars typically study significant objects that were made to last—books, artworks, buildings, inscriptions, etc. More often than not, these objects have been made by and for the elite. The general population tends to leave a more ephemeral record. “Ephemera” are historical artifacts that were never meant to be preserved and may come in many forms, e.g., postcards, stamps, playbills, flyers, catalogs, and more. These commonplace objects offer unique glimpses into everyday life and culture, revealing dimensions of the past that scholarly documents might obscure or overlook. Since 2015, the Dumbarton Oaks Archives has been collecting historical ephemera relevant to the institution’s research interests of Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies. Most of these items date to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were created primarily for audiences in the United States and western Europe. They offer us insight as to how the general population encountered and learned something about the Byzantine Empire, Pre-Columbian cultures, and garden and landscape design and horticulture.

The following are three examples from the collection.

Salut de Constantinople, Intérieur de la Mosquée de Sainte Sophie Intérieur de la Mosquée de Sainte Sophie. Ephemera Collection, Archives, AR.EP.PC.0013, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

In 1916, a tourist in Constantinople bought this postcard. It depicts the interior of “the Mosque of St. Sophia,” thereby at once evincing the city’s blend of Byzantine and Islamic cultures. The colors, which have been layered on a black-and-white photograph, paint a fanciful portrait of the Byzantine building. For many people in the west, such imaginative images would have been their first exposure to the exotic grandeur of Byzantium.

Templo dil Azteki Aztec Temple Stamp. Ephemera Collection, Archives, AR.EP.ST.0515, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

The Swiss chocolatier Toblerone created this stamp as part of its larger “Temples and Churches” stamp series (1920s). It depicts an imaginary “Temple of the Aztecs,” taking cues from a variety of real Mesoamerican temples. Like many of Toblerone’s earliest advertisements, this stamp is written in Ido, a constructed language for international communication. The same spirit of internationalism that spurred the creation of these artificial languages also led advertisers to appeal to the recipients’ interest in far-off and exotic locales like those of the Pre-Columbian world.

Harrison Trees Brochure, AR.EP.BR.0362a Harrison Trees Brochure. Ephemera Collection, Archives, AR.EP.BR.0362a, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

In 1914, a prospective home gardener picked up this eye-catching pamphlet. Distributed by Maryland arborists J. G. Harrison and Sons, the pamphlet claims that trees from Harrisons’ Nursery benefited from an ideal climate and healthy soil. It lists the prices of many different species, from fruit trees to ornamentals. In the early twentieth century, ornamental and orchard gardens became something that ordinary people could afford. Pamphlets like this one document that transition, showcasing the ways that arborists reached out to novices hoping to craft their own landscapes.

The Dumbarton Oaks Ephemera Collection is an ongoing project, presently numbering some five hundred objects. Coming soon is a website featuring the collection as well as a special exhibition, which will open in the new year.