In library or informational science the term ephemera also describes the class of published single-sheet or single page documents which are meant to be thrown away after one use. This classification excludes simple letters and photographs with no printing on them, which are considered manuscripts or typescripts. Large academic and national libraries and museums may collect, organize, and preserve ephemera as historic artifacts. A particularly large and important example of such an archive is the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemeraat the Bodlician Library, Oxford. Over 2000 images from the John Johnson Collection are available to search online for free at VADSand more than 65,000 items are available online. Three hundred plus images of historic American ephemera predating 1960 are posted at http://www.ephemerastudies.org. This site adds 4 additional examples weekly.

In 1886 Philadelphia antiquarian John McAllister(1822-1896) presented his collection of Civil War era printed ephemera, graphics, and manuscripts to the Library Company. With over 50,000 items, it was probably the largest ephemera collection of its time. For over a hundred years access to it has been limited, but now thanks to generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the William Penn Foundation, it has finally been conserved and cataloged. This page is a brief overview of the collection, with links to more detailed descriptions and to the finding aids and catalog records that provide access to its various parts.

The John A. McAllister Collection is as massive as it is diverse. At its core are tens of thousands of examples of printed ephemera most from the Civil War years, including ca. 600 recruiting posters, as well as newspapers, political broadside and leaflets, tickets, trade cards, cartoons, and a complement of ribbons, buttons and other ephemeral items constituting the largest such collection documenting the Philadelphia home front. But there is much more than just the war. Over 650 Comic valentines satirize every conceivable ethnic, occupational, and personality type. About 5,800 song sheets from the 1840s to the 1870s disseminated lyrics to popular songs. Some 5,800 playbills cover the theatres of Philadelphia and its hinterland from the early 19th century to about 1870. In addition to printed ephemera, the McAllister gift to the Library Company included some 1,200 volumes of 18th and 19th century books and pamphlets on a wide range of subjects. These are individually cataloged and are available in WolfPac the Library Company’s online catalog.

The collection of graphic items is no less massive, including lithographs, engravings, cartoons, maps, textiles, drawings, photographs, and about 7,000 patriotic pictorial envelopes. The most important component of the collection is early Philadelphia photographs. The McAllisters were active in the development of photography in America, and the McAllister photograph collection comprises the backbone of our renowned collection of 19th century photographic Philadelphiana.

In addition to these well-defined genres of ephemera, the collection contains sixteen discrete subject-based collections. Nine of these are related to the Civil War, including sanitary fairs, voluntary saloons and hospitals, generals and leaders, playing cards, verse, and Confederate States ephemera. Three collections contain political ephemera, including Salt River cartoons named for the figurative river up which defeated candidates were sent by the voters. Four others contain miscellaneous social and cultural materials, including more than 3,000 lottery tickets.

Click here for links to other related resources on the Civil War and Philadelphia history.


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