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Saturday, April 12, 2014

What is Ephemera and How Can It Help Your Research

How many businesses did your ancestors own or work for? Did they belong to clubs?  Were there any newspapers articles about your family?  Did they save greeting cards or invitations?  Do you have a collection of family letters and postcards?  If so, then you have ephemera to use for your family history research.

Business cards, letters, menus, newspaper clippings, receipts, brochures, etc. each have a story to tell.  If they were in the belongings of your family members, there was a reason for them to have been kept in a scrapbook, in boxes, and even used as bookmarks.  Here is where your detective skills can be used to the fullest extent.  Vital records and certificates only tell a part of the story of a person's life.  Ephemera fills in all of the details that help to paint a picture about the person's life.

Postcards can tell us where they traveled, or where others in their lives had traveled.  They were also sent for holidays and birthdays.  Some had photos of a town, a school, an organization, and many other things that could provide clues about a family.  Postcards were sent during World War I with photos of the destruction to towns and buildings and neighborhoods. Some postcards were sent instead of letters for official communication.

A Postcard from the Veterans Administration stating that LeRoy Hessler Reif was being placed on a waiting list  for hospital treatment in November of 1949

Letters can add additional facts for family research.  Look for these to contain information about business, family, licenses, insurance and more.
Life Insurance policy issued by the U S. Government
Newspaper articles contain information that provide very helpful clues to your family research.  Articles about clubs, occupations and businesses, wedding announcements, deaths, births and crimes will add a little more color to your research.  It is fun to see your family members in print, sometimes, depending on the reason for their mention in the news.

This article appeared in many newspapers across the United States in March of 1924.
Where can you find ephemera?  Check your homes in every nook.  Bookmarks, shoeboxes, scrapbooks and the like may contain ephemera that has not seen the light of day for some time.  If you have no luck there, then check auction sites.  Goodwill at  and sites like Ebay have become great marketplaces for ephemera.  Yard sales, private collections, antique shops.  Manuscript collections are unpublished papers of individuals, clubs businesses, etc.  They may contains correspondence, autograph books, author notes and so much more.  A good place to look for them would be the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections  World Cat  is a union catalog of libraries.  Search the collections of many libraries for topics.  Vintage book sales, and paper sales are great.  Local historical societies have collections of newspapers and ephemera.  Antique, Thrift and Used Book Stores are other places to look for ephemera.  Online resources include sites that have collections of digitized newspapers, postcards, etc.  Do a general search for these resources in your web browser, then pair down the hits by using more specific search terms.  Try searching for digitized newspapers, yearbooks, menus, etc.
Don't get discouraged.  Make it a fun, detective game.  And invite your family to join in.  Have a contest and give a prize to the persons that finds the most interesting ephemera after a week of search.  Good luck.

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