Written by Beth Bayley, Archivist Assistant
Although historians and archivists hate to admit it, we can never really know the past. The closest we can probably get to someone from the past is by reading their own words: their journals, notebooks, or correspondence.
And perhaps we can get to know someone by what they chose to save. Most people have a sentimental collection of the kinds of things that get tucked away in a shoebox or in a scrapbook: a hand drawn map on a napkin, the fortune from a cookie. You may save movie stubs, playbills, concert tickets. Plane tickets from a life-changing trip. A matchbook tucked into a coat pocket on the way out of a restaurant after a great first date. The ephemera collection of one ICFA staff member can be seen here:
These bits of paper aren’t like regular archival records – instead, they are meant to be used in the present and thrown away. But because they matter to us, we infuse these items with meaning. And by saving them, the meaning increases, merely because they last. These items become part of the past, rare and exotic just by the nature of their “pastness.”
In a previous blog post, we learned that the word ephemera refers mainly to paper items that aren’t meant to last. The most poetic definition of it is from ephemera specialist Maurice Rickards, who calls it “the minor transient documents of everyday life.”
It is tricky to draw conclusions from these items when we are trying to learn about the person whose archives we are processing. Some people save things that don’t have meaning (if you have watched Hoarders or Storage Wars, you know about this phenomenon already). Sometimes things are just saved incidentally – maybe they didn’t get burned in a fire while the more important records did. But most often, the meaning is only clear to the person who owned the item – a person who may be long gone.
It isn’t really fair, but that’s how we try to reconstruct so much of the past: by what remains, whether it is the important stuff or not. In ICFA, we have some ephemera in the collection Thomas Whittemore Papers ca. 1875-1966. Although we are hesitant to draw real conclusions about why Whittemore saved what he did, we believe it’s worth our time to have a look anyway. Whittemore’s “real” work has been well documented in online exhibits and the finding aid. This ephemera isn’t his real work. This is the “minor transient documents” that are left.
Thomas Whittemore traveled obsessively. As Director of the Byzantine Institute from 1930 to 1950, he spent half the year fundraising and publicizing his projects, dividing his time between the US, the Byzantine Library in Paris, and Istanbul. But he didn’t only travel because of work – motion was in Whittemore’s veins, and he was continually on the road. In the Isabella Stewart Gardner Papers at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, there is a microfilm copy of a letter dated July 5, 1924, from Whittemore’s friend Matthew Stewart Prichard. Prichard wrote to Isabella Stewart Gardner that:
“Whittemore is never in a place; he was, he will be; he comes from and is going to; but he is never ‘here.’”
And while Whittemore traveled, he wrote – dashing off letters to Mildred Bliss, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and dozens of others. So what should we make of the unsent postcards of a perpetual traveler?
Are these just postcards he never got around to mailing?
Alternatively, we have all bought postcards that we love too much to send. Is that how Whittemore felt about these images?
But the real evidence of travel is in the administrative ephemera: tickets. In the blog post Echoes of Trips Past, we saw just a few of the many tickets kept by Robert Van Nice. Whittemore traveled even more than Van Nice did, yet we only have this one. But it’s not an ordinary ticket. In fact, Whittemore’s ticket can tell us about how he was allowed to travel so freely.
The ticket states that Whittemore was a “correspondent of American newspapers,” a journalist. This (not wholly truthful) designation gave him the clearance to travel freely in Bulgaria, and probably other unstable nations.
But for a man who traveled so much, we have so few of these bits of ephemera. We know that another portion of Whittmore’s papers reside at the Bibliothèque byzantine at the Collège de France in Paris. Perhaps more of his ephemera is conserved there? Were these particular items in ICFA saved for a reason, or is it the case of what’s left gaining unearned merit? We can’t know for sure, but it’s amusing to think about.