Everyone knows that historians study the past. Yet, it takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that, in the strictest sense, the past is a non-existent subject. Since the past, by definition is dead and gone, we cannot know it directly at all. Even our memories of the past are partial. We can know the past only in indirect and approximate ways, mainly be reconstruction it from the stuff left over into the present.
In principle, anything left over from the past is potential evidence for the historian. In practice, historians tend to accord more value to some kinds of evidence than to others. When the professional study of history got under way in the nineteenth century the university professors who championed its cause saw history as a school of statesmanship, and they therefore emphasised the critical study of legal and constitutional documents as the core of the syllabus. Archivists and librarians followed suit, so that the basis of most scholarly collections had tended to be the book, the pamphlet, the journal, the newspaper, the personal and official papers of eminent men, more rarely of women- in short, the discourse of polite society. One of the characteristics of such discourse is that it is often conducted with an eye to posterity. The minister introducing a bill, the newspaper editor drafting an editorial, the famous novelist writing a letter – all act in the knowledge that the record is likely to be permanent, and that their actions may be reviewed by someone, possibly an historian, in the future.
Professional historians contrasted themselves with the host of amateur antiquarians and collectors who used to be the main custodians of society’s past. By specialising in the exact study of a particular class of documentary material, they were able to claim a special status. What they added to the study of history in terms of technique, however, they often subtracted in terms of range and versatility. We professionals now owe much to the efforts of amateur hunters and collectors – the collectors of old cigarette cards, of stamps and coins and old photographs – who embraced a more generous definition of the past than our academic predecessors. Not until the 1930s with the rise of the Annales School, the famous group of French social historians, did professional historians begin again to embrace the full range of potential source material. “The variety of historical evidence is nearly infinite”, says Marc Bloch. “Everything that a man [or woman] says or writes, everything that he makes, everything that he touches can or ought to teach us about him.”1
Yet even the Annales seldom gave systematic thought to the evidence that history forgot – to ephemera. Precisely because it was not created with an eye upon posterity, ephemera has the potential to remind us of aspects of the past that our forefathers might have preferred us to forget – it shows the present has no monopoly upon silliness or tackiness, for example. Indeed one might even argue that it is actually the ephemeral rather than the durable things which tell us the most about the style or character of an age.
Marc Bloch makes a distinction between what he calls “intentional” and “unintentional evidence”. Intentional evidence is created with an eye on posterity; unintentional evidence is made for a present, and possibly very transitory, use. “The lake-dweller who threw his garbage into the nearby water where the archaeologists retrieve it today, wanted only to keep his hut clean”, Bloch explains. Ephemera collectors interpose themselves in this normal process of throwing things out; they are like archaeologists of the present.
There can be many reasons for collecting ephemera – nostalgia, the creation of rarity value, aesthetic delight. For the historian its value is as potential evidence. But evidence of what? In the strictest sense we cannot know, since it is tomorrow’s questions rather than today’s that will determine its significance.
Recently a person called at our house making a survey of our waste-making habits. She asked, “How much did we put in our bins each week?” About 35 kilos I estimated. A good percentage of that material was junk-mail – unsolicited material pushed through the letter box and often as quickly deposited in the rubbish bin. Most of it tells more about the marketing ploys of the firms who produced it than the family which received it. Because we tend to discard much of this material as soon as it arrives, we are often oblivious to the careful timing, the cunningly-designed sales campaigns that lie behind it. By reading this material historically, so as to compare the prices and sales pitches at the beginning of the Christmas sales campaigns in November with the appeals to the last-minute Christmas shopper in mid-December and the canny sales shopper of early January and the Back-to-School sales of late January, we can see the way the merchandisers gear their activities to the seasonal rhythms of the household. By reading it sociologically – comparing the glossy appeal of the David Jones and Melbourne Central catalogues with the plain two-colour unstapled leaflets from Fossey’s and Tucker Box – we gain an insight into the way in which the consumer market is stratified along class, age, and gender lines.
What use might a future historian find for a collection of such materials? How far do they reveal things that are not likely to be revealed in more conventional historical sources? Australian sources have generally been slow to study the history of consumerism and advertising although some interesting beginnings have recently been made in Greg Whitwell’s monograph Making the Market2 and the Powerhouse Museum’s catalogue for their exhibition on the 1950s.3 Suppose someone had had the foresight to make similar collections of advertising material in say 1943, 1953, 1963, 1973 and 1983, and a spare garage to store them, a historian of Melbourne would have the materials for splendid essay on changing consumer preferences, marketing strategies, fashions and styles and a host of other topics.
These materials would tell us much about the impact of the larger society upon the household, but little about the household itself. We come a stage closer to understanding contemporary family life through the packaging materials that disclose something of our buying preferences. If we could compare the packaging of an average household with that of families in 1953 or 1963, we would be struck not only by its rapidly increasing volumes, but by the widening range of products and changing tastes it reveals
Over 130 years ago the pioneer French sociologist Frédéric Le Play argued that the entire structure and character of a family was disclosed through a minute dissection of its budget.
Sooner or later [he wrote] all of the actions that constitute the life of a working-class family can be expressed in the form of a receipt or an expenditure. … [A]n observer can be said to be in complete possession of all the information pertaining to a family when, having analysed all the elements contained in the two parts of the domestic budget, he arrives at an exact correspondence between the two totals.
The budget, Le Play insisted, was not only a record of the “physical aspects pf life” but also, indirectly, of what he called its “moral values”.4 A few years ago the Australian historian Brian Dickey illustrated the truth of Le Play’s approach when he wrote a series of fascinating little essays about his own parents’ household in the 1940s and 50s based upon the accumulated chequebooks, bills, and detailed accounts which his father, a suburban butcher, had meticulously kept over the years.5
If Le Play were still alive, I wonder which documents, among the thousands which flow through the typical late twentieth century household, he would select as best exhibiting its moral and social character? The Bankcard bill? The shopping list? The phone bill with its tabulated overseas and long-distance calls? The household calendar? These more or less systematic records are like a grid that enable us to fit the otherwise random pieces of the ephemera into a pattern.
Ours, it is commonly said, is a throw-away society. As the cycles of innovation and obsolescence grow shorter, and the volume of disposable merchandise gets larger, we may expect that the ratio of ephemera to keepsakes – of, if you like, of “unintentional” to “intentional” evidence, will increase. Just as well, some historians would say, for we are flat out getting through all the evidence now we have. The thought of more would be intolerable! Even so, I would like to think that a few representative collections of ephemera might somehow survive into the twenty-first century, if only to remind us of what our histories conveniently forget.
This exhibition of ephemera from the Rare Books Collection is a gesture towards such an objective. Rare Books Collections are traditionally devoted to books and manuscripts that are both rare and valuable, specimens of the fine printer as art. But not everything that is now rare was always so. Many of the items in this exhibition are now rare precisely because they were once so commonplace that almost no-one thought to keep them. In recent years Monash’s Rare Books librarian Richard Overell has been building the library’s collections of twentieth century Australian materials. This exhibition is a timely reminder of how astute collecting can provide future scholars with insights into aspects of our society that are often overlooked.
(Adapted from paper given at the conference Who, what and why of collecting, organised by the Ephemera Society of Australia, 13 November 1993.)
Sir John Monash Distinguished Professor
Director, Monash University London Centre
School of Historical Studies, Monash University