The Museum of the City of New York’s ephemera collections have held a special place in my heart since I took on their custodianship, along with manuscripts, maps, and rare books, over three and a half years ago. During my first weeks with the Museum, I began to do what any archivist would do when faced with shelves of boxes filled with unknown contents – I opened the lids and looked inside. The Museum’s Collection on Formal Dining Events was among the first of the collections I explored, and I was transported immediately to the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, to Delmonico’s for a seven course dinner. I’d finally come to terms with the fact I could not actually live in 19th century New York City – but this was the next best thing. I went on to investigate many more of the thematically arranged ephemera collections, finding material related to civic events, cultural institutions, medicine, lectures, musical performances, balls, and schools, among many other topics, dating from the 18th century up to the present time.
Over the past few years, we have used ephemera to illustrate multiple posts on this blog and the Museum continues to utilize it in programs, exhibitions, and publications, as it has for decades. Yet, the bulk of the collection remains hidden. Now, thanks to the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Museum has just embarked on the project Illuminating New York City History through Material Culture: A Proposal to Process, Catalog, Digitize, and Rehouse the Ephemera Collections of the Museum of the City of New York. Over the course of the next two years, the Museum will increase access to over 6,500 objects of material culture by sharing the objects on the Collections Portal, as well as processing the collections and posting the finding aids online via our Catablog for Archival Collections.
We will share our discoveries from the ephemera collections as we prepare the materials for digitization and process them. In the meantime, here are a few examples that illustrate how these collections document a vast array of events from New York City’s history, including openings and dedication ceremonies for monuments and landmarks, an invitation to stand on the viewing platform at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty (above), or the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge (below):
Social events, such as dance cards and invitations to balls and dances:
Civic celebrations, such as the Hudson Fulton Celebration, marking the 300th Anniversary of of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River and the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s first successful commercial application of the paddle steamer:
Ceremonies marking events of national importance, such as the deaths of Presidents Grant and Lincoln:
And materials from political, social, and professional organizations:
We look forward to bringing you more highlights from the ephemera collection in the coming months.