What is ephemera?
Ephemera is a cornerstone of cultural archiving — but what exactly is it?
Ephemera refers to materials that were meant to be fleeting— flyers, press releases, ticket stubs, t-shirts, buttons, notes, the list goes on. Ephemera are not materials that are typically kept or preserved as their purpose exists within a short span of time. It’s not something like a census record, photograph, or video recording that serves as documentation— which is what archives are typically thought of as holding. However, as cultural archives have boomed in the past 60 or so years, ephemera has been essential to creating an accurate record of marginalized histories.
As the late scholar José Muñoz argues in his book Cruising Utopia, ephemera is essential for queering evidence. Rather than seeing only official government records as an affirmation of life, Muñoz claims that the specks, essence, and hints ephemera leaves behind are key to recounting queer and marginalized histories. As an archivist of mostly queer and feminist history, I couldn’t agree more. As institutions were not prioritizing recording the lives of marginalized communities, we can’t claim an accurate cultural record by only relying on official documentation—whatever that means. We have to write our own rule book and reconfigure what we claim as evidence.
“The key to queering evidence, and by that I mean the ways in which we prove queerness and read queerness, is by suturing it to the concept of ephemera. Think of ephemera as trace, the remains, the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor,” (José Muñoz, 2009).
Ephemera as documentation
Spanktuary. Courtesy of Red Robinson. All ephemera is copyrighted to © The Addresses Project, 2022. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
Take this piece of ephemera from the Addresses Project, which documents lost lesbian and queer spaces in New York, for instance. This is a flyer for the party Spanktuary, a party thrown by Red Robinson on Wednesday nights at Sanctuary Lounge, a lesbian bar (now closed) owned by Lisa Cannistrani, who currently owns Henrietta Hudson. While this piece of ephemera is eye-catching and even provocative, it offers insight into what queer social life was like in the 1990s. Further, marginalized histories have not been accurately represented in our larger cultural record, and ephemera can help provide evidence of existence as we go back in time to retell and recount our histories. More so, we see a resurgence in violence towards LGBTQ people, and especially trans people, whether via street violence or transphobic legislation, we need to keep a record of how our communities have lived before. I say this not only as proof of life for younger queer people but also as resistance to being erased from public life.
History is made in the present, and without ephemera, cultural records would be left lacking. Here at The Feminist Institute, we rely on ephemera to provide our audience with a nuanced and accurate record of feminist contributions to culture. Our digital archive is not only an affirmation of feminist life, but the importance ephemera plays in historical production.
To continue working with our record creators to preserve and display their collections, most of which include ephemera, we rely on the generosity of our community. We hope that you consider donating to our Adopt-a-Box campaign today, and sharing it with a friend.