Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Treasures from the Vertical Files: Salesman of Death

Today’s treasure offers the opportunity for some Halloween themed fun, as well as a discussion of ephemera identification in archival processing. Pictured here is a business card of Mr. G.W. Durham, a funeral director in Campbellsville, Kentucky. One side of the card gives an interesting description of Durham’s professional expertise along with his picture and contact information, while the other lists costs and services.

In addition to aligning with the theme of death often associated with Halloween, this business card also presents the subject of ephemera identification. When processing archival collections, archivists come across a variety of materials, some which are known as ephemera. According to the Society of American Archivists, ephemera is defined as “materials, usually printed documents, created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use.” Examples of different types of ephemera include brochures, event tickets, and advertisements.

When organizing a collection, it is necessary for an archivist to identify different types of ephemera for labeling purposes and in order to better assist researchers. However, some, including Durham’s business card, are not easily identifiable compared with modern formats. His cards fit into the category of personal cards, which Chris E. Makepeace, author of Ephemera: A Book on Its Collection, Conservation and Use, says includes visiting cards, identity cards and business cards. But they do not conform exactly to the qualifications of current day business cards and may have been called by a different title during the period used.

While the exact identifying term of Durham’s card may be unknown at this time, it is still a valuable tool for researchers. The information printed on personal cards – names, addresses, telephone numbers, professions, and even business details – might not be available otherwise, making this type of ephemera historically significant. Personal cards allow researchers to learn about individuals and businesses and are helpful for genealogical research. They may seem like things to be thrown away but are useful, important forms of documentation.


Makepeace, Chris E. Ephemera: A Book on Its Collection, Conservation and Use. Vermont: Gower Publishing Company, 1985.

Moses, Richard Pearce. A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. The Society of American Archivists. http://www.archivists.org/glossary/index.asp

Rickards, Maurice and Michael Twyman. Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator and Historian. Routledge: New York, 2000.

Posted by Nicole Carmolingo, AARL Archives Intern

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