By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries
PULLMAN, Wash. – The passengers aboard the S.S. Spokane cruising through Alaskan waters in 1903 probably didn’t give their lunch menu much thought beyond what they would have to eat. Granted, its totem-pole shape was interesting – a clever play by cruise company marketers to remind them of where they were sailing and maybe to buy a miniature souvenir while on shore.
Most of those menus would have been ignored, though – left on tables or thrown away. But one made it back from turn-of-the-century Alaska to wind up in Washington State University’s Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections.
The menu and other bits of the printed detritus from MASC’s collections are showcased in a new exhibit, “Ephemera: Yesterday’s Trash, Today’s Archive,” opening this month and running through March. An opening reception is set for 3-4:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22, in the MASC main lobby.
“Ephemera” is part of WSU common reading events for the book written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Edward Humes. For more about the book and other events, visit http://commonreading.wsu.edu/.
Trevor Bond, head of MASC, said he hopes the exhibit will impress on viewers the ubiquitousness of ephemera – the minor, transient documents of everyday life. Those paper scraps go unnoticed most of the time.
“Most printed ephemera are intended for short-term use, to be consumed and then discarded,” he said. “We all have ephemera: the receipt in your pocket, the flier handed to you on Terrell Mall that you accepted out of politeness, or perhaps a bookmark for this very exhibit.”
From tickets to bookmark to memory
Over time, ephemera can become unique, Bond said. They can even change functions from their original purpose on their way to our memories.
One of Bond’s favorite items is Greek museum tickets from 1932 that came from the Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The Woolfs visited the museum during their tour of Greece that year.
“The tickets were tucked into one of Virginia’s books,” Bond said. From proof of admission to placeholder, the tickets became part of MASC when the department obtained more than 9,900 volumes of the Woolfs’ library in 1971.
Taking a cue from Woolf, Bond points out his personal contribution to the exhibit: the bus pass-cum-bookmark he saved from his college days during the early 1990s in Santa Monica, Calif.
“Transitory objects help humans remember events, places and people,” Bond said. “Ephemera can therefore serve as the triggers of memory that help us recall our past experiences.”
A more compelling feature of ephemera is what the printed materials say about a previous generation’s concerns and anxieties, Bond said.
The MASC exhibit includes a 1970s-era guide for parents about marijuana. The introduction describes a typical American neighborhood: tree-lined streets, a public library, a playground with chatting mothers and young toddlers playing. But wait…
“Literally a stone’s throw away, a park attracts teenagers. The youngsters squat or flake out on the grass, their clothing and hair unkempt. They seem anxious and furtive. Nearby homeowners agree those boys and girls are from another part of town. Maybe so. Their presence in the park is under scrutiny by the police who tell you: ‘We have drug problems there – marijuana!’”
Attitudes about marijuana have shifted dramatically since the pamphlet was printed. In 2012, Washingtonians passed Initiative 502, legalizing small amounts of marijuana-related products for adults 21 and over. The passage of the initiative also opened the way for the state to license and regulate the sale of such products.
Evelyn Moos, co-curator on the exhibit with Bond and graphic designer Amy Grey, dug into MASC’s Lynn R. Hansen Underground Comics Collection and discovered the first issue of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” created by the comic book team of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984.
Hansen, who worked in the television industry in Idaho, Alabama and New Mexico and was active in the underground comic scene as a critic and reviewer, died in 1995. His family donated his comic collection of 160 boxes to WSU after his death.
TMNT could have very easily been lost to obscurity given their inauspicious beginnings, described by Eastman in a 1988 New York Times story (http://www.nytimes.com/1988/12/25/business/dynamic-duo-kevin-eastman-peter-laird-turning-teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-into.html): “We were sitting around the living room. We’d watched a number of bad TV shows – T. J. Hooker, The A-Team and Love Connection. We got real punchy, and for some reason I did a sketch of a turtle with a mask. Pete did one, and another. Then I said, ‘Wait! Wait!’ and drew four turtles, each with a different weapon. I said, ‘Why not call them Ninja Turtles?’ Pete said, ‘Why not Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?’”
They borrowed money from Eastman’s uncle, formed a studio, produced the black-and-white comic on cheap newsprint and self-published some 3,000 copies. Not only did the comic sell out, but the Heroes in a Half Shell took the country and world by storm.
The TMNT issue that MASC has is a first edition, worth a couple thousand dollars, Moos said.
“It was supposed to be a parody on superhero comics, so the original printing was limited,” she said. “Even the creators didn’t expect the comic book to take off the way it did.”
She said she wanted to include comics in the ephemera exhibit partially because of her own interest in them and partially in response to past disagreement about whether archives should keep them at all.
“Comics are in a nebulous area. Are they worthwhile? Are they worth studying? Should they be in an archive?” she said. “But I think they do belong here. Archives provide equal access to a wide range of documents, and some comics are very valuable both monetarily and as topics of study.”
Trevor Bond, WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, 509-335-6693, firstname.lastname@example.org
Evelyn Moos, WSU Libraries, email@example.com
Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries public relations/communications, 509-335-6744, firstname.lastname@example.org