Yellowstone Park Ephemera

The word ephemera derives from Greek, meaning things that are not meant to last more than a day. In ancient times the word extended to the mayfly and other short-lived insects and flowers, which lasted a day, or for a short period of time. In library and information science, the term ephemera describes the class of published single sheet or single page documents, which are meant to be thrown away after one-day use. Postcards are considered to be ephemera, even though many are saved and not thrown away. Other examples of ephemera relating to national parks include such materials as posters, brochures, booklets, calendars, advertising, trade cards, tickets, passes, decals, luggage stickers, menus, stationary, stamps, envelopes, napkins, candy boxes, packaging, receipts, and other sundry printed items.

Ephemera is collected for many different reasons. One reason ephemera has value for collectors is rarity. Ephemera was not made to last a long time, and can be rare or hard to find. Ephemera is also collected for graphics or designs. Some of the most valuable national park-related ephemera are posters. Several railroads published posters promoting national parks from the later 19th century through the middle of the 20th century. Train travel to national parks was, for the most part, discontinued in the 1960s. The Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR) published a series of fifteen art deco style posters in the 1930s promoting travel on their Yellowstone Park Route from St. Paul to Tacoma. The NPRR published two posters each for Yellowstone and Mount Rainier National Parks in this series. The Union Pacific Railroad, the Burlington Railroad, and the Chicago Milwaukee Railroad also published posters for Yellowstone Park. Other railroads that created posters for national parks include the Santa Fe for Grand Canyon and Death Valley, the Great Northern for Glacier, the Union Pacific for Zion, Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, and the Redwoods. This list includes western national parks only. There were a number of other railroads that published posters and poster style brochure covers for other national parks and monuments, both in the western and eastern United States.

Poster style is a definition of a style of illustration. Susan and I collect poster style brochure covers and postcards. Some of the postcards are posters reproduced in postcard format. The postcard and brochure cover images share the same elements as full size posters and are like looking at a large format poster from a distance. Many of the national park brochure covers can be described as poster style.

The ”Golden Age of Illustration” was the period from circa 1885 through the 1930s. A major change in illustration took place in the mid-1930s when photographic-based images became easier and less expensive to produce. Photographic images began to replace artistic images as illustrations. This was noticeable in books and magazines. The technology to reproduce photographic images had advanced considerably since World War I. Photographs became less expensive to reproduce and photographic images began to replace original artwork in several different types of media. Photographic-based illustrations were the main form of illustration after 1940.

Some of the finest poster artists were commissioned by the railroads to create national park posters.  The artists who created the NPRR series of posters included Gustav Krollmann, Edward Brewer, and Sydney Laurence. The NPRR reproduced a 1892 Thomas Moran painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone for one of the posters in this series. The Yellowstone Park Transportation Company commissioned the German master poster artist Ludwig Hohlwein to create a circa 1914 silkscreen poster of a tally-ho stagecoach titled Yellowstone-Park.

The NPRR railroad posters were advertisements made to display in depots and railroad buildings. These posters were usually discarded after a certain period of time. We have seen examples of these posters pasted on top of other posters on a board. Most of the early 20th century railroad posters produced did not survive for one reason or another. Many of the NPRR posters that did survive were soiled or damaged. I estimate that there may have been about 500 of the Hohlwein posters produced circa 1914 and that today there are less than 100 that survive. This is a survival rate of 20 percent or less. The survival rate of the art deco NPRR posters from the 1930s is even lower.

The survival rate of postcards from the Golden Age of Postcards is estimated at less than 5 percent. The long-time dealers we have known in the postcard hobby have told us that perhaps 10 percent of the surviving postcards from the Golden Age are in very good to excellent condition. This would equal less than .5 percent of the postcards produced from this period, and I believe these numbers are on the high end.

Ephemera provides clues into the social history of the past. The information given, the styles of illustrations, the images and what they depict, how the piece was produced, and other tangible aspects offer clues to when and why an item was produced.  Yellowstone was the first park in the world, established in 1872, and transcended a number of different art movements and printing technologies. Yellowstone brochures from the 1880s through the turn of the century are mostly in the art nouveau style. Parks that were established after the Art Nouveau Movement ended, circa 1910, do not have examples of these styles of illustrations. The same can be said of the Arts and Craft Movement, circa 1915 through the 1920s, and the Art Deco Movement, circa 1925 through the 1930s. Ephemera from parks that were established after World War II mostly have illustrations from the Modern Style, circa 1945 through the 1960s. Printed materials produced for these later parks typically use photographic-based images as illustrations.

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