Patrick Vernon OBE: The problem of Black ephemera
Patrick Vernon OBE, founder of 100 Great Black Britons and a Councillor in the London Borough of Hackney writes about the importance of ephemera.
Ephemera are 'minor transient documents of everyday life', essentially ordinary items, normally thrown away which provide a valuable insight into everyday life in the past. For the last 15 years I have been collecting a range of ephemera, particularly Black related such as from postcards, trade cards/advertising, photographs, newspapers etc.
Most of these images generally tend to have racist and stereotypical depictions of people reflecting the various European empires. Sadly tens of thousands of these negative images are still in circulation today up and down the country at postcard, book/ ephemera fairs and in the hands of private dealers. Some of the postcard images are still classified as “ethnic” or “coon cards”.
To add insult to injury for some reason Black ephemera has a higher market value compared to the average postcard of the day. The riots last year along with the recent conviction in the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, the inquest on Sean Rigg and the ongoing case of racism in the Metropolitan Police force highlight that racial stereotypes are still powerful and how these prejudices are communicated through print and electronic media.
The earliest examples of European construction of Black ephemera is in the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. It has been estimated between 15 to 20 million Africans were captured and enslaved as part of the transatlantic trade and sold to plantations in the Caribbean, South America and North America. The enslavement and treatment of African people as chattel was reflected in a range of documentation created as part of this enterprise in cotton, sugar, rum, shipping and plantation estates and the criminal justice system.
However it was the growth and development of the post card and newspaper industry between 1860s to 1940s along with social entertainment such as music hall, popular sports and the rise in consumerism we enter a new era of promulgation of racist images into popular culture (radio, film & television also played an important contribution).
One of the most popular stereotypes used in print advertising was images around cleanliness.
The Victorians and Edwardians as a result of the mass production of soap/cleaning products along with cheap white cotton were obsessed with soap and cleanliness. It has been estimated by the 1890s that Victorians were consuming 260,000 tons of soap a year. The ritual and nature of cleanliness also reflected social class and status. Soap was symbolic in making differences between the civilised and uncivilised, between white skins and Black skins. Soap also had the power not only to wash Black skins as part of the civilization process, but also for the working class and destitute people living in the industrial slums.
Advertising was a crucial element in racialising the domestic world and the colonial / imperial expansion in Africa and India. Often the adverts over exaggerated the darkness of African people and soap became the poster child of the ‘civilizing’ process.
Black ephemera are important for everyone to understand and to challenge these historical stereotypes which still persist today. Nostalgia often creates an environment and a safe space in our fast moving uncertain and potentially unstable globalised world. The potential danger of this new renaissance in British cultural nationalism and retroism is that we will revert back to these stereotypes from the days of the empire as a form of moral panic to justify racism, social exclusion, and immigration policy and ridicule politically correct language and points of view.
The Centre for Ephemera Studies at the University of Reading are holding an event called ‘Black ephemera: depictions of people of African descent' on 4th July. The event will have a range of speakers who will cover different historical perspectives on ephemera. For more information, visit