Black Ephemera - Popular Stereotypes

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 often over exaggerated the darkness of African people and also used either children and or Mammy figure to highlight the domesticity and role of how soap is part of the civilizing process.

The soap and the cleanliness industry was initially dominated by hundreds of small companies but eventually it became an oligarchistic industry with companies such as Pears, Monkey Brands, Sunlight, Lux as major players that spent considerable amount of money through branding products and print advertising in creating visual aesthetic space around of using soap as a lifestyle. This mass marketing approach currently influences modern day advertising and marketing of global brands. It has been estimated that in the 1880s that Pears was spending £300,000 to £400,000 a year on advertising alone.

However, not all black ephemera images during this period were negative. Entertainers and sports personalities were able to challenge some of these stereotypes through their popular appeal to the public e.g. Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson, Ira Aldridge, Prince Monolou, Josephine Baker, Samuel Coolridge Taylor and Kaffar Boys.

Nevertheless, 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 process of private dealers. Some of the post cards 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. One of the most expensive black ephemera images are lynching postcards where African American men were often hung and castrated as entertainment for picnic parties and also for vigilante racist / Klu Klux Klan activity particularly during and after WW1 where a number of African American ex service men were targeted and lynched.

Some of these postcards today are worth over £3000 to private collectors. An exhibition and a book called ‘Without Sanctuary’ was published in 2000 in America. In 2011 the exhibition was displayed at Autograph in East London.

Black ephemera provide the opportunity for people of African descent to reclaimed and revisit this historical dimension of the life of black communities around the world after slavery, pre civil rights movement and prior to the anti colonial struggle for independence in Africa and the Caribbean.

Some of these ephemera images have become prized possession to museums, archives and private collectors around the world particularly in North America and Europe especially to growing middle class, successful entrepreneurs and celebrities particularly for the African American community.

More importantly, black ephemera is for every one to understand and to challenge these historical stereotypes which still persist today in society (link to the orgins of Black History Month in the UK). Nostalgia often creates an environment and a safe space in our fast moving uncertain and potential 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.

Every Generation in partnership with the Centre of Ephemera Studies at the University of Reading organised a study day on Black ephemera on the 4th of July 2012

A special edition of the The Ephemerist magazine will be launched in the autumn featuring a number of articles and presentations from the study