Black Ephemera

Retroism is becoming a growing fashionable trend where styles, images, music, manufactured products and fashion of bygone years are now recreated for a discerning X and Y generation of consumers. The reinvention of cultural and historical modernity often raises challenges especially around the depiction of people of African descent.

The recent global history of African people and the diaspora people living in Europe, North America, Caribbean and South America have over the last 400 years experienced the impact the negative dimensions of ephemera images particularly through post cards, advertising hand bills, newspapers, political pamphlets, articles and official documentation.


A number of racist and stereotypical assumptions from the 18th century were developed and manufactured based around the following beliefs and values systems:

  • Christian perspectives from the interpretation of the Bible that Black people or of African descent according to the curse of Ham were born to be in servitude thus justifying the slavery and the slave trade;
  • Racial science based evolutionary/eugenics theories based around Darwinism perceived Black people did not achieved full development as human beings and thus having low intelligence and but with the propensity for physical labour and child like naiveté fun entertainment;
  • Enlightenment school of philosophy (e.g. Locke, Hegel) saw that black people had not made any significant contribution to world history and mankind/woman and thus people of African descent only had a primitive/savage existence only European civilisation is they key to their survival.

The earliest examples of European construction of black ephemera are 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 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, with the rise of the abolition and anti slavery movement a range of publications, hand bills were produced to challenge and lobby the government against the trade and slavery in general. Although the slave trade was abolished by the UK Parliament in 1807, slavery still continued on the various plantations in Caribbean, North America and in Africa.

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).

The diffusion of negative racist and stereotypes images were based on the perception, experiences and value judgments of colonial expatriates based in Africa (teachers, administrators, soldiers, missionaries, entrepreneurs, settlers, explorers, and anthropologists) and the legacy of slavery and plantation societies in North America, Caribbean and South America.

The depictions of these images in ephemera can be reflected for instance in popular advertising, music song sheets and post cards can be categorized in the following stereotypes:

  1. Topological country scenes of Africa, Caribbean, South America and Deep South of America (pictures and scenes of famous landmarks e.g. Victoria falls(Zimbabwe),Pyramids(Egypt),Panama Canal(Panama),Pitons(St Lucia);
  2. Social history/life style(street/market scenes, people at work e.g. picking cotton,fishing, hunting);
  3. Family/village life e.g. images of families(typically chief and tribe members),warriors, children playing, people outside huts/shanty towns;
  4. Celebration of Empires, Colonies and Reconstruction period(USA) servitude of black subordinates(pictures of Missionaries, Colonial administrators, Officers from armed forces, business men giving orders, directions or posing as superior beings to their black subjects;
  5. Coon/Buffoons (humorous images of black men and boys as foolish/stupid/lazy often eating melons);
  6. The Good Negro (subservient and passive black people such as Aunt Jemma and Uncle Tom);
  7. Grateful Children (images of either black child or black and white children playing with captions that question the identity of the black child or reinforcing their loyalty to the white child);
  8. Minstrels (either black entertainers or white entertainers ‘blacking up’);
  9. Aggressive Black Buck/Cannibal (where black men seen as full of rage and a violent streak/cannibalistic propensity but also with a lust for white women);
  10. Fetish/Exoticism of either black men or women seen as exotic and over sexed (Hottentots Venus).

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



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