You may have heard items like this collectively described as ephemera. So, what exactly IS ephemera? Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:
"Things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time"
(Derives from the Greek word ephēmeros, meaning 'lasting only a day.')
According to who you ask in the genealogical community, any of the following could be considered ephemera:
Ticket stubs from sporting events, amusement parks, theatre shows
Ticket stubs from travel
Personal or business letters and envelopes
Club or union membership cards and rosters
Report cards, graduation programs, reunion programs, schoolwork
Church bulletins and newsletters
Business cards, stationary, ledger forms
Napkins and coasters
Using ephemera to introduce or enhance kids' understanding of family history is a great idea for a few reasons. By its nature, ephemera is very visual and hands-on; this is so important in order to keep their attention and interest. Even in our digital society, paper ephemera is still a part of our everyday lives, so kids will automatically understand what it is. And, my favorite reason to introduce kids to ephemera is that it is, to some degree, open-ended in its story and requires a child or teen to use analytical skills to piece together the item's meaning and significance.
When examining ephemera with child(ren), make it a game. Search for clues, maybe even using a magnifying glass to play out the part (much like we did for our Directory Detectives activity).
While doing so, ask them the following questions:
1.) What is the item? Read out loud any text. Examine both sides. What was its original purpose? (Answering this question may take some research and/or help from elder generations, depending on the item in question. For example, kids and teens today are likely unfamiliar with ration books, matchbooks, dance cards, or pin money clubs. But examining ephemera like this is SO great because it not only introduces kids to aspects of their ancestors' lives, but also to common clubs or traditions or events of that historical time period. Learning general history through our ancestors makes it so much more meaningful!)
2.) Is the item dated? If yes, how old was your ancestor at the time?
3.) Is it from a particular event, place, or time period in your ancestor's life? How could you learn more about that event, place, or time period?
4.) If a ticket stub or receipt, is there a price listed? If yes, try to figure out how much the same event or item would cost today.
5.) Why do you think your family member saved this?
6.) What types of ephemera would YOU save to help future generations know more about your life?
If your child is willing, encourage them to start collecting personal ephemera of their own, from places or events that are special and memorable to them. All you need is a three-ring binder and some acid-free, archival-quality clear sleeves. Or, if they are more technologically inclined, perhaps they will want to digitized their memorable ephemera and maybe even create their own personal digital scrapbook website online.
You will find that some kids (especially younger ones) will want to save everything - and this is an opportunity to convey to them the idea that you CAN'T save everything. We need to be selective about what we save. We need to choose ephemera from times or events or places that really mean a lot to us and that contribute to our own stories and family stories. There is an art to saving ephemera, and, if done right, it can add SO much to our family history without over-burdening future generations.
Encourage kids and teens to help YOU or other family historians sort through and digitize the ephemera left by previous generations. Did great-grandma leave behind a box full of funeral cards? Have the kids put them in chronological and/or alphabetical order. Are all those old letters folded in halves or thirds? Have the kids help smooth them out before digitizing. There are lots of ways to give kids first-hand experience in the process of archiving family history.
Also, let kids help you FIND new sources of ephemera that may have meaning to your family. Believe it or not, Ebay is a great place to look for pieces of family history ephemera - I've found old matchbooks from family businesses and postcards depicting long-gone buildings that played a role in my family's history. The Digital Public Library of America, as well as other state historical digital collections, are also great places to search for family ephemera.