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Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, circa 1724-1977


Scope & Content of the Collection

The Warshaw Collection consists of approximately 1,020 cubic feet of material currently contained in 1,863 vertical document boxes, 214 flat oversize boxes, 34 map case drawers of oversize materials, 56 volumes of photographic photo prints, 17 boxes of 4 x 5 color transparencies and black and white photonegatives, 11 boxes of stereographs, and a videodisc.  It consists of a large body of business ephemera.  Ephemera is used to refer to the transient everyday items which are usually printed on paper however in some cases fabric, leather and wood have been used. This material is manufactured for a specific limited use and then meant to be thrown away.  The collection also contains samples of ephemera that were meant to be saved for a short period of time and discarded later such as stock certificates.  This material dates from the late eighteenth century to about 1977, but the bulk of the material is late from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The largest advertising history collection in the Archives Center, the Warshaw Collection is organized into five major categories: I. Business Ephemera -- - Vertical Files, II. Business Ephemera - - Oversize, III. Other Collection Divisions, IV. Isadore Warshaw Personal Papers and V.  Photographic Reference Materials.  Scope and content notes and a detailed description of the contents for all of these divisions are found in the following sections of the register.

I. BUSINESS EPHEMERA - - VERTICAL FILES, ca. 1724-1977, makes up the largest portion of the collection. It is divided into 538 subject and geographic categories created by Mr. Warshaw and is contained in 1,863 vertical document boxes. Materials include vast numbers of advertising cards, scraps, stock cards, trade catalogs, price lists, menus, pamphlets, labels, lithographs, photographs, business letterheads, bills, receipts, greeting cards, post cards, calendars, printed advertisements, periodicals, newspaper clippings, broadsides, shipping documents, handbills, premiums, promotional items, announcements, business cards, packaging and point of purchase displays.

II. BUSINESS EPHEMERA - - OVERSIZE FILES, ca. 1850-1960, consists of 213 flat oversize boxes and 34 map case drawers of materials.  Materials include posters, newspapers, point of purchase displays, packaging, printed advertisements, periodical illustrations, lithographs, labels, shipping documents, promotional items, trade catalogs, pattern sheets, maps, art reproductions, fashion design drawings, membership certificates and price lists. The material is organized by the same subject and geographical categories as materials in the vertical document boxes.

III. OTHER COLLECTION DIVISIONS, ca. 1790-1957, represents a significant accumulation of one type of material rather than a mix of various types of ephemera. Materials generally relate to one subject. Most of the material is stored in flat oversize boxes. Materials include business records, cinema lobby cards, fire insurance maps, photographs and scrapbooks of liquor and wine labels.

IV. ISADORE WARSHAW PERSONAL PAPERS, ca. 1917-1966, consists of three document boxes of materials relating to how Mr. Warshaw maintained the collection as a business. Most of this material is correspondence sent to him in response to his research inquiries. A smaller portion of the material is printed advertisements and circulars created by Mr. Warshaw to advertise his services and the collection. Magazine articles, letterhead stationery and photographs make up the remainder of the material.

V. PHOTOGRAPHIC REFERENCE MATERIAL, consists of photographs, slides and transparencies of items found in the collection.  These materials were created for a number of purposes. Some were created in response to requests by researcher for images to be used in publications, exhibitions, and for other purposes. Others were created as a quick reference source for researchers. Several thousand photographic images from the Warshaw Collection were also transferred to an experimental videodisc by the Institution's Office of Photographic and Printing Services (OPPS). The videodisc is available for viewing on equipment in the Archives Center.

Use of the prints, slides, and videodisc reduces wear and tear on the collection, permits rapid searching through many images, and assures the researcher - - in most cases that a photographic negative of transparency already exists, and that copies can be reproduced relatively quickly and inexpensively. Searching the collection's photographic reproductions is especially appropriate for researchers who want to see general images of subjects such as "women in advertising" or an advertisement from a particular year.

The Warshaw Collection originally contained books, three-dimensional objects and food crate labels. Those books that did not directly relate to the collection were transferred to the Smithsonian Libraries. Remaining publications are stored in the Business Ephemera-Vertical Files document boxes within the appropriate subject category.

Mr. Warshaw collected three-dimensional objects to illustrate packaging, to convey information about product content, shape and size, and to document advertising in three-dimensional forms. Such items included hair product packaging, games, patent medicine containers, cosmetics, tobacco tins, food containers, and liquor bottles. There were also a number of objects, mostly made of glass, tin, and wood, including trays and stained glass signs advertising products such as patent medicine, tobacco, phonographs, refrigerators, stoves, hair products, meat, agricultural tools and implements, whiskey, bakery goods, and beer. Some of these objects were framed. All these objects have been transferred to the appropriate divisions in the Museum. Information on the locations of these items can be obtained in the Archives Center reference room.

Food crate labels were once an important advertising device. Used to develop loyalty to particular growers, these labels were appealing because of the commercial artwork. Some of the labels were mounted on wood. These labels also were transferred to a curatorial unit. The un-mounted labels are in the "foods" section of the Business Ephemera - - Vertical Files.

Research Strengths and Limitations

The strength of the Warshaw Collection lies in its size, its variety, and its extraordinarily rich visual imagery. These images illustrate how Americans perceived themselves or wished to be perceived, how they saw others, their work patterns, their recreation habits, and other aspects of American culture from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. They provide an alternative source to written and printed historical materials, sometimes conveying information about values and practices not otherwise documented. These images stand as a powerful reminder that the origins of modern, visual mass communications go much farther back than the invention of television.

Most of the imagery, of course, is a vision of American life as seen through the eyes of advertising agencies and of the businesses they represented. Researchers working with the collection find it an especially rich source for examining the dynamic relationship between advertising and American culture over the centuries.

There are some problems, however, interpreting American culture through these materials. Most of the advertisements in the collection represent Anglo-American mainstream culture. African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and members of other ethnic groups are only occasionally depicted in the advertisements. Much of this imagery is stereotypical and fails to recognize ethnic groups as consumers.  Despite these limitations the ethnic imagery offers penetrating insights into American culture and its changing values and tastes. The Archives Center's Ethnic Imagery Project has identified thousands of items within the Warshaw Collection, and in other Center collections, which depict race and ethnicity.  The Project also is seeking to expand the range of such imagery within the Center's collections to provide a better rounded view of how Americans see themselves and each other.

There are few indications in the collection of consumer response. The materials mostly consist of end products, what customers received.  Testimonials and celebrity endorsements are among the materials but do not constitute a large portion of it, nor do they appear in every subject category. There is also little documentation on the success or failure of advertisements. Evidence about advertisers' decisions to use specific advertisements is extremely rare.

There is no complete history of any one company represented in the collection. For many of the businesses, the material consists of fragments of the advertising materials created to sell their products or services.  Biographical information on founders or the early developments of the company may be included on letterhead stationery or bills and receipts but not always. Occasionally one finds company publications that discuss the history of the business. These were usually produced for anniversaries and more often for larger companies that had existed for a long time, such as Proctor & Gamble. 

Most of the businesses represented in the Collection were east of the Mississippi River. This is probably due to the collecting possibilities for Mr. Warshaw. It also may be due to the concentration of many industries in this region.

Despite its limitations, the Warshaw Collection is the most heavily used collection in the Archives Center. Researchers in the Collection often find information unavailable elsewhere. Researchers in the Collection have included academic historians, Smithsonian curatorial staff , and outside museum staff interested in the collection for exhibition purposes.  Smithsonian Shops buyers and others interested in motifs for licensed products, collectors and hobbyists find the collection a rich source for such research.

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Revised: May 16, 2014