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Few know as much about the Pacific Northwest—particularly as it
has been depicted in ephemera and tourist propaganda—as Edward W.
Nolan, head of special collections at the Washington State Historical
Society, in Tacoma, for close to 20 years. With graduate
degrees in history and library science from the University of
Oregon, Nolan began his museum and special collections career in
1975, at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. Two years
later, he went to work for the Lane County Historical Museum, in
Eugene, and in 1982 he went to the Montana Historical Society,
where he researched and wrote a book on the Northern Pacific
Railroad photography of F. Jay Haynes (1853-1921). During that
stint, he studied in depth the use of photography and promotional
brochures as tools of persuasion. Finally, he went on to head the
special collections at Eastern Washington State Historical Society,
in Spokane, where he built its manuscript, photography and ephemera
collections. Here, Nolan discusses his lifelong interest in
collecting and the important differences between hoarding and
Heller: Were you always a hoarder?
Nolan: Yes, I come by it naturally. Both my grandmother
and mother were hoarders. My grandmother's specialty seemed to be
saucers, clothing, and anything that took her fancy. When we moved
her from her home I would estimate there were at least 10,000
saucers, and quantities of blouses, shoes, and bar soap. She would
always say that buying these things “did [her] soul good.” Without
a doubt, poverty and the Depression played a large role for both my
grandmother and mother. My mother, however, in addition to hoarding
clothing, developed a taste for antiques. From an early age I was
inclined to collect paper materials. First it was timetables and
advertising available at train stations and in hotel lobbies, and I
found myself attracted to real photo post cards rather than the
colored lithographic cards. I was, and am, truly hopeless!
Heller: When you came to the Historical Society, did you
stumble upon a trove, or did you have to assemble from
Posters advertising travel aboard the steamship Centennial (far
left), offered by the Northwestern Commercial Co. in 1900, and the
S.S. Oregon (far right), offered by the Seattle Shipping Agency in
1901; and an informational guide to the Northern Pacific Railroad,
Nolan: In a sense, both. The foundation of the collection
was a hoard accumulated by the second Secretary of WSHS, Edward N.
Fuller (1824-1904). Fuller was a printer by trade, publishing
newspapers and doing job printing in various U.S. locations, from
New Hampshire, to Salt Lake City, to Tacoma, where he arrived in
1882. He became involved with the Washington State Historical
Society at its founding in 1891. As a printer, he had a passion for
saving newspapers and ephemera. Handbills, broadsides, posters, and
pamphlets seem to have excited him. He would tear broadsides from
telephone poles or other locations—as is evidenced by missing
corners on many items. He would save pamphlets handed to him on the
street, and on all of these he would write the date when he
obtained it. In some cases he would note, “Passed out on the
streets of Tacoma....” Until 1990, all of this material, some 700
items, languished in acidic boxes, uncatalogued and uncared for.
Once I began to catalogue and make it available, researchers and
our staff came to recognize its historical importance in research.
I'm certain Fuller's contemporaries in the Society were thinking,
“What is it with this guy?”
Heller: What other resources where there?
(from left) Posters for Wallace & Clark Circus, c. 1945, and
Cole and Walters Circus, c. 1950.
Nolan: Another treasure that was here is the large
collection of World War I and World War II recruiting posters, also
uncatalogued and uncared for. The third great resource is a
collection of over 100 circus posters dating between c. 1930 and
1955, collected in the area by a local man with a passion for the
circus. These, too, were uncared for. Beyond these three
ephemera collections were truly wanting and it has fallen to me
to build this resource. Since 1990, we have added thousands of
pieces of ephemera, mainly acquired at thrift stores, on the
streets, and occasionally purchased (we don't have much of a budget
Heller: Your collections are all visual ephemera, from
posters to adverts to menus. What captures your fancy most, and
Poster for Victory Liberty Loans, by Howard Chandler Christy,
Nolan: That's a tough one! Probably handbills and
broadsides because they demonstrate such a wide variety of printing
techniques and designs. Their uniqueness, certainly. And, their
size makes them easier to handle than large posters.
Heller: Are you tutored in design and typography? And if so,
do these elements influence how and what you collect?
Nolan: I am not tutored in design and typography, but I
guess that over the years I have absorbed an aesthetic that comes
from long experience. For me, though, there is an aesthetic in even
the crudest amateur efforts to propagandize.
It did take me some time (but not much) to overcome the shackles
of library training, to see things in a larger context beyond just
their informational value. I think library schools, and now
“information science” schools make a valiant effort to snuff out
any appreciation for the physical item and its design. It's all
only information. Librarians have long regarded ephemera and
pamphlets as “fugitive material,” more problematic than useful. You
need only witness the kind of care it has received in their
hands—folding, cutting, ownership stamps and a whole host of other
Heller: What ephemeral pieces are most unique—and
historically important—to Washington State?
Nolan: Certainly, Fuller's collection of 1885 and 1892
anti-Chinese handbills and broadsides, and his 1898-1902 collection
of broadsides advertising Klondike Gold Rush bound ships are among
the finest, if not the finest, groupings in the world.
(from left) Anti-Chinese broadside from Tacoma, 1892; and cover
of a fold-out map promoting opportunity along the route of the
Northern Paciifc Railroad, 1882.
Heller: Do you view the material through a critical or
aesthetic eye? In other words, what is most important in your
collection the historical significance or the quality of the
Nolan: Since we are a historical society, we look at
materials from at least two viewpoints: support of our exhibits
program and support for researchers. Of course, I prefer to have
the most aesthetically pleasing (to me) material. I love the
“zingers,” but I'm trying to document a wide range of history, so I
must look at message, movements, and other aspects of the item. Of
course, I might like to collect only the most finely produced and
aesthetically pleasing material, but I don't have that luxury.
Heller: Are there things you will not collect? And
Art Deco postcard of Seattle, Glamour City, 1930.
Nolan: No, there are not things I will not collect, but I
also realize I cannot collect it all because I cannot get it all. I
make no judgments as to cause or even aesthetic as far as
Heller: Since many of your artifacts represent life in the
state of Washington, how would you say the design of this region
compares with the design of other regions?
Nolan: Historically the majority of the material
representing life in Washington has come from outside of the state.
Printing firms in Chicago, New York, Buffalo, St. Louis, and other
eastern cities have produced a lot of what survives. Railroads,
airlines, manufacturers, and others have distilled what they think
Washington is all about and that has guided their design. Mt.
Rainier, Seattle Space Needle, salmon, apples, outdoor recreation,
the rugged West, etc.
Heller: Who were the leading poster artists of Washington
State, and what did they contribute to the graphic heritage of the
Booklet for agricultural and business opportunities in the
Nolan: I'm not certain there were any “pathbreakers.”
However, numerous design firms and artists have emerged over the
past thirty or so years. We see fine posters coming out of Seattle
and, locally, the Beautiful Angle group has
been producing some very interesting work that I think is trend
setting and will be sought after.
Heller: Other than collectibles—and we know from eBay that
people love to pick up collectibles—what is the value and virtue of
Nolan: I must say that places like eBay have made my job
more challenging. The collector mentality is different from mine in
that many of them only want to possess the item and will pay any
price to acquire it. I don't have that kind of budget. I look at
the legacy we are creating for Washingtonians and try, whenever
possible, to add those things that enrich this legacy. That legacy
is the virtue and the value. Certainly, researchers and future
exhibit attendees will, I hope, find all of our efforts to have
been virtuous and valuable.
All images courtesy Washington State Historical
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