cameo cards and the great rescue

I found the slim and rather clumsily titled "Cameo Cards and Bella C. Landauer" while snooping around on the desk of collagist and master printer Robert Warner. He was kind enough to overlook that fact and lend the booklet, which was published by the Ephemera Society of America, to me. The Society describes itself within the booklet in endearing terms as
concerned with the preservation, study, and educational uses of printed and handwritten ephemera... These bits and pieces of everyday life have held a strange fascination for all those who have rescued the minor documents of society from obscurity.
I especially love the designation of "rescuing" – I often feel just that when I'm debating over yet another postcard/ billhead/ticket stub. I sometimes get slightly panicky if I pause to think about the countless "minor documents" that casually slipped into obscurity...

Cameo cards, strictly speaking, are embossed commercial calling cards. So called because with their light figures on dark ground they bear a passing resemblance to carved cameo jewels (see top image, above, with its particularly high-relief portrait). Especially popular in the decade or so before the Civil War, they continued to be produced through the end of the 19th century.

This booklet, likely out of necessity, is a sadly low-budget affair and the very poor black and white reproductions only hint at what must be gorgeous reality. (Color pairings and variants are noted and reeled off: light blue and pale red, blue with bronze and copper, violet with brown, and so on). The booklet also reveals the obsessive cataloging and redundant cross-referencing that seems endemic to fervent collectors...

Much of the credit for making the world of ephemera, well, less ephemeral goes to Bella C. Landauer (1874–1960) who amassed such a tremendous collection that the portion of her archive donated to the New-York Historical Society alone numbers 850,000 pieces. Mrs. Landauer, who looked like an extra from a Marx brother's film, was tireless and somewhat manic-- she apparently presided over her collection in a disused kitchen in the attic of the Historical Society until more genteel showrooms became available. She glued, cataloged, and added to the archive several days a week, until her death.

I tried to understand what it is that I find so enchanting about these cards: the juxtaposition of minute detail and crudeness; fanciful shapes and awkward word breaks, the idiosyncratic phrasing
and of course, rampant commas!
"Adams, Hotel"
"Practical Steam Marble Works"
"Cracker and Variety Bakery"
"Theodor Kay, fancy turner in Meerschaum..."

--- --- ---
On reviewing this post a few days later I find it necessary to highlight 2 proprietor names that are worth a pause: first row just under the large portrait, left and center.

Also, anyone have ideas about what the mound-like structure in the last card is supposed to represent...A bee hive of carpet attracting all the ladies?


malcolm enright said...


Angela, go and visit Seven Roads, url above. You'll find it relates to your label post, enjoy.

mal E - urban_archaeology
Brisbane Australia

Hrbek said...

ang -- just poking around but that beehive looks very "mason"-y and / or Mormon, but most of the Mormon beehives were often predated by the mason symbols.

supposed to be industry, but some of the fringe claims it's polygamy. go figure.

i'll poke some more. nice day.

angela said...

Somehow I missed Malcolm's note--what a fantastic link!! Thank you.

John-- interesting! Never would have guessed mason--or Mormon! intriguing path you lead me down. cheers


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