My book of shipping records is ephemera, but it is also not quite so. Martin Andrews quotes Dr. John Johnson, who describes the collections he began for the Bodleian Library as “common printed things . . . what is commonly thrown away–all the printed paraphernalia of our day-to-day lives” or “everything which would normally go into the wastepaper basket after use” (435). The record book at Abraham Bell and Co certainly was not meant to be thrown away; it needed to be kept, for its pages kept the records of the comings and goings of people, goods, and things which the company managed (oversaw? organized? I’m still not entirely sure the role that the shipping company played in shipping exchanges in the nineteenth century.) But although the book was not created with an intended destination of the rubbish bin, it also does not contain a published novel or poem or play like a “proper” book, nor was it printed: it was written by hand.
The book is ephemera more so in the way Maurice Rickard describes: “Ephemera represents the other half of history: the half without guile. When people put up monuments, published official war histories they had a constant eye on their audience and their history would adjust to suit, whereas ephemera was never expected to survive . . . so it contains all sorts of human qualities which would otherwise be edited out (qtd in Andrews 448). Abraham Bell and Company collected the human qualities expected from a shipping company, like how many pounds of flax seeds somebody needed to order at what price, but also the book contains pieces of paper pasted in, with notes to the reader like, “When the Campbells arrive, send them to Will Jumbell 33 Ferry St who will forward them to Troy [August 22].” Andrews tells us that pieces like this “offer not only factual detail but also an atmospheric and evocative direct link with the past” ( 434).
The problems with these links, though, is that they leave us curious, with questions that may not ever get answered. Who was Will Jumbell? Why did the Campbells need to get to Troy? Or are we perhaps taking about an order of Campbell’s soup? No, no, that company wasn’t founded until half a century after the last date in this record book.
Or another: “this man was left in the Hospital by Capt Patterson in 5tt mo who agreed to pay his board, supposing he would not live many days–but the man recovered, & we were forced to pay the bill of which we knew nothing until it was received. we paid only $40–the $8 goes to Cr. of No 6. –See Journal 243.” I can assume this man left by Captain Patterson was a sailor, but why was he in the hospital? Why was he expected to die quickly? And what other information might we uncover if we could find Journal 243?
I find it difficult to make claims off of these momentarily flashes of life inscribed in the pages. It feels too personal to guess as to the place that the Campbells and the dying[dead] man had within the greater functioning of late-Georgian society. Other things inside these pages are easier to speculate upon. Andrews says that “ephemera can document the world of trade and commerce . . . [it] can reflect the tastes and interests of the period: fashions, hobbies, entertainments, community and social events, sport, travel, art, and culture” (448); and, indeed, Bell &Co’s records do give us a glimpse into the past. For instance, out of the first nine transactions recorded, three involved an order for flaxseed, three were orders for cotton, and one order required both materials. This may indicate, broadly, the popularity of cotton and flax in the nineteenth century (both were materials used to produce fabric, both were products of the slave trade). Less broadly, the fact that sixty percent of Bell&Co’s dealings over a six-month period involved these particular imports may simply indicate that they dealt only within the fabric trade. This second supposition cannot be true, however, as they also often have recorded orders for “good cheese”, the “best crackers”, “1 barrel genuine cognac brandy”, and “5 lbs coffee, same as before.”
In these pages and pages of goods, I am struck by two things. First, the lack of brands. For instance, John B Toulmin desires “20 quarter boxes common sugars.” Toulmin doesn’t care whose name is on the box that the sugar comes in (maybe there’s only one sugar company that ships to the city right now). This is so different from us, where I would need to specify if the sugar I wanted was Domino, or Sugar in the Raw, or the generic Stop and Shop variety). When the orders do get specific though, it is jarring. Toulmin does specify that he needs 10 quarter boxes real Havannah white sugar”, and likely, Bell &Co knows exactly who deals in this particular “real” Cuban product, so they were working within their own notions of “brand.”
This order is the one that sticks with me after I leave the archive this time. Rather than thinking of Abraham Bell and his company or what Toulmin would do with the white sugar, I instead question how many black bodies it took to create those ten quarter boxes of sugar. How many hours of toil in the Caribbean sun? Here, in this one line about Havannah sugar, we see that even ephemera is not really the “other half of history,” or at least it is not the only other half. Ephemera often tells the same story as the monuments or published official war histories. Here, the “human qualities which would otherwise be edited out” are the slave bodies themselves. The order of sugar in this record book ignores (and thus erases) the black bodies that another shipping company, somewhere, recorded as a number. Slaves. Human bodies as ephemera. Ready to go in the trash after use.