Hayden Peters is a jewelery historian at the British Museum, and a long-time collector of memorial, sentimental jewelery, and art; his website Art of Mourning is the largest educational resource for funeralia on the Internet. Hayden spoke about his collection in the following interview:
ephemera: When did you begin collecting funeralia ephemera?
Peters: Funeralia ephemera collecting is an extension of my studying and collecting memorial and sentimental jewelery. From the very first moment I saw a ring with ‘in memory of’ written on top of it, I fell in love with the sentimentality, love and of course, the art behind it. The more I researched, the more areas of collecting opened up to me, and one of the most important areas is ephemera. My first funeral card was from 1915 and in a very late 19th century style. The symbolism, grand design and the technique it was printed are all so sublime that I could focus study almost entirely on ephemera!
ephemera: What challenges or obstacles do you encounter in collecting? How do you overcome these challenges?
Peters: Collecting funeral ephemera is incredibly difficult depending on location. Being based in Australia makes finding new pieces very demanding; requiring patience, time and a keen eye. Most of the time is spent rifling through boxes in antiques and second hand stores and at auction houses. Certainly, estate auctions are the best for finding the real treasures. Many ephemera collectors in this country are more focused on postcards and photography rather than funeralia, so often my questions are met with blank stares. Educating people is necessary to finding things in the future.
Spatially, European countries, or a country like the United States, produced funeral cards in far greater numbers and there was a huge industry and population to facilitate this. The history of these countries is greater than Australia as well, so there are greater cultural links to the craft. Finding pieces in these areas is far easier, whereas Australian collecting makes it quite challenging.
Finding pieces online is simpler than finding local pieces, but transporting them to Australia and ensuring their protection is a concern.
The Australian climate is another issue. Often, pieces left in the harsher climates don’t last too long, so conserving the pieces I have has been of the utmost importance. Controlling climate/humidity and protecting the paper is incredibly necessary.
To overcome some of these issues, I try to focus my collecting on one particular area at a time. There’s so much difference between pieces in a cultural way, that an American piece is a world apart from a German one. Discovering Australian ephemera is a fascinating area for me as it hasn’t been pioneered yet, so discovering items that people would normally throw away is very intriguing. Buying from overseas is a problem and I usually wait until I’m physically there before purchasing pieces, that way I know they get back home in one piece, otherwise, discover a good seller of the items and that takes the worry away.
To overcome any problems with keeping them safe, they stay in a constantly controlled environment, the only downside is they are some distance away from me.
Having a keen eye to distinguish pieces is also an issue, some are more obvious than others, but judging quality and techniques of construction to evaluate the maker, origin, and art style takes time and experience.
ephemera: What items in your collection inspire you?
Peters: Some of my favorite items came from an auction where I purchased a number of funeral cards in exceptional condition. One in particular still has its original paper cover with an imprint of the manufacturer on top. Another is the previously mentioned piece from 1915, which uses such elegant style to convey its message. Its use of gold foil on black is not a new technique for its time, especially when the trend was to make things smaller and less opulent-- World War 1 had a lot to play in this. Some memorial cards can be very stark, with only the accentuation of the border and a simple font in the center, which are still special, but the greater the detail, the higher the interest, with me. As a graphic designer and having my roots in print, I can especially appreciate the skill and dedication that went into every piece and the continuity of style.
Local pieces are often the ones that really take my interest, as there has been a lot written about other countries, but Australia having such a high influx of wealth and cultures in such a short period of time has produced a very eclectic and interesting field of study. In regional Victoria, an Australian state, I unearthed some rather colorful memorial/sentimental cards that defied regular convention of the time, these came from the mid 19th century during the state’s gold rush.
Just the private nature of many of these pieces is inspirational in discovering personal relationships of the time and what was socially accepted. From a pure design point of view, the colors and aesthetics are stunning.
ephemera: What’s your advice to achieving success as funeralia collector?
Peters: To be successful at funeralia collecting, in ephemera as well as any other form of funeralia, is to firstly dispel any mystique about it and look at it as objectively as you can in its historical importance. Ask not only what was the piece, but what was the social implication of the time it was created in? Identify trends and mainstream art of the time, identify its cultural background and its connection to religion and society. There’s so much that needs to be understood surrounding every single piece. Funeral cards were often displayed in the house and grew in importance from the early 19th century--almost a spiritual successor to needlework samplers. The mourning industry catered to all forms of mourning card and mourning ephemera, and they were accessible to the majority of budgets, hence they could be very personal items, or very mass produced. Understanding all the different variations and the context throughout all these areas takes knowledge of social and art history as well as analysis of the piece one is looking at.
Study is the key, handle as much as you can, read about the times pieces were created and discover as much fact as possible. Never look at any funeralia for its novelty, otherwise the sentiment is completely lost and a lot of false assumptions can be made upon something so small as a funeral card or funerary ephemera art.
ephemera: It's amazing the amount of thought and care that goes into your collecting habits. What resources and tools do you recommend?
Peters: Some of the best resources to begin with are Maureen DeLorme’s book Morning Art and Jewelry, where she outlines a lot of the broad variations in memorial ephemera across the world. While not about ephemera directly, Geoffrey Batchen’s book Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance is also a great resource in its displaying of the development of photography and funeralia, something which became increasingly popular as the medium became more viable in funeral ephemera.
For storage, items are kept in a sterile environment that is dark with a very constant level of humidity and temperature. I store my items with Mylar sleeves and only handle them with cotton gloves. I do display memorials which often include some sort of ephemera, but any dedicated ephemera I have to be very careful about in this country.
ephemera: Thanks, Hayden. I'm sure your comments have enlightened a lot of collectors about this seldom discussed area of ephemera.
Search Abebooks for the books listed in this interview.