African-American Beauty Salon; Race Film 1941
|Why It's Interesting|
This the left half of a still from the 1941 film Mr. Washington Goes to Town. [This title plays on the 2 Frank Capra films Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.] This film was a vehicle for star Mantan Moreland, the most prolific African-American male actor of that era. It is set in a hotel reserved for African Americans, so the parlor shown here was for black customers. Its bare-bone austerity contrasts sharply with the elegance often seen in beauty salons in mainstream films.
Race films were movies using exclusively black casts and shown only to African-American audiences. They were seldom noticed or reviewed by general newspapers. Neither this film nor its producer earned any mention in the New York Times. Advertising materials from such films, like this still, are scarce but do not yet elicit much interest from collectors–which seems surprising because one finds strong demand for African-American artifacts in many fields of collecting. Except for in the most famous films, film stills showing African Americans sell for surprisingly low prices in online auctions.
This website seeks to encourage researchers and collectors to discover and study obscure ephemera that document American culture and life. Worldcat reveals that most of the items that I post cannot be found in more than a few research libraries–often none at all. Alternately, research libraries do not bother to catalog ephemeral publications like these. I believe, however, that because these were distributed free, or at nominal cost, to consumers, they were the publications most likely to make their way into homes and be read by large numbers of Americans.
I acquire pre-1960 examples of the kinds of publications that prove so useful when scholars study 19th-Century America. The limited competition that I encounter for them suggests that libraries, which could easily outbid me, have little interest in post-Civil War and 20th-century ephemeral publications in general.
I try to anticipate what materials future historians will find useful. Being an historian first and a collector second, I organized this website to encourage others to do this too—even if this means new competition for me. I am aware that I could be wrong in prizing particular ephemera or even whole classes of ephemera. I may even be wrong to encourage scholars to study obscure ephemeral publications; these may be obscure for good reason.
Ephemerastudies.org will permit me to share with others the information and imagery that I am acquiring, and to benefit from the knowledge, intelligence and experience of other scholars and collectors. Please contact me with your impressions of the site.