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In the late 1920s in Old Headington outside Oxford, a woman called Lilian Gurden, who was working in the garden of the home of Mrs Dorothea Johnson, was invited inside by her employer for a cup of coffee. Mrs Johnson was the wife of John de Monins Johnson (1882–1956), Printer to the University of Oxford from 1925 to 1946 and the most significant English ephemerist of the twentieth century. Interviewed in 1986 by another important ephemerist, Maurice Rickards, Lilian Gurden (later Thrussell) recalled Dorothea Johnson telling her that she was unable to take a bath because it was ‘full of soaking album pages’. These albums contained printed ephemera from which John Johnson was extracting material for his collection, the ‘Sanctuary of Printing’, housed in an upper room of the printery of the Oxford University Press. Johnson’s interest in paper scraps had been inspired by his early experience as an Egyptologist, ‘digging the rubbish-mounds of Graeco-Roman cities in Egypt for the written materials – the waste paper of those ages’. Encountering long queues outside cinemas in 1920s Oxford as he travelled home from work, Johnson was led to contemplate the relationship between twentieth-century visual media, the cityscape, and advertising as a form of graphic and visual art. His not inconsiderable ambition was to document ‘the miscellany of the world … Trivial things like the development of advertisements on our hoardings … all the ephemera of our lives’.
Ephemera that survive from the eighteenth century suggest a general opening up of printing to ordinary people on an unprecedented scale. With the relaxation of control over the setting up of printing houses in Britain, one sees a gradual spread of printing beyond London and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge to the rest of the country. The innovations such as emphatic typographic display, colour-printing, lithography and steel-engraving, prepared the way for changes in the appearance of ephemera in the early nineteenth century. Among other things, these new approaches to design and production helped to characterize different market sectors: monochrome and often robust letterpress printing catered for routine work; coloured and refined designs for the tastes of a leisured class. This distinction may not have been entirely new, but it was one that must have become increasingly evident from the 1820s.
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