The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera is one of the largest and most important collections of printed ephemera in the world. It offers a fresh view of British history through primary, uninterpreted printed documents which, produced for short-term use, have survived by chance, including advertisements, handbills, playbills and programmes, menus, greetings cards, posters, postcards.
The Collection is strongest in the 18th to early 20th centuries but also contains earlier material. Physically arranged in some 700 subject headings, it is searchable in myriad ways through detailed cataloguing, selective OCR and digitisation.
The John Johnson Collection is one of the Special Collections of the Bodleian Library.
John de Monins Johnson (1882-1956) was born in Lincolnshire but spent most of his life in Oxford. He was educated at Magdalen College School and then at Exeter College, where he read Greats and then Arabic. After a short career in the Egyptian Civil Service, he became a papyrologist, discovering a Theocritus papyrus 900 years earlier than any previously known manuscript of the author. Although he subsequently co-edited a monograph on this papyrus1, his career as a papyrologist was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War. Unfit for military service, Johnson returned to Oxford and was employed by the Oxford University Press as Assistant Secretary to the Delegates of the Press. In 1925 he became Printer to the University of Oxford, a post which he held until his retirement in 1946.
During the Second World War, Johnson kept the Press running and was responsible for the security of the surrounding area, living at the Press and often rising at 4 am to work on his collection of printed ephemera – his only recreation. In Egypt Johnson had wondered what we were doing to preserve our immediate paper heritage. In Oxford he formed his monumental collection, which he named the Constance Meade Collection of Ephemeral Printing. After his retirement, he continued to work on it, until his death in 1956. He is buried in Headington Cemetery.
Johnson was awarded an Honorary DLitt in 1928 on his completion of the printing of the Oxford English Dictionary and was made an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College in 1936. He was appointed CBE in 1945 for special services during the war.
The Collection was renamed as the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera and was transferred to the Bodleian in 1968.
1 A S Hunt and J de M Johnson, eds., Two Theocritus Papyri, London, Egypt Exploration Society, 1930.
Formation of the Collection
Collecting printed ephemera was Johnson’s hobby, from the early 1930s until his death in 1956. Johnson collected retrospectively. The earliest piece of printed ephemera in the Collection dates form 1508 but its strengths are in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. He assembled c. 1.5 million items, divided into 680 subject headings.
Inspired by his former career as a papyrologist, Johnson viewed the Collection as excavating the waste paper of our recent past. In the broad range of this vision, Johnson was a pioneer. Previous collectors had focussed on one area of what came to be known as printed ephemera (ballads, trade cards or bookplates for example). John Johnson collected it all, forming (in his own words):
“a little museum of common printed things, to illustrate at one and the same time the historical development of our social life and the development of printing”
Initially housed at the Oxford University Press (where it was known as the Constance Meade Memorial Collection of Ephemeral Printing after one of his benefactors), the Collection moved to the Bodleian in 1968. There was a major exhibition in 1971 and the catalogue: John Johnson Collection, catalogue of an exhibition, remains the standard work on the Collection.
The term ‘printed ephemera’, although used privately by John Johnson, was established in the public consciousness in 1962 by John Lewis’s work of that name which drew on Johnson’s collection, among others, to illustrate the range of ephemera.
Johnson's legacy to the University was thus a unique Collection of (mainly) printed, (mainly) single sheet material, which provides the social and printing historian alike with primary research material, and the picture researcher with striking images - products of the woodblock, the engraver's plate, the lithographer's stone, etc.
The collection is evolving. We are:
Acquiring ephemera by donation and purchase
Collecting contemporary ephemera
Interacting through social media
In 2012, Richard Ballam donated a significant collection of board and other games. We are currently cataloguing the Ballam Collection. Please contact the Librarian of the John Johnson Collection for more information.