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Pieces of the past?

RACIST: This soap advert shows a white woman washing the ‘black’ off a child to make him ‘clean’

SOME OF the most painful and damaging historical stereotypes of black people are to be highlighted and discussed at a one-day event being held on July 4 at Reading University’s Nike Theatre.

The event called Black Ephemera-Depictions of People of African Descent, is organised by the Centre for Ephemera Studies at Reading University in partnership with Every Generation.

Patrick Vernon, filmmaker, genealogist and the event’s co-chair, explains why it is necessary to attend the event and why some of these stereotypes can make a comeback in today’s tough times.

For the last 15 years, I have been collecting a range of ephemera, particularly black related. Ephemera refers to ordinary items, normally thrown away, that provide valuable insight into everyday life in the past such as post cards, trade cards or advertising, photographs, and newspapers. Most of these images generally tend to have racist stereotypes of people, reflecting the various European colonial empires.

The earliest examples of European construction of black ephemera are from the rise of the transatlantic slave trade, where it is estimated between 15 to 20 million Africans were captured, forcibly transported and sold to plantations in the Caribbean, South America and North America. They were seen as chattel rather than human beings, listed as property along with items such as sugar, rum and livestock.

However, it was with the growth and development of the post card and newspaper industry from the 1860s to the 1940s -along with social entertainment such as music hall, popular sports and the rise in consumerism-that we entered a new era of promulgation of racist images into popular culture. These ranged from minstrel adverts, music song sheets and post cards. Radio, film and television also played an important contribution.


One of the most popular – and damaging - stereotypes used in print advertising was around cleanliness. As Victorians and Edwardians became obsessed with being clean, fed by mass production of soap/cleaning products and cheap white cotton, soap became symbolic in marking differences between social classes and the civilised and uncivilised.

Often adverts over-exaggerated the darkness of African people and some soap adverts even showed white women washing the ‘black’ off their children’s skin to make it clean.

Sadly tens of thousands of these negative images are still in circulation today up and down the country at postcard, book and ephemera fairs and in the possession of private dealers. Some of the post cards images are still insultingly classified as “ethnic” or “coon cards.”

Black ephemera are important for everyone to understand and to use as a background to challenge these historical stereotypes that persist today.

This is especially necessary as the potential danger of this new renaissance in British cultural nationalism and retroism is that we will revert to these stereotypes from the days of the empire as a form of moral panic to justify racism, social exclusion, and immigration policy.

The riots last year along with the recent conviction in the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, the current inquest into the death of Sean Rigg, allegedly restrained by officers during a mental health crisis and ongoing cases of racism in the Metropolitan Police force highlight the fact that race and stereotypes are still powerful in how they are distributed and communicated through print and electronic media.

The July 4 event, which also looks at depictions of black people fighting for justice, will have a range of speakers who will cover varying historical perspectives on ephemera including African presences from Georgian and Regency print culture, Representations of black people in children’s ephemera 1870-1950 and Fighting for Justice: Campaign ephemera in the Bernie Grant Archives.

If you would like to know more about the event, please visit

Editor’s note: These images are not intended to cause offence but are for information purposes, showing the historical portrayal of people of African heritage.

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