Holding History in Your Hands: Cowan’s American Historical Ephemera & Photography Sale

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on
Image of Katie Horstman, Cowan's Senior Specialist, American History. Photo from the auction house.
Image of Katie Horstman, Cowan’s Senior Specialist, American History. Photo from the auction house.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what can a letter, document, or other piece of written communication teach us? Ephemera – collectible items made from paper – have stood the test of time and bridges many spheres, including politics, culture, and history, just to name a few. Cowan’s Auctions’ June 25th American Historical Ephemera & Photography event features over 400 lots of ephemeral items related specifically to transformational moments in US history. Auction Daily spoke with Katie Horstman, Cowan’s Senior Specialist, American History, to learn more about this sale. 

Auction Daily: Please give our readers an overview of your June 25th American Historical Ephemera & Photography sale.  What are the key categories and periods represented?

Katie Horstman:  The items in this sale document moments in US history from the 18th through the 20th century, touching on nearly every major American conflict, including the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the World Wars, with the Civil War being the most prominently represented. The African American experience, including the Civil Rights Movement as well as the Women’s Suffrage Movement and late 19th to early 20th-century Christian movements, are also represented in the auction.

Lot #245: Half plate daguerreotype of firefighter Walter Van Erven Dorens. Photo from Cowan’s Auctions.
Lot #245: Half plate daguerreotype of firefighter Walter Van Erven Dorens. Photo from Cowan’s Auctions.

Auction Daily: As Cowan’s specialist in these materials, which lots personally call to you for their interest or rarity? Is there anything in this sale that you couldn’t believe your eyes when you first saw?

Katie Horstman:  From the high profile to the relatively obscure, so many of the lots in the auction are rare, often unique items that provide a glimpse at the people and events that contributed to America’s narrative. 

One of the centerpieces of the sale is a half plate daguerreotype portrait of firefighter Walter Van Erven Dorens taken in San Francisco ca. 1854-1856, which recently surfaced in the Netherlands (lot 245). We were able to positively identify the subject with the assistance of independent scholar Mike Novak of San Clemente, California. He first determined that the firefighter was wearing a leather belt identified to the Sansome Hook and Ladder Company of San Francisco and deciphered the letters on the subject’s hat, which were, in fact, his initials.

Research indicates that the subject of the image, Erven Dorens, apparently emigrated from the Netherlands to California during the Gold Rush and became a US citizen in 1857. He was not located in an 1858 city directory, indicating that he returned to the Netherlands, carrying this image with him as a memento of his years in California. 

I am also fascinated by the extensive collection of 39 early 20th century illustrated church revival banners represented as lots 317 to 338. In my 13 years with the firm, I have never encountered a group of banners such as this. From the highly skilled to simplistic, hand-drawn illustrations of subjects ranging from Jesus, the Devil, and an angel to everyday people, it is incredible to realize that these banners were once used for tent revivals over a century ago and represent the religious zeal and passion of those involved in the Third Great Awakening.

Auction Daily: Tell us about the top lot in this sale, #226, the personal headquarters flag of Philip Henry Sheridan used when he led the 2nd Michigan Cavalry. What makes this item so extraordinary? How did it end up at Cowan’s for sale?

Lot #226: Personal headquarters flag of Philip Henry Sheridan. Photo from Cowan’s Auctions.
Lot #226: Personal headquarters flag of Philip Henry Sheridan. Photo from Cowan’s Auctions.

Katie Horstman:  Civil War-period headquarters flags rarely come to market, and the fact that this flag is identified to Philip Henry Sheridan, who quickly became one of the highest-ranking Union generals during the Civil War, makes it all the more desirable. An engraved plate that was first framed with the flag indicates that it was given to an Elks Lodge in Niagara Falls, NY, in the late 19th or early 20th century by G. Edwin Sawyer. He was the son of Nathaniel C. Sawyer, the prominent Union Army officer and paymaster who distributed $3 million to Sheridan’s army. 

In 1865, Nathaniel Sawyer accompanied Sheridan’s army when they went on their raiding expeditions through the Shenandoah Valley. At this time, John Singleton Mosby’s Confederate Raiders were harassing Union forces and stole Sheridan’s payroll in the amount of $250,000. Sawyer set out on a mission to recover the money for Sheridan and did just that, which resulted in a brevet promotion for Sawyer to Lieutenant Colonel for “conspicuous bravery.” Sheridan likely presented this headquarters flag to Sawyer to thank him for his actions, and it was subsequently passed down to his son, who, in turn, donated the flag to the Elks Lodge in Niagara Falls. After almost being discarded by the lodge, the flag was salvaged and changed hands several times before being consigned by the current consignor, who is a private collector. 

Auction Daily: This sale also features a fine collection of daguerreotype images. Tell us a little about the place these types of images hold in the history of photography and why they are so appealing to collectors.

Katie Horstman:  Invented in 1839, the daguerreotype is considered the first practical form of photography. Each example is one-of-a-kind and rich in photographic quality and artistry. Our firm has had the good fortune to offer some of the finest examples of this art form at auction, and the daguerreotypes in this sale are no exception. From the previously unknown quarter plate daguerreotype of US President Zachary Taylor taken ca. 1845, near the start of the Mexican-American War, to the thoughtfully composed portraits of men, women, and children, including occupational daguerreotypes of a clockmaker and his wife, and a smiling sommelier, the images in the auction appeal to 19th-century photo enthusiasts with a wide range of interests.

Lot #296: Abraham Lincoln banner, possibly made for the 1864 presidential campaign. Photo from Cowan’s Auctions.
Lot #296: Abraham Lincoln banner, possibly made for the 1864 presidential campaign. Photo from Cowan’s Auctions.

Auction Daily: And finally, for the most part, how do enthusiasts manage their collections of fine examples of historical ephemera and photography? Are they tucked away in albums or drawers or vaults, or are they out on display for study and decoration? Or something else entirely?

Katie Horstman:  Our team has developed strong relationships with many of our consignors and buyers, and we have learned that there are just as many ways to manage collections as there are collectors themselves. Many collectors purchase items that are directly displayed at their homes and offices, sometimes creating private museums devoted to their areas of interest. Others might stow the items away for safekeeping, only showing them to a handful of fellow enthusiasts. Regardless, most collectors are proud to share items that they have acquired, whether it be in their private spaces, at trade and collecting shows, or on their social media pages. 

For more information on Cowan’s American Historical Ephemera & Photography Sale on 6/25/21, please see the auction house’s website.

Want to read more interviews with category experts? Auction Daily recently spoke with Michael Strawser, President of the Strawser Auction Group, ahead of its Fiestaware sales event.

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