Fletcher Henderson Gets Jazzed

The University of Michigan students shake a leg and swing in the 1930s

These are two 1930s dance cards, miniature programs, from the University of Michigan. Each has transparent celluloid wrappers with Art Deco style illustrations. One is from 1935. The other 1937. Patrons and committee members are listed for each event.

The 1935 dance card is from the Class of 1937’s Sophomore Prom, held at the Union Ballroom. Its designed cover shows a swanky Art Deco couple. A top-hatted gent and his lady are rendered in an elongated, stylized manner.

The 1937 dance card is for the Fourth Annual Interfraternity Ball. This event featured African-American jazz band leader Fletcher Henderson and Chicago dance band leader Charlie Agnew. This 1937 dance card has what we would now consider to be racist images of African-American musicians, cheerfully playing their horns and drums.

Fletcher Henderson’s appearance must have been exciting to Michigan students. He was a well-known entertainer:

Fletcher Henderson led the most commercially successful of the African-American Jazz bands of the 1920s. The smooth sound of his orchestra gave birth to the Swing style of the next decade. Henderson was from a middle class family and held a degree in chemistry from Atlanta University.¹

Rare and swinging, these are two eye-candy design treasures from 1930s America. They are both an excellent example of historical ephemera. When we write about ephemera we mean anything printed for a short-live purpose or duration, they served an ephemeral function.

That parking ticket you saw on the car windshield? The handbill pushed out at you to eat at Joe’s Taco Fish-a-Rama? That crumpled creased first-date movie ticket you still keep in your sock drawer? They’re all examples of printed ephemera.

Sometimes ephemera is just trivial; sometimes it can be meaningful. The most powerfully-instructive example I have seen of present-day ephemera communicating meaning went like this →

A thoughtful individual gathered up all of the ATM receipts he/she discovered on the ground in New York City from 9/11 and exhibited them, collectively. They were just ATM receipts that had fluttered to the ground, scattered and unnoticed. Like on any other day in Manhattan. Litter on city streets.

Just seeing one ATM printed slip/receipt from 9/11 NYC, alone, perhaps it wouldn’t register to the human eye. Seeing a significant gathering, a collection of them, exhibited, staring back at you silently from the wall where they were exhibited upon. It was poignant. It meant something.

What We Are Talking About — [University of Michigan] [930s Art Deco University of Michigan Dance Cards or Miniature Programs]. Detroit, Mich[igan].: Burr, Patterson & Auld Co. [1935] and [1937]. Two Dance Cards or Programs. [8]p. each. Each with double-wrappers of colored foil (or metallic coated paper) and celluloid; tasseled cord bindings.

Ref. Fletcher Henderson accessed online October 2015.

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