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Collecting Info: Emphemera

Ephemera - Say What?

Say the word "ephemera" to a dealer or collector of this material, and you'll be greeted with a delighted smile and regaled with stories of exciting finds and interesting associations. Say the word "ephemera" to the man on the street, and he's likely to reply, "Gesundheit!"

What the heck is this stuff called ephemera? The term (usually pronounced eFEMMera) derives from the Greek ephemeros, "for the day." No two ephemera enthusiasts will come up with quite the same definition - indeed, people have tried for years to develop a universally acceptable phrase to describe this area of collecting interest. In its broadest sense, the word has been adopted to indicate handwritten or printed items of a transitory nature.

Ephemera is usually considered to be two-dimensional material on paper, although there can be exceptions. For example, bookmarks, campaign pin-back buttons, and Scouting badges and pins might not be on paper but would still be considered as ephemera by some collectors. Packaging containers such as cereal boxes or egg cartons are often included in ephemera although they are three-dimensional. In addition, the transitory nature of ephemera varies. Some items are meant to be used once and discarded, such as tickets, advertising flyers, postage stamps, and newspapers. Some ephemera is intended to be kept for a limited time, including magazines, catalogs, calendars, receipts, manuals, posters, instructional booklets, and postcards. Other items are actually produced to be kept and treasured - memorial cards, souvenirs, literary keepsakes, photographs, and items printed with collecting interests in mind, such as trading cards.

Ephemera passes through our hands every day. The utility bills and advertising we receive in the mail, the morning newspaper, the bank statements, the photographs we take while on vacation, the receipt we are handed at a sales counter, the pamphlet we're handed on a street corner, the match book we save from a motel, all can be considered ephemera. There are hundreds of categories of ephemera, including letters, photos, diaries, brochures, seed packets, luggage tags, menus, maps, prints, stocks and bonds, ledgers, broadsides, Victorian trade cards, political and military memorabilia, timetables, deeds, popcorn bags, historical documents, laundry lists, business cards, and so on.

Why do people collect this stuff? Most of us, in fact, are ephemera collectors whether we acknowledge it or not. An album of family photos, the greeting cards or personal correspondence we keep, the post cards from friends and family we save, the political campaign literature and canceled checks that pile up in the desk drawer - all are intentional or unintentional collections of ephemera. Have you ever saved the little stickers from bananas or other fruit? A produce or canned food label with your name on it? The poster from a favorite concert or author appearance? The schoolwork your kids bring home? Programs from school concerts and recitals and graduations? Old driver's licenses or dog tags? Charity or Wildlife stamps you receive with a request for a donation? Surely you have kept certificates of birth, marriage, death, property titles, insurance policies. Ephemera, all of it!

But people do collect ephemera both knowingly and knowledgeably. Some of it is mundane while other categories can produce rare and valuable items. These flimsy fragments of paper trace our personal, national, political, and cultural histories as nothing else can. These are the artifacts of our cultural history, as meaningful to our understanding of who we are and where we came from as are the refuse dumps of prehistoric cultures to the archaeologist.

The reasons for collecting ephemera are as numerous as the categories of the material itself. Some love the artistry. Many fine illustrators such as Alphonse Mucha, Maxfield Parrish, Rose O'Neill, and the Leyendeckers created postcards, trade cards, magazine covers and ads, posters, and other illustrated items. Other pieces represent the epitome of design styles, such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Art Moderne, or Psychedelic Art. For some, these little paper treasures reveal the history of printing or advertising techniques. Early currencies, stocks and bonds, letterheads, and other pieces of business paper often demonstrate the highest standards of the engraver's art, as well as the evolution of design styles, topography, and printing equipment. One collector has used fruit crate and can labels to detail the legacy of United States Pacific Coast lithographers, as well as the agricultural history of the area.

Collectors, writers, archivists, and researchers use ephemera to trace the history of agricultural tools, veterinary practice, quack medicine, forms of transportation, racial and political issues and historical events, through acquisition of newspapers, magazines, popular music, letters, documents, catalogs, advertising, timetables, and other forms of ephemera. What may seem like whimsy to the uninitiated may, in fact, be part of important historical research. On the other hand, whimsy is just as compelling a reason to collect some ephemera. (I have a collection of postcards depicting chickens dressed as people, or engaged in activities such as games, work, driving autos, and other anthropomorphic activities. How whimsical can you get?)

Collectors define their own parameters. One person may collect Victorian trade cards, the next only cards having to do with cosmetics, the next with cosmetics cards having to do with soap, and yet another only Fairy Soap cards. Some will pursue anything with their name on it - either a first name, a family name, or items from a family business. (We are always in search of advertising, postcards, and photos that feature Kirk's Bakery or Kirk's Kandy Kitchen, businesses owned by my husband's grandparents in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.)

What kind of ephemera should a person collect? I'd have to say, "something you're interested in." What should you pay for it? Whatever you can afford! Important archives and collections have been formed by people who invested little or no money, but who had the ability to perceive historical importance in a specific topic and who were able to acquire and arrange their materials in meaningful ways. Subjects such as food history, Black Americana, tobacciana, political cartoons, regional history, and advertising have lent themselves to the creation of formidable collections for very little monetary outlay. (Some of these collections were formed at a time when there was little interest in the topic, which in some cases is no longer true and prices have gone up accordingly.) Collectibles such as matchbook covers, postcards, cigar bands, sheet music, bookmarks, business cards, cooking booklets, etc. can often be acquired with little or no financial investment, and collectors of these items often trade with each other to acquire needed examples.

Of course, you can also collect in categories where prices reflect the scarcity and desirability of the items. Historical documents, autographed materials, rare posters and prints, early currencies, photographs of historical significance or by important photographers, manuscripts of important works, early printing, some sports memorabilia, and examples in many other categories demand premium prices, from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.

There are some on-line selling sites for particular categories of ephemera, such as postcards (Playles) trade cards (the Cardmine, a UK site) and fruit crate labels (Fruitcratelables.com). Backissuefinder.com specializes in magazines and paper ephemera only (no books). Many bookselling sites allow ephemera listings (it's hard to keep some categories separate from books, and much of it is related anyway).

Tomfolio (tomfolio.com) provides specialized categories on nearly every topic. An ephemera category is broken down into specialties, and ephemera appears in nearly every other topical catalog as well. Magazines and Periodicals also have a separate category, as well as listings in each subject catalog.

Collector interests are addressed in specialized sites all over the Internet, from small hobby groups collecting poster stamps to university archives of vast collections. Any serious collector will consider joining the Ephemera Society (of America, UK, etc.) The American version puts out an excellent quarterly, an annual, and a member directory, all of which are valuable additions to a reference library.

The few general price guides available are not very useful. Given the range of topics they must cover they can provide only a few entries for each. More useful are specialized references on particular categories of ephemera, such as postcards, valentines, paper dolls, autographs, sheet music, and stereo views. Books on other kinds of collectibles often include ephemera, such as guides to collecting steamship, automotive, railroad, sport, advertising, animal, cowboy, smoking, political, military, or other memorabilia. There are also publications on collecting ephemera, such as Paper Collector's Marketplace and Barr's Postcard News.

References and Price guides include:
  • Warman's Paper, by Norman E. Matinus and Harry L. Rinker (Published by Wallace-Homestead, 1994, $18.95 paperbound)
  • The Insider's Guide to Old Books, Magazines, Newspapers and Catalogs, by Ron Barlow and Ray Reynolds (Published by Windmill Publishing, 1995, $19.95 paperbound)
  • The Standard Guide to Collecting Autographs: A Reference and Value Guide, by Mark Allen Baker (Published by Krause Publications, 1999, $24.95 paperbound)
  • The Postcard Price Guide: A Comprehensive Listing (second edition), by J.L. Mashburn (Published by Colonial House, 1995, $16.95 paperbound)
  • Vintage Cookbooks and Advertising Leaflets, by Sandra J. Norman and Karrie K.Andes (Published by Schiffer, 1999, $29.95 paperbound)
  • Collector's Value Guide to Early 20th Century American Prints, by Michael Ivankovich (Published by Collector Books, 1998, $19.95 paperbound)

Content provided by Lee Kirk, The Prints and the Paper.

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