Will you regret throwing away that last car warranty letter?
While our interest has always been primarily in books, you can't live in the book world without being exposed to ephemera - written or printed items that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity. Commonly, that includes things like postcards, brochures, booklets, menus, advertisements, tickets -- you get the idea. Increasingly, we're seeing ephemera as much or more than books at book fairs (held virtually these days). One example: A Calfornia bookseller recently sold a ticket stub to a lecture by Charles Dickens for $800.
Precious primary source information . . . that is what the ephemera world considers its bits and bobs of vintage (and current), usually paper items. Much of it was likely expected, back in its day, to be briefly useful then discarded. Today such items which have survived the vagaries of time often reveal things we might not otherwise ever learn. A story last year in the New York Times reported the stunning information that NASA—unthinkably—had somehow managed to lose the original tapes of Mankind’s first landing on the moon! Surely this monumentally important video document was expected to be carefully coddled and treasured forever. And yet even something as priceless as that somehow proved ephemeral. As it happens, derivative copies do exist, so that particular record has not totally disappeared. But it could have. If information as important as that could be so easily lost for eternity, imagine how much lesser—yet culturally relevant—historical information has indeed been lost with the passage of time. Each collected piece of surviving paper Americana serves up information, some of it available nowhere else on earth. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
In a nutshell, to collectors “ephemera” are vintage printed or written items which originally served some specific purpose and were not expected to be retained or preserved, but which are now cherished. A few decades ago much of it was called “Paper Americana," though ephemera is not necessarily American. Or even paper: these days the field has been expanded to include such things as tobacco tins, photographs, radio premiums, textile swatches, vinyl record albums, items made of celluloid or wood. Also included are various items which were indeed likely to have been saved, such as wedding invitations, marriage certificates, passports, birth certificates, wills, deeds, divorce papers, stock certificates, promissory notes, and many other vintage documents.
Our friend Carol Mobley, owner of The Ephemera Catalog, has these tips for the ephemera collector:
- Condition is everything. Even a missing corner or small stain can vastly reduce the value of an item.
- Never pass up an item that appeals to you. If you see something you want, buy it. The world of ephemera collectors is full of regretful people.
- Find resources to help you. Thousands of books are available on all kinds of collectible ephemera.
- Consider joining the Ephemera Society of America. It has a great newsletter and regular conventions (virtual, these days).