This was an essay I wrote as my final assignment at Asheford's Institute of Antiques. I hope you enjoy it!
Collecting Vintage and Antique Ephemera
Collecting ephemera isn’t just about collecting it, it is about rescuing and preserving our social and business history. It isn’t just sentimental. It tells us about the attitudes of the day and shares with us the social, economic and culture of different time periods. It gives us a peek into what challenges people faced, what the political climate was like, what they believed in and what brought them joy and made them laugh. It is something tangible that continues to communicate with us through art and design and inspires us to keep creating beautiful items and using them to tell a story, sell an idea or share a sentiment. In this day and age with so much emphasis on seeing things on a screen, it’s nice to hold something in your hand, that you know was made and held by another’s hand - it makes a person feel more connected and grounded to this earth.
Maurice Rickards, who wrote The Encyclopedia of Ephemera and other books on the subject was an authority on ephemera and defined it as “minor transient documents of everyday life”. The word “ephemera” is a plural form of the 16th century Greek word “ephemeron”; epi meaning on, about and hemera meaning day. The Ephemera Society of America which was founded in 1980, defines it as “fragile things expected to be discarded, only lasting a day”. Today, ephemera also includes birth, death and marriage certificates as well as things like bank notes that weren’t meant to be transient. And it also includes items made of cloth and metal such as flour sack advertising and tin signs. A lot of people who collect stamps, baseball cards or matchbooks don’t even realize they are collecting what is called ephemera.
There are companies such as Tim Holtz, who produces scrapbooking and altered art supplies that are antique ephemera inspired. Cavallini and Co., was started by Brad Parberry who collected ephemera since childhood. Calvallini makes high quality stationary based on vintage ephemera. It has become big business selling nostalgic stationary and giftware. Beautiful art and craftsmanship knows no time boundaries. Ephemera is often used to create art displays by framing cards, sheet music and old lithographs to decorate homes and offices. Maps make beautiful art as do old advertisements. It’s often just too beautiful or interesting to just be kept in a box and framing items also can help preserve them as long as they aren’t placed in an area that gets sun or bright outdoor light.
Collectors often choose to collect by theme such as Valentines or art deco and the like and some collect by categories. We can collect items about travel; maps, brochures, matchbooks, menu’s, postcards, bus tickets and the like. Magazines, newspapers (especially those with important historic events), cook-booklets and catalogues are highly collectible as well. People love to see how much items cost and what foods were popular in our grand-parents day. Sewing patterns and blueprints are interesting to collect, especially by those interested in the fashion or building industries. Labels, trade cards and of course, entertainment memorabilia including scripts, autographs, sheet music and theatre or concert tickets have always been extremely popular. Broadsides are exceptionally hot right now. From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, these were printed to commemorate or advertise an event and also to preserve a credo or a poem. Broadsides were mostly made by small independent printers and were popular with the Beatnik poetry movement. Broadsides went on to often promote the political climate at the time and were often about anti-war, civil rights, free speech, free love and environmental consciousness. Most of them are silkscreened images.
One of the largest collections of ephemera is the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera at the Bodleian Library at Oxford with 65,000 images. The Laura Seddon Greeting Card Collection from the Manchester Metropolitan University has 32,000 Victorian and Edwardian greeting cards and 450 Valentine Day cards. The collection of Peter Force, acquired by the Library of Congress in 1867 has 28,000 items with over 10,000 of them available to see online.
Ephemera can be bought and sold at auctions, estate sales, antique venues as well as on-line places like Etsy, Ebay, Tia’s and Ruby Lane. You can also buy, sell or trade through The Ephemera Catalogue who also provides archival supplies to protect ephemera pieces. Prices are all over the place so it pays to stick with a certain theme or category and do your research. An 1872 pocket map of Chicago, the first issued after the great fire is worth $2,000 but a map of Paris from the 1930s can be had for $25. A mint condition JFK Today newspaper from Fort Worth Texas, the day John F Kennedy was shot is for sale on Bonanza and bidding begins at $50,000. But you can buy other newspapers with the same JFK headlines for $300 to $600. A metal Lee Overalls metal sign will cost you about $100 which is a great price for a piece you can rescue which will also be a wonderful art piece on your wall! There are beautiful playbills that can be had for $20 and there is sheet music that sells for hundreds of dollars. Some valentines are sold for $3 or $4 but a Victorian die cut valentine will go for $40 and up. You can buy a lot of 85 early 1900’s risqué postcards for $200 or $300 or a 1908 Bath Main Steamboat ticket for about $25 both of which are highly collectible. A Civil War Volunteer Enlistment form for “colored volunteers” is for sale on Ruby Lane for $200, and anything to do with the Civil War or slavery is competitively priced and has a lot of collectors.
It is best to collect what you love and can afford and what you are passionate about. People are not likely to make a lot of money buying and selling ephemera. It’s mostly is about the hunt, the interesting things we learn about what shaped our past, as well as preserving our history.