Ephemera Collecting - A Growing Field, Hard to Define
by John C. Dann
[This article first appeared in AB Bookman's
Weekly, Clifton, New Jersey, U.S.A., in the issue of March 16, 1998.]
[A native of Wilmington, Delaware, John Dann
earned his undergraduate degree at Dickinson College in Carlisle,
Pennsylvania, and master's and Ph.D. degrees at William and Mary.
In 1971 he joined the staff of the Clements Library of the University
of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and he has been the library's Director
It was just 18 years ago, in 1980, that the Ephemera Society of
America came into existence and the first Ephemera Show was held.
The organization has prospered and the show has become a widely
anticipated fixture of the collecting world. Even the phrase "ephemera,"
a somewhat equivocal term used to describe "a thing" essentially
indescribable with a single word, has come to be widely understood
and accepted by collectors, dealers, and librarians.
The Ephemera Society of America borrowed the term from the British
Ephemera Society, which was formed in 1975. As understood by enthusiasts,
the essential elements of ephemera seem to be:
1. "the stuff" of which the field is made was originally produced
for some immediate, practical purpose, with no thought that it would
be saved or preserved (having an ephemeral existence);
2. it tends to fall between the cracks of traditional collecting
fields and librarianship (not books, not "art" in the formal sense,
not manuscripts, not antiques);
3. in its vast and fascinating diversity, it documents everyday
life, particularly that of average men and women in the past, perhaps
more effectively than traditional collectibles.
There is no exact catalogue of ephemera's subject matter, but included
under the broad umbrella are trade cards, letterheads, die cuts,
postcards, broadsides, tickets, menus, timetables, posters, advertising
materials of all sorts, rewards of merit, labels, political buttons,
and programs. Much of "ephemera" was originally a by-product of
exuberant capitalism-largely advertising material made possible
by advances in printing technology.
Prints, paintings, photographs, manuscripts, stamps, coins and
currency, obscurely printed books and pamphlets, children's books
or cookbooks, objects as diverse as license plates, toys or curios
are all similar enough in many respects to gain admittance to ephemera
shows, but they are a bit on the periphery. The British tend to
emphasize printed textual material as the only "pure" ephemera,
while American collectors and dealers seem to put much greater emphasis
upon pictorial content and graphic design.
In human terms, an 18th birthday brings with it most of the so-called
rights of adulthood. One can vote, serve in the armed forces, marry,
obtain credit cards, smoke or chew tobacco, and be sent to prison
with hardened felons for any number of criminal acts. Has the collecting
field of ephemera, at the same age, reached maturity? Has it achieved
the expectations of its founders and secured a respected and permanent
niche in the collecting world?
This would be an interesting question to put to each of the exhibitors
and visitors at Ephemera/18, to be held at the Hyatt Regency in
Old Greenwich, Connecticut, March 20-22, 1998, and the responses
would be a strange mixture of strong opinion and incomprehension.
The veteran dealers and collectors have highly individualized opinions
as to what "ephemera" is and ought to be. At least privately, or
among themselves, many would probably express a degree of pessimism
about the future of the field, bemoaning the fact that the quality
of materiel offered and available for sale has gradually declined
while prices have skyrocketed. "I rarely find the good stuff any
more, and when I do, I can't afford it."
Most general visitors, on the other hand, would not even understand
the question. To them, ephemera remains a phrase of uncertain definition,
and they don't think of it as a formal "collecting field" at all.
First time visitors and new collectors would likely be as wide-eyed
and astonished at what is spread out in the dealer booths as those
who attended the first Ephemera Show. They would be equally amazed
at the dealers and collectors-all these seemingly normal people,
obsessed with the most trivial, impractical, but fascinating bits
of paper as if they were communion tokens of a new religion. These
first time visitors would respond to questions with something like
"I can't believe people collect all this stuff," while somewhat
sheepishly clutching little bags containing the Marilyn Monroe calendar,
the four postcards of their unexceptional hometown in Wisconsin,
and a trade card of the 1880s showing Jumbo being dragged through
the streets of Manhattan by giant spools of Willimantic thread.
They paid more than $100 for these treasures and even a week later
they would be incapable of explaining why.
Throughout the showroom, visitors are constantly bending the ear
of anyone who will listen about how "my grandmother's house was
full of this kind of thing" or "I had every one of those comic books
when I was a kid," until "Mother" or some other thoughtless relative
threw them out. This narrative is continually interrupted by fast-moving
visitors to each booth who quickly ask the proprietors whether they
have any "paper" relating to padlocks, women lacrosse teams, or
photographs of dead infants.
Since the health and well-being of "ephemera" is essentially a
matter of personal opinion, the writer of this article, a longtime
enthusiast, will hazard a few observations of his own-doing so without
the least expectation that his opinions are shared by anyone else,
or that they are correct!
Thirty or 40 years ago, most of what we prize as ephemera today
was the chaff of the antique and book trades-bits and pieces which
dealers relegated to boxes in out-of-the-way corners of their shops
and marketed at giveaway prices. "Fifty cents apiece, or take the
whole box for five bucks."
The stores I frequented in the 1950s sold daguerreotypes from a
cardboard carton for 50 cents apiece, sheet music volumes full of
lithographic covers, or scrapbooks of trade cards for $5 of $10
each, stereo cards or 78 rpm records of Caruso or Bessie Smith for
a nickel. You did not endear yourself to, or get any medals for
brilliance from, either mother or spouse if you bought this "old
junk" into the house. When a grandparent or great aunt died and
the family homestead was emptied, "old stuff" of any sort was generally
Fortunately, there had been a few foresighted collectors who valued
what others did not. In the field that we now call ephemera, Bella
Landauer was the most brilliant pioneer, collecting trade cards,
sheet music, engraved letterheads, and all manner of such things
in the first decades of the 20th century. She shared her vision
with the public in a series of publications, and these illustrated
books and booklets, as well as her lifetime collections at the New-York
Historical Society, helped to inspire a new generation of enthusiasts.
Simultaneously, Harry Peters became intoxicated with what he called
the "vast and absorbing jungle" of 19th-century lithographs. Describing
the field as "the greatest existing area of Americana yet unexplored,"
he published four remarkable guides between 1929 and 1935, literally
establishing a market in lithographs of Currier & Ives and other
contemporary engravers and giving the material a degree of academic
respectability it had never enjoyed previously.
Harry Dichter, almost penniless himself, spent a lifetime accumulating
old sheet music, and his catalogues of the 1940s and 1950s identified
prize items and helped establish a sense of relative values. These
were a handful of other such pioneers.
Some types of ephemera, such as bookplates, political buttons,
paper currency, postage stamps, valentines, and early printed broadsides
have been prized for years. Stamps in particular developed specialized
journals and collecting guides, clubs, and "a trade" well before
the end of the 19th century. In many ways stamps set a pattern for
the development of any specialized field of collecting.
Baseball cards and comic books begin a transformation from collections
of "kid things" to well-defined adult investment hobbies in the
1960s. Early photographs and picture postcards showed signs of becoming
serious specialties by the 1960s and have gone wild since. Stereo
cards have become a specialty with their own exclusive shows.
But as late as 1980, there was no obvious home for collectors of
such disparate materials as letterheads, theatrical programs, posters,
menus, trade cards, invitations, rewards of merit, trade catalogues,
timetables, die cuts, matchbooks, and labels. Neither book nor antique
dealers made this sort of thing a priority. Auction houses only
sold the stuff as undescribed bulk lots, if at all.
It was to fill this gap, to provide a congenial meeting place where
collectors of such items could meet, buy and sell, and share information,
that the Ephemera Society was founded. Most of the "dealers" in
ephemera were themselves collectors. Even today, there are very
few full-time ephemera dealers. Some of them spend most of their
time selling books or antiques. Many have full-time regular jobs
having nothing to do with "the trade." Overall, this is probably
a very healthy thing for the field. The "dealers" have much in common
with their customers, and they retain the sort of collectors' enthusiasm
which is easily lost if it all becomes merely a business.
The field of ephemera has, unquestionably, developed a degree of
maturity since 1980 as a result of the founding of the Ephemera
Society and the shows which it sponsors. How much progress has been
made? In what ways? How does the future look? Specific answers are
difficult to provide, because "ephemera" is not a specific "thing"
but an umbrella encompassing many specialties. The sub-fields show
various levels of development, making it hard to generalize.
There exists a sort of evolutionary progression in collecting.
The first, or pioneering phase, involves an awakening of interest
and appreciation on the part of a few foresighted collectors and
dealers that there is a legitimate and exciting area of research
and collecting among objects previously given little attention.
The second, or accumulative phase, involves isolating, seeing, and
acquiring as many examples and varieties as possible-assembling
and studying enough information about vast quantities of individual
pieces so as to begin understanding developmental patterns of production
The third might be called the bibliographical phase. It involves
creating specialized catalogues, lists, price guides, and descriptive
literature. This generally encourages a new generation of collectors
to enter the field and helps to establish a relative sense of monetary
The fourth phase involves academic credibility-achieved by exposure
and acceptance, through serious, comprehensive descriptive publications,
of previously ignored material objects as legitimate documents and
records of social history and artistic endeavor.
Colonial American furniture and decorative arts, American folk
art, jazz recording, and film are all object-oriented aspects of
American social history which have progressed through each one of
these phases in the 20th century, from remarkable, widespread public
ignorance to complete academic respectability. The objects on which
they are based, many of them considered unworthy of institutional
consideration not long ago, are now avidly collected and highly
prized by museums and university libraries. It was largely individual
collectors and enthusiasts, not institutions, who discovered and
established the fields, and yet, ironically, one of the results
of success has been to eliminate the average collector from the
market for the finest objects themselves.
How far along has this progression occurred in the field of ephemera?
Is there a danger that the entire collecting market will succumb
to its own triumphs in the years to come? The answer is both yes
and no. To some extent for the field as a whole and for some of
the specialties falling under the broad ephemera umbrella, the years
between 1980 and 1998 have witnessed a coming of age.
Publication has played a notable role in advancing the field. Whereas,
20 years ago, there were very few general collecting guides, price
lists, or detailed studies of ephemera and its specialties, there
is now a sizable literature. The Ephemera Society, itself, by its
newsletters, its journal, and its conferences, has educated not
only the average collector but the well-heeled investor and institutional
General antique and book dealers, who were a major source for early
collectors, have begun selling ephemera themselves. Why let a middleman
reap the largest profit? Even the major auction houses have begun
selling posters, trade cards, postcards, comic books, children's
literature, illustrator art, and "historical" photography, establishing
price records which amaze veteran collectors. Major libraries and
museums have become serious ephemera collectors, accepting major
gifts of private collections which permanently removes some of the
finest material from the market. Extremely fine and important lithographs,
original advertising art, early posters, printed broadsides, and
photographic items, yet available at fairly reasonable prices in
1980, have become truly scarce and extremely expensive.
But the effect on the field as a whole is minimized to a considerable
extent. For one thing, the founders of ephemera as a separate collecting
field set their goals modestly and with common sense. Chippendale
furniture, Copley paintings, and George Washington letters never
were part of the original idea. The emphasis, from the very beginning,
was on the art and the everyday objects of the average men and women
of the past. Much of it was either crude in design or was mass produced,
and there is a limit as to how scarce or how desirable much of it
will ever be to institutions or investors.
Of course a few of the very best and rarest pieces will disappear
from the market, but new collector interests are constantly developing
and new ephemera is constantly being made. Twenty years ago, dealers
could hardly give away single issues of newspapers or magazines.
Now they have become highly prized, and there is virtually an inexhaustible
supply. In our materialistic, throw-away world, the free enterprise
system continues to generate the same excitement and nostalgia that
older stuff does for our generation. We older generations, of course,
help the process of future scarcity along by obliviously throwing
out this modern "junk" just as our mothers did our baseball cards
and Superman comics!
The irony of it all is that the imprecision of the field of ephemera
and the inability or unwillingness of the Ephemera Society to rigorously
define itself and restrict its shows to only "museum quality" materials
turns out to be one of its greatest strengths. The leading antique
and art shows wage constant battles to restrict exhibitors and the
types of material they can sell. They have intentionally catered
to snob appeal, to exclusivity, and in the process they have lost
the new and average collector to flea markets.
The Ephemera Society, and the show it sponsors, have also attempted
to admit only responsible, honest exhibitors, but they have never
imposed rigorous standards with regard to what may and may not be
exhibited. How could they, when no one quite knows how to define
the field itself? This has annoyed certain members, but the result
is that ephemera remains a delightful "free form" of collecting,
where the variety of material offered for sale is almost boundless
and prices of much of it within the reach of the most impecunious
Ephemera will continue to change, as a field, from year to year,
and that is what will keep the field among the most exciting in
the collecting world. Ephemera is a truly democratic hobby, not
only in subject matter, but in its public appeal, pricing, and collector
base. Unless someone messes it up in middle age, ephemera promises
to have a very long and very healthy existence for many years to
"By the way, do you have any mattress labels (you know, those ones
that say it is illegal to remove) the Publisher's Clearing House
brochure for 1993, or tickets for any of the Beach Boys revival