PBS, Life 360, and the Ephemera Society

The Ephemera Society was invited to contribute material to the web site of "Life 360," an hour long television program telecast on many PBS stations Fridays at 10:00 PM. The show on November 9, 2001 was called "Junk," and it focused on six story lines, as well as the music and song of Jude and the comedic insights of Margaret Cho.

What is junk? An old definition dating from 1353 says that it is cable or rope and that sailors needed to keep it around because new supplies were difficult to come by. The word started to become pejorative when people associated it with discarded material in general. Today, we have all heard the saying that one person's junk is another's treasure. Unfortunately, the uninitiated sometimes consider ephemera as junk. François, duc de Rochefoucauld, added that "the principal point of cleverness is to know how to value things just as they deserve [to be valued]."

The program's six segments did not address paper ephemera, but they did highlight constants between collecting objects and ephemera. The first, "Pile of Artifacts," was a story about an individual from Columbia, SC, who used a metal detector to locate items that had been buried for years and then sold them on e-Bay to an artist who planned to use them in a special project. "Plastic Eye Model" followed a glass eyeball from Jeannette, Pa., to an optometrist In Las Vegas; again, the medium of exchange was e-Bay.

"John Fryer's Birthday Party" concerned another e-Bay transaction. A graduate student from New York decided that he had accumulated too many material possessions. To rid himself of what he had, he put everything up for bid. Another New Yorker, a transplanted young man from Indiana, was the successful bidder, and as Fryer said: "that guy became me."

"Savers and Throwers" was produced in two parts. One featured Ella Angert and her son, Alex, the other showed three generations of Bunches. The segment's title suggests what members of the families argued about. Some were rat packs while others needed to clean and clear house regularly. Finally, "Take It or Leave It" profiled the recycling facility on Nantucket Island, Mass., where residents brought items they no longer needed and picked up others they liked, all for free.

Although paper ephemera did not come into play in these stories, e-Bay, where countless pieces of ephemera exchange hands daily, did and so did the way ephemerists think about their collections. As Margaret Cho pointed out, many people do not want to let go of items from the past. They value vintage objects, the memories they evoke, and nostalgic thoughts. Alex Angert summarized his thoughts by observing: "material things remind you of things you don't want to forget."

The web site for "Life 360" is at http://www.pbs.org/opb/life360/junk/index.html. It includes online versions of some of the stories on the program and supplements them with a section on paper ephemera under the heading "Celebrated Scrap." Clicking on the title brings you to a welcome screen with the definition of ephemera, a picture of the cover of a crossword puzzle magazine, and some introductory remarks: "Some people think of ephemera as nothing more than nostalgic junk: postcards, playbills, autographs, stuff you might find in your attic or family scrapbook. But recently such items have grown in esteem among serious collectors. Whether it's worth thousands or has only sentimental value, ephemera offers an invaluable glimpse into our past."

A section on trade cards uses three images from the collection of Ephemera Society member Dave Cheadle, including colorful illustrations for the New Easy Lawn Mower and other products. Accompanying text notes that the popularity of trade cards exploded with the advent of chromolithography in the 1870s and that their influence peaked before advertisers turned to mass media ads in magazines and newspapers.

Stock certificates from the collection of Theodore Robinson and Valentines from the collection of Nancy Rosin are next. Ted and Nancy are longtime members of the Ephemera Society and both have been collecting in their areas of interest for many years. Surprisingly, stock certificates were first issued as long as 4,000 years ago. Those collected by today's scripophilists for the most part date from 1800-1940. Valentines-three of Nancy's are displayed-became an accepted way of expressing love as printing developed in tandem with America's burgeoning postal system.

The final section, "Other Ephemera," highlights sheet music and early periodicals with an illustration of the first page of "The City Guards Quick Step" and a cover from Harper's New Monthly Magazine from the 19th century. Sheet music and popular magazines offer much information about our country's musical and literary heritage, as well as the development of printing technology.

Internet links on the web site of "Life 360" include the Ephemera Society's URL, URLs of other collector groups, as well as dot coms devoted to the selling of particular kinds of collectibles. Included are the sites for the National Association of Collectors (http://www.collectors.org), The Trade Card Place (http://www.tradecards.com), and the Universal Autograph Collectors Club (http://www.uacc.org).

E. Richard McKinstry

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America