Ephemera: Values and Interest on the Rise
Lee Kirk of The Prints & The Paper in Eugene, Oregon started in antiques, continues in ephemera.
One of the exceptions to the decline in antiquarian values is the increase in interest, sales and prices for ephemera. Though no two people seem to have exactly the same definition of what exactly the word ephemera means, there is a widespread consensus that almost all non-book paper falls into this category.
The Ephemera Society of America defines ephemera as ….“a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use. The 402-page Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists more than 500 categories from bookmarks to fruit wrappers to posters to theater tickets.”
Whatever the definition most agree that ephemera comes in many forms including photos, maps, letters, manuscripts, stamps, posters, labels, postcards, valentines, and trade catalogs to name a few. And yes the many enthusiasts all agree - collecting can be habit forming.
Many think that the pursuit of this kind of material helps expand awareness, highlight a field of interest and often - in the case of book collections, shed a new light on interesting aspects of an author or subject.
With scholars, libraries, collectors, dealers all in hot pursuit of these interesting and often one-of-a-kind historical nuggets it’s not surprising that interest is growing, and because ephemeral items are often unique the pricing seems to be what the market will bear.
Ephemera includes a myriad of categories. For example Don Conner of Don Conner Fine Books (ABAA) in Sacramento CA specializes in natural history, the life sciences and all the “ologies.” He has a keen interest in trade catalogs, especially American and English fishing gear of the 19th century, including “rods, reels and all the paraphernalia.” He also keeps an eye out for 19th century nursery catalogs with illustrations of flowers and fruits which he says can vary in price from $50-$500.
As in all collectibles, he says, “the interest comes from people who have a passion for the subject - the more uncommon the better.”
According to Conner while the Internet has tended to homogenize the prices of books, it has left ephemera largely untouched. But, he points out, “while you usually can find another copy of a book, this is seldom the case with ephemera. It isn’t as widely available and often not even listed on book data bases or other on-line sites.”
“My interest in ephemera just grew and grew,” says Lee Kirk, owner of The Prints & the Paper in Eugene, OR. She calls the genre “a way to look beneath the surface, to see how one thing connects to another.” Kirk started out in antiques, went into books and is now an ephemera specialist. She calls her inventory a “mish-mash” and she’s not quite sure how big it is: “Just say “boxes and boxes.” Every once in a while somebody will find something that is really meaningful in those boxes, like the waitress who found the menu from her old employer: “She was browsing and all of a sudden I heard a whoop…. that really made my day.”
Kirk is “gradually easing out of books” because books are heavy, take up space and there’s always going to be another copy. “Even though ephemera is harder to value and more difficult to catalog, it is more likely to be unique or uncommon.” She does four or five shows a year, has an on-line inventory in both books and ephemera and also writes a popular blog. Her customers are apt to be museums, archives, and collectors.
Some of the areas she sees with increased interest are: trade catalogs, urban archeology, stereo view cards, real photos, small town views. As for her personal taste, “I like the strong colorful graphics of the 1930s, art moderne-streamline.”
Kirk’s advice to those just coming to the field is to “focus on one or two areas and really learn about them. You’ve got to throw yourself into it if you’re going to do it successfully.”
Ephemera: Values and Interest on the Rise
Ephemera covers many unique areas of collecting - FBI Wanted Poster from Patterson Smith.
Ephemera is endlessly fascinating to Diane De Blois of aGatherin’ located in West Sand Lake, NY (ABAA), who is also a founding member of the Ephemera Society of America and editor of its journal. She notes that this category of collectible is more time consuming than books because “we seldom get the same thing twice. It takes time to catalog, describe and price. These items are often fragile and need more specialized care and handling.”
Asked about areas of growing interest she names rare and scarce posters, trade cards, and notes chromoliths are still climbing in value. Of course there’s still interest in the standbys like California, the Gold Rush and the Civil War, adding “there’s another postcard revival brewing.” Personally she finds letters from ordinary people with details of everyday life fascinating.
“Today we’re seeing younger people. It used to be that most of the interest came from those over 50. Now more collectors are in their 30s and 40s. Younger people are often drawn to some aspect of their own life or childhood. There’s increased interest in the ephemera of the American road, early camping, national parks, trailers, tourist brochures.
As might be expected she’s keen on the benefits of the Ephemera Society of America, calling it an umbrella organization with a strong on-line presence including a sprawling web site, augmented with Facebook and Twitter.
For an annual fee of $50 members receive a full color journal three times a year, twelve email newsletters, and a useful physical directory of members and what they collect. Members also get early entrance to the Society’s annual show and conference held each March in Greenwich, Conn.
The ESA site is certainly one of the more interesting and diverse in the world of collectibles. It includes links to members and their web sites (see the end of this piece for links and details), also articles, blogs, exhibits, and quite a bit of bibliography. Among the more unusual features are a mentoring program and the Philip Jones Fellowship for travel and study related to ephemera, which is now accepting applications for 2012.
“ESA membership fluctuates but it’s presently around 750,” says Dr. Arthur H. Groten, the organization’s president. Groten has been a collector 60 years (“I started when I was 8”). His personal interests include stamps, postal history, books and now ephemera. “I collect things that I like and find visually appealing.” He observes that more museums, schools and institutions are getting interested in ephemera. For example on a recent visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland “90% of what I saw on display was ephemera.”
As far as trends go Groten thinks collecting areas like Disney and Coca Cola seem to have reached their peak, but other things, especially mid-20th century nostalgia in all of its incarnations, World’s Fairs, trade cards are growing in interest. He sees a resurgence of interest in pull tabs and moveables, be they popular contemporary pop up books like the work of Robert Sabuda or antique advertising pieces with multi-dimensional parts.
“It’s a field that is welcoming to younger collectors. The internet has made it more accessible, to be able to see and find things that otherwise don’t show up. Often they are things that are found in the street from the rock and roll band posters of the 60s to a recent serious collection of handbills and flyers found in NYC directly after 9/11.
“People find the Ephemera Society of America on the internet or by word of mouth,” he continues. “We’re a good place for people looking for the next step: they’ve found something that fascinates them and now they’re ready to get organized and do the research and study. Ephemera is significant history; it’s the story of you and me. It’s the story of every day life.”
Ephemera: Values and Interest on the Rise
Ephemera Society of America.
Links and sites of possible interest:
THE EPHEMERA SOCIETY OF AMERICA
Ephemera Society of America
View list of dealers/collectors/others with related ephemera interests listed alphabetically
Joining the society:
The Ephemera Society of America, Inc.
P.O. Box 95
Cazenovia, NY 13035-0095
Join on line at http://www.ephemerasociety.org/membership/join.html
More information firstname.lastname@example.org (315) 655-9139
Info on the Philip Jones fellowship for Study of Ephemera
$1,000 travel and study grant. Applications due no later than Jan 15, 2012
Info on the ESA mentoring program:
ESA Video on ephemera values
You tube video on ephemera values
Short video from recent ESA show
Contact information for dealers mentioned in this story
Diane De Blois
(also edits eNews and Journal for Ephemera Society of America)
P.O. Box 477
West Sand Lake, NY 12196
Don Conner Fine Books (ABAA)
Lee Kirk- The Prints and the Paper
The Prints & The Paper
PO Box 5432
Eugene OR 97405
Etsy Site: http://www.etsy.com/shop/theprintsandthepaper
A blog on books, ephemera, and whatnot: http://windyword.blogspot.com/
ABAA dealers with a specialty in ephemera
Other sites those interested in ephemera may find of interest
Patterson Smith – True Crime specialist, especially the section on WANTED posters
Lux Mentis visits Paris-blog
Visual communication, display, exhibit – collector, professor
Magic lanterns and optical toys
Splendid collection of antique typography in many incarnations
600 black spots video you tube – cool pop up book
Robert Sabuda pop up artist web site
Susan Halas based in Maui, Hawaii writes for AE Monthly: reach her at email@example.com