A Glimpse Into Ephemera

Interested in starting up a new hobby? Maybe something that’s more unique and unheard of than what most people are doing? Then you’ve come to the right place!

Printed ephemera is an appealing way to take a deeper look into the past. Not only that, it’s an awesome way to get a hands-on experience of vintage paper. When researching historical events, we often visit museums, read textbooks, or even talk to those who have experienced these events. These are all helpful ways to develop a greater understanding of past events. There is another way to glimpse into the past, as well as invest in collectibles, and that’s through paper ephemera.

This article explains what ephemera is, types of ephemera, and how people make a hobby out of paper ephemera today.

Now, what exactly is ephemera?

Would you be surprised if I told you that you probably handle it every single day? Paper ephemera can range from birthday cards to movie tickets, and everything in between. Printed receipts from the grocery store or catalogs received in the mail are examples of common ephemera.

The word ephemera derives from the Greek word, ephemeros, which means short-lived or lasting only a single day. In fact, most printed ephemera is only meant to last for a day, and then be discarded.

For example, when we go to the theater we receive tickets, watch the movie, and then throw the ticket out. That’s pretty normal! The reason ephemera is important, or holds value, is because some of us hold onto those items over a longer period of time, making them increase in worth.

This brings me to the next type of ephemera. Old printed ephemera, often referred to as vintage ephemera, which has been preserved over time, sometimes has a greater monetary value in today’s world. Old newspapers, greeting cards, historical stock certificates, or even postcards sent more than a century ago, have been preserved until now. These items are often worth more than they were at the time of their printing. This type of ephemera gives us a hands-on glimpse into the past and the sharing of information through printing. Many people also collect, reuse, and study vintage ephemera due to the appealing designs and typography. To read more about how to start a postcard collection, read “Postcard Collecting- What You Need to Know”.

Ephemera and You

You might be thinking, “why should I be interested in ephemera?” or “how does this apply to me?”. For those of you naturally drawn to history, vintage ephemera is a unique way to view the past. We can learn much about our forebears from a simple trade card or postcard sent years ago. I’ll go into more detail about this later on.

For those of you interested in making an investment or starting a new hobby, ephemera may also be for you. One of the biggest reasons so many are interested in vintage ephemera is because it has become a valuable collectible. Vintage ephemera may value from $10 to thousands of dollars making it a highly appealing investment.

Likewise, the collection and reuse of today’s ephemera (e.g. the receipt you got at the store, or ticket stub from the movie you saw last night), is a popular hobby and will be touched on later in this article. Creating something from a simple piece of printed paper may just be the creative outlet you’re looking for.

Though you may not be interested in an old stock certificate or used movie ticket, the variety of ephemera is endless. Other examples include: paper money, lottery tickets, old maps, newspaper clippings, tarot cards, paper dolls, playing cards, sheet music, comic books, art prints, pamphlets, invitations, and more. Something is bound to strike your interest! With the differing processes of printing, the unique artistic designs, and the format of the prints, each type of vintage or modern day ephemera is a distinctive collectible. It’s easy to have a diversified collection of ephemera with a variety this immense.

Reasons to Participate in Ephemera Collecting

There are a number of reasons drawing people to beginning a collection of ephemera. For one, it is usually lightweight and therefore easier and cheaper to send through mail. Investing in silver or gold may be a great idea, but the cost to send and receive bars of silver is a lot steeper than the cost to send and receive a piece of paper!

Ephemera is also easy to store because normally it is quite small, like trading cards or ticket stubs. Filing it away or displaying it in your home doesn’t have to take up too much space. Read “How Should I Store Ephemera” to discover the proper way to preserve your ephemera.

Another reason so many are drawn to collecting ephemera is because of what they can create through recycling it. Today, many find interest in making journals out of vintage pieces of ephemera. There are countless videos on YouTube about how to make a “junk journal” from pieces of ephemera. Shadow boxes are also a fun way to display the ephemera that you have collected yourself or have found laying around your house! How you choose to display or reuse your ephemera is totally up to you!

Many people are selling kits of ephemera on Etsy and other sites so that you can participate in the fun of creating something new from something used. These kits may include downloadable pictures of vintage ephemera, or physical bundles of ephemera that come in the mail. With the unique styles of printed ephemera, much can be created.

For History Junkies

As mentioned previously, ephemera is an interesting view into the past. It’s often evidence of a major historical event. For this reason, there is another strong draw to viewing and collecting ephemera. It’s perfect for those looking to grasp a greater understanding of life in the past. For example, examining an old trade card added this in understanding:

“…during the late 1880s, Henry Mayo & Co., a Boston food business, advertised one of its popular products, minced codfish, using an illustrated trade card. As [they] did, the United States and England were battling diplomatically over fishing rights off the coast of Canada. The trade card depicts figures representing America (Uncle Sam) and England (John Bull) and has the words: ‘’Tis the national food and the food for international quarrels.’ Mayo’s card dovetails neatly with other resources of the day to help tell the story of international discord.” McKinstry, E. (2016). Paper ephemera: Online collections and resources. College & Research Libraries News, 77(9), 460-463. doi:https://doi.org/10.5860/crln.77.9.9558

How cool is that! Just like that, historians collect supporting evidence of the discord in that era! But maybe old trade cards aren’t what you’re hoping to learn more about. No problem! The extent of information found through studying ephemera is truly endless! By delving into printed ephemera, a more thorough understanding of the past can be uncovered. You can learn about the building of railroads, or more about personal life through letters and postcards. With the added resource of ephemera, some of which can be purchased and added to your own personal collection, you may learn something in history that you never knew before!

Owning Your Own Ephemera

So, how does one obtain or view ephemera? Paper ephemera for collecting or crafting can be found on the internet through sites like Etsy, Ebay or even Amazon. Bookstores and antique shops are also prime places to find unique ephemera. Who knows, maybe there’s even some in your grandparents’ home! Paper collectible shows are held across the country and can be found through The Ephemera Society of America’s up to date events page. Various libraries also collect and catalog printed ephemera to view it in digital format. You can find modern day ephemera just about anywhere. You may have some ads in the mail or plane tickets from past vacations right in your own house.

Hopefully your understanding of ephemera has been a bit more solidified. Simply put, ephemera is printed paper not meant to last longer than a day, which has been saved. Whether you use it to create a journal or find historical evidence, it’s important to understand what it is. Beginning the hobby of collecting ephemera may be easier than you think! Next time you throw out paper, make sure you check and decide whether or not it’s worth something!