The Paper Trail of Ephemera

By Karen S. Murray

Ephemera is defined as “items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.” Interestingly, the term actually stems from a Greek word relating to certain winged insects that lasted “only through the day.” These are items of printed or illustrated material, such as advertisements, catalogues, magazines, post cards, newspapers, greeting cards, tickets, bridge tally cards, posters, and letters from dear old Great Aunt Margaret. Although not originally intended to last, let alone become collector’s items, many types of ephemera have become treasured relics and even works of art. Why?

Well, for one thing ephemera tends to show the everyday life from long ago. Letters, diaries, record-keeping journals, photographs, brochures, and ads give us a look at what life was like, from the mundane to the monumental. Sometimes, items saved marked a specific special event in a family, or even in our country (like souvenirs or ticket stubs). Nostalgic memories of simpler times are the attraction for some. Most collectors of ephemera look for a subject, such as the Civil War, or an object, such as Victorian Valentines. The categories are endless.

 Ephemera Lot featured at Alderfer Auction on Feb. 1

Advertisements form a large group of collectible ephemera. Word of mouth and quality ads determined the success of a product (without the aid of social media or blogs). Have you ever perused through a Women’s Home Companion from 1910? Fascinating stuff. Content aside, the style and quality of the graphic design or illustration and the typography of ads also attract many collectors. Think of the gorgeous theatre posters of the early 20th century, or the popular country store signage folks use in decorating today. Speaking of which, there are some paper items that are bought for the purpose of “re-purposing” – this is a big market right now. In fact, there is a definite vintage trend in décor with the manufacturing of items to look “old”. But why buy reproductions when you can have the real thing? Framed cigar bands for the man cave, sheet music or old map lined shadow box for the study, or a nursery vignette with an ad for baby food grouped with little vintage shoes and a rattle. How about a cardboard egg display sign for the kitchen? Get the picture? Ephemera is also used in mixed media crafting or scrapbooking, especially when it is sold in large groupings, as it often is. Buyers and collectors can get a lot of bang for their buck in this case.

Depending on the provenance of the item (and if there are any well-known signatures, etc.), ephemera can sell at auctions and estate sales anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred. Many buy to resell, but others collect for the appreciation for the past and a desire to preserve this somewhat fragile memorabilia. It is, after all, our history documented. A history and culture that has experienced monumental changes over the last century. And… it’s just plain neat to look at.

*Alderfer Auction will be holding an ephemera auction of over 200 lots on Feb. 1 at their Hatfield, PA location.

*If you have significant ephemera you would like valued, contact NAC for a USPAP compliant appraisal at (800) 323-5996 or visit them at .

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