For decades those who write about or describe ephemera have attempted to come up with a simple definition, only to find themselves threading a maze of etymology and entomology. The word derives from the Greek hemera (day) and implies something that lasts for a day, the life of the mayfly often used as an example. Most efforts fall back on the definition put forth by Maurice Rickards, “the minor transient documents of everyday life.” But even Rickards, whose Encyclopedia of Ephemera is the most frequently cited resource, nor the 40 or so experts who helped to complete the volume after his untimely death, have been happy with it.
The “everyday life” part of it is accurate. History books cannot record all of the influences on our social, economic, cultural, and other attitudes that affect aspects of daily living. The bits and pieces of advertising, memorabilia, record-keeping and other categories that constitute ephemera demonstrate how these attitudes have developed.
The term “paper” is often used to refer to ephemera, along with the phrase “printed matter.” However, not all ephemera is on paper but can also include items on metal, wood, cloth, celluloid, plastic, and other materials. And not all is printed. Handwritten documents, phrases woven into ribbons or bookmarks, hand-drawn original art works, and painted animation cells will all also fall within some categories.
Some ephemera is far from transient. Some survives because of its importance, some was produced to endure for at least a length of time, some was made be collected and saved, such as postcards, poster stamps, and Victorian trade cards.
Collectors fall into two groups: those who collect objects and those who collect based on subject.
Object categories would be things like matchbook covers, autographs, postcards, poster stamps, valentines, sheet music, bookmarks, crate labels, cigar bands, cigarette cards and so forth. These categories can, of course, be further broken down into more specific interests, such as 18th Century sheet music, sewing trade cards, Christmas greeting cards, Route 66 postcards, fish house menus, Presidential autographs, and the like.
Subject, or thematic collecting, goes much further and can test the intellectual resources of the dealer to determine where items can fit into a collection. Subject collections are often for the purpose of archiving the history of a particular event or period in history, fashions of various eras, development of a particular river’s resources, military history, and thousands of other interests. These collections often start with a personal interest or passion for a subject and evolve to include anything pertaining to it. Such collectors are usually more than willing to help educate a dealer who is interested in finding material for them.
The kinds of materials that lend themselves to thematic collections include documents, letters, booklets, brochures, pamphlets, billheads, ledgers, scrapbooks, photographs, maps and a myriad of other items.
Many subject collections are begun, or donated to and continued, by institutions such as museums, libraries, and universities. They can also be a source of customers for those who are willing to advise themselves on the needs and the focus of such collections.
References: For the most part, the most current and useful references are those that are devoted to a single topic. There are volumes on collecting menus, greeting cards, post cards, transportation ephemera, sheet music, valentines, trade cards, posters, maps, trade catalogs, advertising, magazines, stereo view cards, and many other subjects. Some are price guides which, as always, need to be reviewed with caution although they can indicate a range of values for various items. (These also can change over time.)
As one dealer recently commented, ephemera can’t make you rich but the rewards are tremendous if you are passionate about it. (In fact, there are some things that can sell for a great deal of money, but you have to have money to invest in them to start with.) One of the great values is that you can learn something new every day.