Ephemera (ĭ-fĕm′ər-ə) is defined by Merriam Webster’s as “things that are important or useful for only a short time: items that were not meant to have lasting value.” These are paper items such as labels, tickets, menus, broadsides (sheet of paper with a printed message on the front side such as a poster announcing an event) and even postcards. In spite of the fact that these items were meant to be discarded after use, they have actually become quite collectible.
An artist, graphic designer or printer will immediately recognize the value in the vintage paper. The early chromolithography, typography and use of color can be quite eye catching and appeals to collectors who often specialize in particular types of ephemera.
For instance, the trade cards from the late 1800s were used to advertise goods and services. Many of these cards were pasted into a scapbook along with die cuts, clippings and other bits of paper. Early trade cards are a window into the past, allowing the collector to get a sense for the type of products used for housekeeping, personal hygiene, ailments and even fashion.
One popular series of trade cards among collectors are the Sports and Pastimes of all Nations produced by Arbuckles’ Ariosa Coffee in 1893. The delightful, detailed and colorful illustrations are reportedly the work of Frances Brundage. The descriptions on the back can be somewhat stereotypical and even condescending of the culture and nationality depicted. Nevertheless, these descriptions appeal to the collector of social history.
Labels, another favorite ephemera item among collectors, are beautifully designed and colorful, obviously catching the eye of the consumer. These labels were affixed to liquor bottles, crates, cigar boxes, and other items. Luggage labels were distributed by some of the finer resorts and hotels during the golden age of travel, such as the Grand Hotel & Bellevue label seen on page 8. These were given to guests upon their arrival, somewhat of a reward for having reached their destination. These are truly a form of art.
Poster Stamps, sometimes referred to as “cinderellas,” are also advertising labels. They are a little larger than most postage stamps but, like postage stamps, they were produced to commemorate special events and celebrations. During World War I, both sides used poster stamps as political propaganda.
Menus are another example of items meant to be useful for a short period of time. They are interesting to collect not only because of the art but also because they give insight to the food habits of a given time as well as clues to the cost of living. It’s interesting to look at a menu from the 1930s and see what a steak and lobster dinner cost. Some menu collectors specialize in particular types of food served (diners, ice cream shops, steak house) or in location of restaurant (particular towns or cruise ship lines).
Other categories to consider collecting include calendars, business cards, brochures, invitations, die cuts, pamphlets, paper dolls, passes and tickets, matchbooks, maps, photographs, seed company packets, timetables, rewards of merit and of course postcards! Ephemera is easy to store, and fun to look at when grouped in a frame or kept in protective archival pages in a notebook. And if you are an artist who creates repurposed art, the little gems you might find in a dealer’s bargain bin might be just the thing to finish up a favorite project.
You can find ephemera at just about any antique shop or show, but the hunt is much more successful at paper shows such as the upcoming Denver Postcard and Paper Show. There will be dealers from as far as California to Connecticut as well as dealers from across Colorado. Many of them will have an extensive selection of general ephemera items available for purchase.
The show will be held on July 17 and 18 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall located at 15200 W. 6th Ave, Golden, CO. Hours are 11:30 AM – 7:30 PM on Friday and 9:30 AM – 5:00 PM on Saturday. Admission is $5.00 but if you bring this article you will receive $1.00 off admission. Children 12 and under are free.
If you’d like more information about the show or if you have some interesting ephemera items or postcards you’d like to sell, contact Dede at 303-667-6212.