21 Jul

A year ago, I wrote a post on “The Magic World of Ephemera." I promised a post on how to preserve/display the ephemera you decide to keep. This is more of a continuation of that original post with an update of what I’ve done with my ephemera in the past year along with some additional insights. 

As you may recall, ephemera refers to anything that was meant to be impermanent—postcards, maps, event programs, labels, letters, magazines, trading cards, advertising, slogan buttons, correspondence, etc. As another example, my mother saved matchbooks that hotels and restaurants used to give out for free. 

Some ephemera has value in the marketplace. Most does not although there may be others who will value it enough to take it off your hands. 

It turned out I was a bigger collector of ephemera than I’d thought—from the monetarily valuable (my collection of New Yorker covers, my Cunard Line memorabilia), to the valuable to a specific audience but with no monetary value (my high school papers, my souvenirs form extra-curricular college activities), to the valuable to a specific individual (my small collection of items representing the British Royal family), to the not valuable to anyone but me (my collection of  name tags from conferences I’d attended, family letters). 

In fact, my paper ephemera collections were my largest downsizing challenge—both in terms of space and emotional impact—and ended up being the downsizing task I gave the most attention to.

But let’s face it, most of these types of collections, if not displayed or preserved for enjoyment, represent clutter. Yet, they can be hard to part with, especially when we’ve purposefully established a collection. Breaking it up feels like sacrilege. The collection can assume such enormous personal value that we believe others should value it, too. Frequently, we’ve stored our ephemera in an inaccessible manner in boxes and tubs in attics and basements. There is some momentary joy when going through these items, but is it enough to warrant keeping the whole shebang? 

My collections of ephemera took up a lot of real estate. In the past year (after some previous culling), I’ve managed to shed myself of most of it. Here is a brief catalogue of what I had a year ago, what I did with those items, including what I kept, and the challenge level of letting go. Maybe some of these categories will resonate with you.

Event programs (from plays, concerts, festivals): About two deep file drawers’ worth, then culled down to a third of a drawer. I’ve catalogued the rest in a spread sheet—event, year, type, significant details (like anyone of renown who starred in it). WHAT I KEPT: A thick folder of events that hold real meaning to me, including the program for "My Fair Lady", the first Broadway play I ever attended.  I made one scrapbook page of a selection of plays seen in the 1970s. I also kept a number of ticket stubs, thinking that I might make an artwork of some sort. After all, in this age of digitization, these will become scarce. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium high. Some of these programs contained a lot of interesting background information, but am I going to read them again? 

Airline Tickets and Their Folders (representing almost every flight I ever took). About a third of a file drawer. Many of the airlines are now defunct, and of course, like the ticket stubs, airline tickets are no longer issued on paper. Again, I catalogued the flights. WHAT I KEPT. I made a collage, highlighting the names of the airlines and a few other pieces from the tickets. Recycled the rest. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium. Once I catalogued the flights and rescued some of the covers for my collage, it was easier. 

Travel Brochures and Other Travel Memorabilia.  Two file drawers' worth. Represents every major trip I ever took. A very important part of my life’s experiences. I made a list of all the trips, along with dates.  I kept the journals I wrote during all the major ones along with my photos (the slides have been culled through and digitized) along with a few postcards. I made some scrapbook pages of several of my earlier trips (1960s-90s), using the various bits I’d saved. (See The Craft of Downsizing: Examples of My Travel Scrapbook Pages.)  WHAT I KEPT: a small 9"x12” box of paper souvenirs for any additional collages or scrapbook pages I might want to make. I recycled the rest. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium. I have other, more important souvenirs from my trips than printed information or ticket stubs. 

Maps. Two file drawers’ worth.  I love maps and all the mystery they hold!! These included some National Geographic maps from the 1940s, a small collection of gas station maps (remember those?), a much larger collection of National Geographic maps from the 1990s, and other road and country maps in good condition. I sold these, along with several framed older maps and prints to the person who bought my New Yorker covers last year. I gave away an additional box of maps to an organization that serves artists for artists’ use in collages. WHAT I KEPT: The maps cataloguing my first and only US cross-country trip from 1969, my first European trip from the same year, and a couple of others. I also kept a handful of maps for use in collage, and a few that were still useful for places I frequently go. (GPS is wonderful for directions, but I like to see that whole visual layout of a place that only a map can provide.) CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium. I never looked much at the National Geo maps, and the country and road maps served their purpose. Many are now out-of-date.

Posters. One large box of rolled posters. Most of these date from those days when we used to hang posters on our walls before we could afford to frame things. I had a couple of later posters from music events, signed by the musicians. The most memorable of these was from Pete Seegar. I took pictures of all of these, as much because I wanted to find a home for them as to remember them. I sold the entire collection to the same person who bought the maps. WHAT I KEPT: Nothing but the photos of them. I have enough original art to hang on my walls. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium-low. Some of these posters I’d used, some I hadn't. I could have kept the Pete Seegar poster, but what was the point if I wasn’t going to display it? 

Tags from Clothes. Say what? I think my mother started saving these back in the 1950s. I just kept up the habit. Consequently, I had a couple of shoe boxes’ worth of tags from clothes from the 1950s through the 1980s. I took photos. Potentially I could use these in collage, but I find the cardstock too thick. An ephemera collector took them off my hands for nothing. WHAT I KEPT. Nothing but the photos. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium-low. These were fun, but not all that informative. 

Vintage Dress Patterns: A tub and a half. I had the patterns my mother used to make our baby clothes and some doll clothes and the patterns I used to make my own clothes in the 1960s until the 1980s. As I shared in an earlier post, I took photos of the patterns I sewed along with pieces of fabric used (of course, I still had those fabrics!) I gave away the entire collection to a business that sold used art-making and sewing related items to people at a big discount. My niece took about 8 patterns, and I sold one at my YART Sale. I might have been able to sell the collection, but I didn’t want to take the time to investigate. WHAT I KEPT: Two patterns of clothes that meant something—my high school graduation dress and another one that was particularly challenging to make., along with a pattern for smocking, which was my mother's great talent. Since I don’t sew anymore, I wanted those symbols of a past important hobby where I showed some talent. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium. These patterns represented blood, sweat, and tears! 

Postcards. Two shoe boxes worth of postcards, both bought and received. Some I returned to the sender if they wanted them. I took most of the rest with me when I went to Brimfield in May to deliver the maps and posters. One of the postcard vendors wasn’t impressed, but he gave me $15 for the collection. WHAT I KEPT: A couple of dozen interesting postcards that I can use as notecards to send to friends. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium-low. Most of the cards from others were just recountings of their trips; my own photos are better reminders of places I’ve been. There are better reprodcutions of art in books. 

Greeting Cards. Four large shoe boxes full. These included Valentines and invitations from the 1950s and 1960s, cards received after our wedding and after family deaths, as well as holiday and birthday greeting cards. I’d been regularly culling the holiday cards, giving away the tops to senior centers for reuse. I gave away three boxes from a more recent culling to an individual who repurposes them. I scanned or took photos of those from close family members, all the wedding cards, and some of the condolence cards. I gave the collection of Valentines and invitations to the same person who took the clothes tags. WHAT I KEPT: A few of my favorites, including cards from family members with poems they wrote. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium-low. The Valentines were all quite generic, and I don’t remember going to any of the parties that the invites represented! Some of the cards from family members were harder to part with, but I kept what was most important.

Seventeen Magazines.  Some years ago, I parted with many of my Seventeen magazines from the 1960s. I had kept about two dozen. Seventeen was printed in a large format in those days, and the magazine was very fat, especially the August fashion issue. They are wonderful capsules of the times. After going through them quickly, I gave away over half to someone on our local free cycle site. WHAT I KEPT: About a dozen to use in collage and as a reference for a story I am writing about the 1960s. Eventually, these will all go. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium. I felt better after I’d looked through the magazines. But the magazines are so evocative of my early years—the fashion, the hairdos, the articles. Nostalgia almost got me. 

National Geographic Magazines. After he broke up with me in 1980, an old boyfriend continued to send me a subscription to National Geographic (as a sort of “alimony?”) until 2000.  I read each issue cover to cover and saved them. A few years ago, I gave away the ones from the 1980s. More recently, I found a taker on the local free cycle site for the remainder. WHAT I KEPT: A few that highlighted places I’d been to use in collage. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Low. 

Newspapers and Magazines from Significant Events. The death of King George VI, the first American space flight, President Kennedy’s assassination, the moon landing in 1969, Nixon’s resignation, the Bi-centennial in 1976, the new Millenium. I gave away or recycled all of these. With the newspaper about King Geore’s death, I included two magazines about Princess Diana and a few other souvenirs related to the Royal Family. In general, the newspapers were yellowing and beginning to crumble. They took up a lot of space, and that information is available elsewhere. WHAT I KEPT: I made a collage representing the 1960s. (It was even published in an anthology!) CHALLENGE LEVEL: Medium-low. I can get this information elsewhere. Perhaps I could have made more use of these in artwork, but I hated to destroy what might have been interesting to others. 

Name Tags from Conferences and Events I Attended. A small box. Some of these were a big deal, like when I was receiving some kind of honor or was a speaker. I recycled most of the paper ones and threw away most of the plastic ones. WHAT I KEPT: I did keep a few that represented jobs I’d had. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Low. A lot of my professional and avocational life is represented in these name tags, but they aren’t vey informative, and I have other more appropriate souvenirs. 

Business Cards from People, Services, Shops: A small box. Most of these no longer had any meaning or relevance in my life. They were easy to recycle. WHAT I KEPT: A previous few that were still relevant or that served as a very important reminder. I did keep a couple of copies each of my own business cards through the years, as I cycled through various jobs and enterprises. I will put these together onto one scrapbook page. CHALLENGE LEVEL: Low. 

My Mother's Lists. Okay, this one is peculiar to me. My mother was a big list maker--lists of groceries, lists of things to do by day on mock calendars, lists of food for parties, lists of important contacts. (The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.) She would write lists on the back of the insert from a Kleenex box (being an inveterate recycler before her time), on scraps of paper, on large pieces of cardboard. Some words would appear in color; others were underlined.  She would annotate an event after it happened" "V good." And she kept them! They were little pieces of art. I scanned or photographed many of these. WHAT I KEPT: An example of one of her calendar lists plus my photos/scans, which I may use in my own piece of art. EMOTIONAL LEVEL: High. These were so personal to who my mother was, but I was able to part with most of the actual lists.

I still have some ephemera to deal with: some with high emotional resonance and some possible worth—e.g., my mother’s commercial art projects from the 1930s (a small portfolio), and some with high emotional resonance but low worth, e.g., my dad’s archives from his business career (a medium box that was returned at the beginning of the pandemic) and the family letters. But I’ve made huge progress.

Tackling Your Ephemera Collections 

  • Make a list of all the kinds of ephemera you have. Don’t forget the correspondence, the report cards, the notes and papers from your education, that I covered in previous posts.
  • Make sure all like items are together for your consideration.
  • The joy is in the review. Take a trip down memory lane; relish the visual fruits of your collections.
  • Consider the current level of importance of a particular collection or piece of ephemera to you. Is something that was important no longer important? How likely are you to spend time looking at these pieces in the future? Do you need the actual item? Friends with a 50+ year marriage go through all the cards they received for their wedding each year on their anniversary. For them, these are the keepers.
  • Catalogue those collections that represent something important to you as I did the cultural events I’d attended. Take collective and individual photos of items. Make a scrapbook page or create some other visual representation. Are these strategies sufficient to help you let go?  Would it break your heart to give it to someone else who could love it, too?
  • If you plan to keep it, can you cull it? Try to make quick decisions and not agonize over each piece. Can you store/preserve what you’ve kept in an accessible way?
  • Consider how important it is to make money from your collection. If not important, the easier it will be to find a taker. If you want to make money, you will need to spend more time photographing and describing the contents of your collection (types, sizes, conditions, etc.) as well as locating potential buyers. Note that there are regular on-line ephemera fairs (often coupled with old books) where you might find some contacts. Remember that you are unlikely to make as much money as you think your collection is worth. But you may experience the occasional surprise, as I did with my New Yorker covers.
  • For donations, is there an obvious target? Another family member? An organization? An artist? If not, post it on your local freecycle site.

Maybe your own ephemera can one day be as fleeting in your life as it was originally meant to be. That’s what I’m aiming for.

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