E-phem-er-a. Noun. Items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.
Over my life, I’ve unwittingly saved things that many people would throw out or recycle—magazines, New Yorker covers, political campaign paraphernalia, postcards—both those sent to me and those I’ve bought, slogan buttons, maps, posters, childhood valentines and invitations, paper dolls, tags from newly purchased clothing, sewing patterns, travel memorabilia, cultural event programs.
As these items aged, they began to feel even more personally valuable to me as mementoes of a life lived, and I kept them. I’m not sure I envisioned a time when I might want to cash out. Of course, I squirreled them away in boxes, trunks, and file cabinets once the initial purpose that spurred their acquisition in the first place had been realized: the magazines and postcards read, the candidates won or lost, the buttons having made their statement, the maps used or admired, the posters hung and then replaced with something else, the cards appreciated, the paper dolls played with, the clothes worn, the outfits made, and the cultural events seen. At one point, I fantasized about papering a wall with the New Yorker covers. It never happened.
During my downsizing, I rediscovered these treasures and enjoyed many of them all over again. I took pictures and did some culling before realizing that my seemingly worthless pieces of paper might have some value to others.
That’s when I learned the term “ephemera,” which I now bandy about like an expert. In addition to the items I’ve already named, ephemera includes such things as trading cards, ticket stubs, newspapers, stamps, sheet music, transport labels, menus—really anything with the printed word on it that is designed to be temporary. Even letters. According to Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Ephemera (whose very existence tells you a lot) lists over 500 categories. Of course, there is an Ephemera Society of America. The mind boggles.
I know that online research can provide an inflated sense of what things are worth, but I was surprised at how much people were asking for items like mine on sites such as Ebay: $60 for a 1960s Seventeen magazine; $20 for a New Yorker cover from the same era; $38 for a “Facts about Fallout Protection” brochure (1950s).
With those numbers, it's tempting to want to set up one’s own business, but I resisted, thank goodness.
Instead, I photographed and catalogued my artifacts, all of which took time, but was necessary if I hoped to find any buyers or takers. I also put aside those that spoke to me in some way, being mindful of my ultimate downsizing goals. (See a future post on ways to preserve/display your ephemera.)
With the help of my professional organizer, I did find someone who was interested in my New Yorkers covers and possibly other items. Once we connected by phone, I sent him my lists and links to my Google photo albums. All of this took even more time, with gaps between conversations/emails, reminding me that not being in a rush was one of the advantages of slow-downsizing.
My contact eventually made me a respectable offer for the New Yorker covers but was unable to commit to buying anything else at this time. I was a little disappointed, but I felt it was worth making the 75-mile journey to the large flea market where I was to meet him. (He was not local.)
This dealer already had an impressive collection of New Yorker covers, in plastic sleeves and organized by year, plus numerous other categories of items. After the initial exchange (covers for cash), I decided to let him have for a nominal amount the other things I’d brought with me and that he was interested in buying. He’d been fair with me, and I didn’t want to cart these things home again when I had a ready buyer in front of me. And from him, I bought a small replica of the Liberty Bell to add to my bell collection, the one collection I am committed to keeping. (A Belle from Philadelphia must have a Liberty Bell after all!)
A member of the Ephemera Society of America pointed out to me that most ephemera collectors are an older bunch, seeking now to shed themselves of their collections rather than adding to them. But those items that qualify as ephemera are themselves fast disappearing from society. I can’t remember the last time I sent or received a postcard, GPS has replaced maps, and just this week, I was instructed to download the program for the play I attended. Perhaps, like vinyl records, ephemera will be desired by young people for whom these artifacts were not a part of their daily lives growing up.
Some ephemera may have significant value to someone who cannot pay. Old letters or documents related to particular periods in history may fall into that category. Museums, archives, or scholars devoted to the subject might welcome these. The challenge is finding the right place and a willing taker.
I still have considerable ephemera about which to make decisions. But I am happy to report that what was once two full drawers of programs from cultural events has been reduced to about one-third of a drawer. And the New Yorker covers, political campaign items, Cunard Line memorabilia (menus, brochures, baggage tags), slogan buttons, and even the fallout facts brochure can now be someone else’s to treasure.
As always, I’ve learned some things from going through this process, which I will share in my next post—Time v Money v Personal Value.