The book collecting world is part of a larger world. If one thinks of collecting in general as the entire, beautiful geometry of a fractal, book collecting is but a small piece of that fractal. Even smaller, is a collecting area known as: Ephemera.
At this point, my writing professor would ask me to redefine myself. A fractal is a design of an object or creature (often found in nature) that has a repeating, symmetrical pattern. A peacock feather is one example. To the human eye, things with these repeating, often colorful and symmetrical patterns, are very, very beautiful. In fact, these patterns are made up of a lot of pieces…sometimes, too many to calculate.
I feel like I wore this peacock feather fractal on a dress in the 1970s.
Ephemera collectors focus on those often smaller, disposable pieces of our culture. To quote from an article published by the Ephemera Society of America, it is something (usually paper) “briefly useful then discarded.”
These bits of discarded material can take many forms. Postcards are an obvious example. We have all been known to have the greatest of intentions of mailing (once upon a time) a postcard then having second thoughts. And so, it remains with us for years to come, cloistered in a drawer. THIS is the stuff of the Ephemera collector.
Now consider the rest of the multitude of the fractal: Advertisements, wallpaper samples, maps, vintage valentines, tickets and paper souvenirs, posters, letterpress printing, blueprints, trading cards and brochures. In other words, stuff you throw away!
Of all the paper-based collecting areas, Ephemera does the most to both identify itself and live up to its name. Both books and Ephemera were created in multiples, often by the hundreds if not the thousands. (This is my chance to remind you that even the earliest printed books were published in multiples.)
BUT, Ephemera, unlike books, were designed with a short life span. Their short life span guaranteed that the buying public would buy them again and again. If you like this postcard, well, we have an entire kiosk to choose from…buy two more! The disposable nature of Ephemera was capitalism working efficiently.
Obscurity is key. Scarcity is a must. And collectability depends heavily on Condition. A good start for a collector is to check out the Ephemera Society’s fun and precise website: www.ephemerasociety.org
It can’t be overstated that one man’s Collectible Ephemera is another man’s absolute trash. Collecting Ephemera is not for everyone — it requires a devotion to the particle, the piece. And the sensibility of an archivist. Ephemera, unlike books, does not enjoy merely sitting on the shelf. The question is to display or not to display and this often depends on the nature of the item. Exposure to light is even more of a risk to a very old piece of paper.
Nonetheless, much of the lessons of history would be lost to us if not for one very old piece of paper. What is the Declaration of Independence but a piece of Ephemera so important, yet so fragile, that it must exist forever under glass. What are we Americans without it? I’ll tell you what — BRITISH!
African Americans, looking for clues to their ancestral lines, sometimes have Ephemera to guide them. In the darkest of ironies, it is often the log books ships, slave owner receipts and runaway slave advertisements that help us find long lost members of our family. When something is committed to print, it can become both a beacon and an indictment, but it is most importantly a record of life.
Ephemera can be the final clue to a scholar and archivist or the greatest joy to the collector of circus memorabilia. The fractal of delights. So many delights that in the last decade, the collecting of Ephemera has come forth from the shadow of book collectors into its own little light under the sun.
Collecting very specific bits of paper, much of it reasonably priced, allows the Ephemera collector great freedom of expression. It is the place where the baseball card meets the calling card and the luggage tag dances with the matchbox.
A utopia of paper, where every part is equal.