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Collecting Mania: Caring For Ephemera & Glass Bottles

Updated on May 29, 2010


Ephemera is a tongue-tripping word that refers to any two-dimensional printed or hand-written item originally meant to be thrown away. A catch-all category, it includes everything from political brochures to postcards to cigarette wrappers.

The field of collecting transitory items came into its own during the Victorian era when scrapbooks gained popularity. Today, most of us have an item or two we consider priceless and wouldn't dream of parting with - a ticket stub from a World Series game or the program from a high school class play. The bad news is that once paper becomes brittle, it can't be saved. The good news? There are plenty of products on the market to prevent collectibles from reaching that terminal stage.

To begin, make sure all materials that come in contact with paper goods are archival quality. Do you save old love letters in a shoebox? Not a good idea if you want to keep them for a while, unless you wrap them individually in acid-free tissue. Cardboard releases acids that cause items to decay. Also remember:

  • Prints and maps should be stored in acid-free sleeves or drawers. Incidentally, many maps made before the 20th century were printed on rags so brittleness is not a factor.
  • Framing ephemeral articles is another good way to save them, as long as mounting materials are specifically intended for archival purposes. Be careful how you clean the frames, though. Never spray glass cleaner directly on the framed surfaces. Liquid could seep inside and damage the work. Instead, wipe with a cloth that's been lightly dampened in the cleaning solution.
  • Keep light levels low on all paper goods. Avoid fluorescence, especially ultraviolet light.
  • Temperatures should remain cool and constant for optimal preservation conditions. Excess heat encourages mold and fungus.
  • Your local art supply shop is a good source for archival materials.

Glass Bottles

In the beginning ... there were animal skins. Then someone - no one knows exactly who - came up with a better way to hold liquids, and the bottle was invented. Two thousand years later, glass bottles are not only household necessities but they rank among the most popular category of all collectibles.

Glass bottles are highly resilient but nonetheless can deteriorate over time. Clear glass, for instance, takes on an amethyst tint from the way the manganese in the bottle reacts to the sun's ultraviolet rays. Sometimes old glass turns iridescent, the result of excessive exposure to water or dampness. These conditions are impossible to remove because they run all the way through the glass. Fortunately, most bottles come clean with some basic tools of the trade: soap, scouring pads, a stiff brush, and, believe it or not, some rice or popcorn.

Bathing bottles in warm, soapy water is usually effective at removing superficial dust and grime. Be patient - you may need to soak them for a few hours. Scour the outside with a good pad and use a baby-bottle brush to remove any gummy or tacky film from the inside. You can also create abrasive action by swirling together water with uncooked rice or unpopped popcorn. Some people even swear by eggshells. Just don't use anything that can scratch or crack the inside of the bottle. Rinse with warm water. Extremely hot water may cause porous bottles to break. Polish with a soft cloth. If you're battling a stain, add a little bleach or ammonia to the water. For exterior stains, rub gently with wet, fine-grade steel wool.

Stain removal is the most challenging problem. While off-the-shelf cleaners are effective on some stains such as lime deposits, they have no effect on acid-based stains. Experts warn against using acid to treat stains since those are harmful to people and most don't have the setup required to avoid dangerous exposure.


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