Caring for Your Vintage Paper/Ephemera Collection
Caring for Vintage Paper
Do you LOVE looking through boxes of old paper and vintage ephmera at garage sales, swap meets, and flea markets?
Are you drawn to the past? History can be told through scraps of paper and other ephemera. Many collage artists use vintage pieces in their work.
At every garage sale, online auction site, thrift store or flea market I am looking for vintage magazines, antique calendars, holiday postcards, paper dolls, stock certificates, magazine advertisements, calling and business cards, sheet music, children's books and interesting paper collectibles including die-cuts, menus, book plates and gummed seals.
I collect vintage cookbooks, postcards, and die-cuts but if I am drawn to the history and graphics of a piece of ephemera it gets added to my collection even if it's a one of a kind piece. Some of the cheaper lots of ephemera I buy just for collage, assemblage and mixed media projects and it really has little value except as a tool in my artistic kit. My collectible postcards are stored in archival envelopes and boxes because I value them as a collection and want to take care that they stay in the condition I purchased them in.
Generally speaking each type of paper collectible is graded in its own way but you might see the following ephemera grading scale related to condition:
- Very Good
What is Ephemera?
Think of all of the paper bits and pieces you use everyday. These items weren't meant to be collected or saved but they are a fascinating glimpse into history. Some examples of paper ephemera: ticket or concert stubs, dance books, bridge tallies, trade cards, postcards, ledgers or farm journals, diaries, used checks, paper menus, matchbooks, magazines, holy cards, travel ads, handbills, pamphlets, deeds, greeting cards, children's books, puzzles...the list is endless.
Our Connection to history
Because I collect vintage postcards I am not only drawn to the front image but also the text on the back of the card. On one Halloween postcard I bought recently, the message was from a young child to her father, a doctor on a ship in 1919.
I wondered who this doctor was and why he was on a ship docked in New York City harbor. Doing some light research led me to the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic (The Great Pandemic) and what was going on in America at that time. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services during the week the postcard was written, the week of November 1st, there was a total of 12,357 influenza related deaths in New York City alone.
Ephemera can also give us a taste of the language of the era. For example, in the Halloween postcard, the young child told her father that the pumpkins looked like they were running on the links. A term for a golf course back in 1919 but modern readers have quite a different definition for links today.
When we study history we learn about what happened in our country and our world at a certain time, ephemera brings us closer to people's intimate details about their lives. As a lover of history and vintage I am fascinated with these glimpses. As a writer these details inspire poems, essays, short stories and novels.
Real picture postcards including this one of an urban couple can give you details about the era, their station in life, the clothing, shoes and even the way they are posed can provide information.
Journals either personal or store journals can dispense valuable particulars about a part of the country or world we can't possibly learn from a history book.
Ephemera, or the collectible pieces of history that document the daily lives of people can include a handwritten journal, advertising material, books, prints, stamps, paper money, bookmarks, trade cards, lithographs, newspaper clippings, dance cards, menus, vintage penny Victorian postcards and more. If you collect this top collectible, how can you properly care for your paper collection?
Ephemera for Collage
Many artists use ephemera for a collage piece or to inspire their mixed media art.
For example I have used inexpensive pieces of ephemera, including vintage postage stamps, ticket stubs and copies of photographs and Mod Podge to collage a heavy paperboard box for my desk. The box holds stamps. It's an inexpensive, fun craft project to create a useful and one of a kind container.
Do you use ephemera in your art?
Lovers of paper and paper ephemera are drawn to visually appealing graphics, design and their favorite illustrators. But keeping this collectible paper from damage is an important part of saving and protecting the value of your collectible.
Join The Ephemera Society of America to learn more about the history of ephemera.
Where Should I store my ephemera?
Keep paper and ephemera in a clean, dry space stored in archival-quality products. Moisture, time and light destroy paper and ephemera. Most paper conservators recommend wearing white cotton cloves to avoid transferring the natural oils from your skin to the paper. If you plan on using your ephemera for a collage project this would probably not be necessary.
What destroys paper?
Allow many of these enemies are hard to prevent if you have an especially valuable piece of ephemera avoid the following:
- Insects and Rodents
- Eating or Drinking around your collection
- Handling without white cotton gloves
And seek help from an archivist if your intent is to preserve the ephemera for future generations.
Archival Envelopes and Acid-free Boxes
Look for clear archival envelopes that will prevent further damage and let you view your piece easily.
Use acid-free boxes and store boxes on shelves that allow for air circulation.
Use a soft clean brush to clean your ephemera before storage.
What's My Ephemera Worth?
Research your particular paper collectible in reference books and price guides. These will usually provide more indepth caring instructions and give you a general idea what a collector would pay for your ephemera. But like all collectibles collect what you love because worth changes and what is popular and collectible today might not be in the future.
Generally speaking the rarer paper items will bring more money but condition plays a big part of the price. If you have a rare item but the condition is not good don't expect to receive a high price.
Before purchasing ephemera look for signs of damage including foxing, creases, small tears, dirt or water damage. Usually these pieces aren't worth buying as further damage will happen. Most paper collectors will use a magnifying glass and a strong light before purchasing an expensive piece of ephemera. Use resource books to avoid purchasing reproductions, especially on expensive or rare pieces of ephemera. Use white cotton gloves to handle ephemera to avoid damage to the piece from the natural oils in your hands.
If you plan on framing your ephemera the mat and backing need to be acid free. A professional framer will be able to offer advice on how to properly store, mat and frame your ephemera collection.
There are books available on the proper storage techniques for each type of ephemera. But as a general rule light, moisture and temperature need to be monitored carefully. Insects, rodents and dirty hands will also damage ephemera.
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