Ephemera is a popular area of collecting and even decorating these days. But what is it?
The word “ephemera” basically means something that is short-lived. Unlike the original meaning, collectible ephemera is not a short-lived organism, but instead represents objects that exist, or are used or enjoyed, for just a short time. These objects are what most collectors consider consider to be “fragments of everyday life.”
Catalogs, newspapers, & magazines were only intended to be kept until the next issue arrived.
Receipts, billheads, invoices, and the like, were only meant to be kept for customer returns, tax filings, or until product warranties ran out.
Despite what your great aunt may have intimated, not every greeting card, Valentine, postcard, or letter is deemed worthy of saving for eternity. But those which have been saved are now delights to collectors!
Maps were only meant to be kept a year or so, until the next map was made - and road maps often didn’t survive past the first road trip as people often can never quite fold them back neatly again!
Calendars, typically, are expected to only be kept for the year. The same can be said for many licenses and certificates. Even baptismal and marriage certificates, school attendance cards, and other items really weren’t intended to be kept forever -- even if they were supposed to go on your permanent record!
Matchbooks were presumed to be kept for as long as there were matches to be found in them (or, perhaps a bit longer, if you were saving that special phone number written in it!)
Posters, restaurant menus, travel brochures, advertising booklets -- even those little old cookbooks, they were all designed to be temporary items, with new editions updated frequently.
Kids toys, such as stickers, paper dolls, baseball cards, and coloring books were only intended for temporary play, and were not intended to be kept for so many years.
Ink blotters, product labels, trade cards, decals, placemats and napkins, wrapping paper, packaging and product boxes, shipping and postal labels, envelopes, stamps -- all ephemeral bits of our human lives.
Even photographs are considered to be ephemera. In part because most of them are printed on paper, true; but also because, as you can see at an estate sale of auction, it’s a sad fact that many families do not pass down old family photo albums (let alone the snapshots, slides, and movies) through the generations.
All these items were originally intended to only have a short-term usefulness, and therefore expected to have short lives.
Yet, as ephemera expert Maurice Rickards has noted, the temporary intent or lifespan of these items is the actual appeal. “The essential appeal of most forms of ephemera lies in their fragility, their vulnerability – the very improbability of their survival.”
As a category of collecting, ephemera is often used to describe various forms of paper, as shown and noted in this blog post. The fragility of paper or cardboard certainly limits the number of these items which survive into their old age! But this area of collecting isn’t necessarily limited to paper items only.
Some pieces of ephemera are printed not on paper or cardboard, but rather are printed on wood, plastics, metal, cloth, leather, and other materials. Other pieces are not necessarily printed on at all, but molded into shapes and logos as well.
Examples of these other items not intended to be kept which are now collectible include: cigar boxes, feed and seed bags, swizzle sticks, cocktail or food picks, hangers, plastic and paper cups, buttons, bookmarks, bottles, bottle openers, playing cards, luggage tags, and keyrings.
Pens, pencils, pinback buttons, and other promotional items, be it from companies or political parties and candidates, had temporary lifespans -- or term limits, if you will.
It may be easier to think of ephemera as memorabilia from businesses, organizations, and persons, usually of the past. But new ephemeral items are made every day too!
At Fargo Antiques & Repurposed Market, our dealers offer an array of retro, vintage, and antique pieces of ephemera. Whether you’re a collector looking to add a great find to your collection, a family historian looking for pieces to complete your family's story, a decorator looking for something special to frame or otherwise show off in your home, or the artistic type looking for old paper for DIY projects, you’ll find unique items at F.A.R.M.
Our shop has plenty of collectible ephemera from North Dakota & Minnesota, of course, as well as regional pieces. And we also have quite a number of national and international ephemeral objects too. As always, we invite you to come down to the F.A.R.M. and see what we have to offer. With nearly 60 vendors, items arrive fresh to the market daily!