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What's Up Magazine


Jan 11, 2011 06:32PM ● By Anonymous

“Ephemeral” is defined as short-lived or transitory. Ephemera is any minor paper document of everyday life, and is generally thrown away. Tickets, labels, magazines, newspapers, and business cards are all ephemeral items. Since many of them, such as tickets, invitations, and applications, are now being transmitted electronically, printed versions are becoming increasingly rare. So, while the world marvels at mobile phone and iPad applications that can accomplish more tasks digitally, many people continue to gather paper antiques.

During the Victorian era, a popular hobby was creating scrapbooks containing postcards from one’s travels, drawings, or poetry. There were also avid collectors of trade cards, like cigarette cards, and die cuts. In the 1950s, autograph albums were hot commodities; every young person wanted to keep their friends’ signatures, and the signatures of celebrities they may have met, in a permanent place.

Today’s ephemera collector might pursue matchbooks, political bumper stickers, business cards, or even barf bags! With airlines either merging or going out of business, anything with a defunct airline’s signature logo on it, whether it be a napkin, paper cup, or barf bag, is a collector’s item.

The unifying factor of all ephemera is that it was designed to be used for a specific purpose—used and then discarded. Going down the alphabet, starting with the letter “A,” it is easy to list all kinds of ephemeral items. In fact, thinking of lists, there are laundry lists, grocery lists, and “to-do” lists. Save these, and you have some examples of ephemera.

Many promotional, advertising types of items fall into the ephemera category. Before the invention of radio, television, movies, and the Internet, a variety of paper and cardboard products, bags, beer coasters, blotters for soaking up ink from leaky pens, bookmarks, calendars, and fans were used to promote various goods and services. Luxury goods such as wine, beer, hard liquor, and cigarettes had many associated emphemeral items such as the labels on wine and beer, which many people save, cigarette cards, which used to come inside a box of cigarettes for collecting, and cigar bands.

Cigar bands have many devotees. Commencing in the late 1900s, cigar bands were saved in scrapbooks and used for decorating purposes. A lot of them were glued to the undersides of glass ashtrays. Cigar band collecting was popular on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. English playwright/journalist George Bernard Shaw went so far as to even contact an American lawyer to get him a complete set of cigar bands printed in the United States. It is rumored that Ernest Hemingway presented Ava Gardner with a cigar band as a token of their first meeting.

This is an election year and there are all sorts of collectible items associated with a political campaign, including buttons, flyers, banners, paper flags, bumper stickers, and brochures. And in the category of children’s items there are playing cards, joke booklets, cardboard puzzles, party decorations, and paper dolls.

How many people save lottery tickets or luggage tags? Many paper labels, particularly those made just after World War II that say “Made in Occupied Japan” or “Made in Occupied Germany”—along with those instruction sheets that come with imported Japanese items and are always written in fractured English—are highly collectible.

When it comes to collecting

ephemera, there are no precise guidelines. Magazines, maps, match covers, menus, membership cards, travel sewing kits, notebooks, patriotic letter sheets and envelopes from the Civil War, postage stamps and stamp book covers, propaganda leaflets, place mats, pornography, police notices, playing cards, price tags, proclamations, photographs, printers’ samples, premiums found in cereal boxes, and puzzles are some possible examples.

Children are sometimes the best ephemera collectors.

My 17-year-old daughter has a memory box filled with competition ribbons, certificates of merit, admission buttons, shells and fossils gathered on vacation, and notes from special friends. Every once in a while, she looks through her box of treasures, and fleeting memories are relived. She recently created a memory box for me, so I can revisit old driver’s licenses, family cards, and news clippings from the past.

In 1980, the Ephemera Society of America was founded to encourage the preservation and study of ephemera. With approximately 1,000 members, the society sponsors at least one conference a year, held in early spring, and publishes a quarterly newsletter. For more information, you can write the Ephemera Society of America at P.O. Box 95, Cazenovia, NY 13035, send an e-mail to, or call 315-655-9139.

Editor-in-Chief Nadja Maril answers readers’ questions in her blog All About Antiques and she will be talking about ephemera in her podcast posted on the What’s Up? website. If you have a question related to this column or a previous column, e-mail her at A nationally known author, appraiser, and former antiques dealer, she also invites readers to send photographs and suggestions for future columns to 929 West St., Suite 208A, Annapolis, MD 21401.