One of the exceptions to the decline in antiquarian values is the increase in interest, sales and prices for ephemera. Though no two people seem to have exactly the same definition of what exactly the word ephemera means, there is a widespread consensus that almost all non-book paper falls into this category.
The Ephemera Society of America defines ephemera as ….“a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use. The 402-page Encyclopedia of Ephemera lists more than 500 categories from bookmarks to fruit wrappers to posters to theater tickets.”
Whatever the definition most agree that ephemera comes in many forms including photos, maps, letters, manuscripts, stamps, posters, labels, postcards, valentines, and trade catalogs to name a few. And yes the many enthusiasts all agree - collecting can be habit forming.
Many think that the pursuit of this kind of material helps expand awareness, highlight a field of interest and often - in the case of book collections, shed a new light on interesting aspects of an author or subject.
With scholars, libraries, collectors, dealers all in hot pursuit of these interesting and often one-of-a-kind historical nuggets it’s not surprising that interest is growing, and because ephemeral items are often unique the pricing seems to be what the market will bear.
Ephemera includes a myriad of categories. For example Don Conner of Don Conner Fine Books (ABAA) in Sacramento CA specializes in natural history, the life sciences and all the “ologies.” He has a keen interest in trade catalogs, especially American and English fishing gear of the 19th century, including “rods, reels and all the paraphernalia.” He also keeps an eye out for 19th century nursery catalogs with illustrations of flowers and fruits which he says can vary in price from $50-$500.
As in all collectibles, he says, “the interest comes from people who have a passion for the subject - the more uncommon the better.”
According to Conner while the Internet has tended to homogenize the prices of books, it has left ephemera largely untouched. But, he points out, “while you usually can find another copy of a book, this is seldom the case with ephemera. It isn’t as widely available and often not even listed on book data bases or other on-line sites.”
“My interest in ephemera just grew and grew,” says Lee Kirk, owner of The Prints & the Paper in Eugene, OR. She calls the genre “a way to look beneath the surface, to see how one thing connects to another.” Kirk started out in antiques, went into books and is now an ephemera specialist. She calls her inventory a “mish-mash” and she’s not quite sure how big it is: “Just say “boxes and boxes.” Every once in a while somebody will find something that is really meaningful in those boxes, like the waitress who found the menu from her old employer: “She was browsing and all of a sudden I heard a whoop…. that really made my day.”
Kirk is “gradually easing out of books” because books are heavy, take up space and there’s always going to be another copy. “Even though ephemera is harder to value and more difficult to catalog, it is more likely to be unique or uncommon.” She does four or five shows a year, has an on-line inventory in both books and ephemera and also writes a popular blog. Her customers are apt to be museums, archives, and collectors.
Some of the areas she sees with increased interest are: trade catalogs, urban archeology, stereo view cards, real photos, small town views. As for her personal taste, “I like the strong colorful graphics of the 1930s, art moderne-streamline.”
Kirk’s advice to those just coming to the field is to “focus on one or two areas and really learn about them. You’ve got to throw yourself into it if you’re going to do it successfully.”