In years past ephemera was often seen as a stepchild to book collecting. Today interest in this field continues to increase, especially ephemera with strong graphic and design elements. Book collectors who are fans of ephemera see it as a way to expand the scope and depth of holdings with acquisitions that are usually far closer to one-of-a-kind than books.
Ephemera tends to have a more visual appeal and can often help interpret an author, a period, or genre. Once associated with quirky aunts with vast postcard albums, the field is now far broader, not to mention that prices and values have risen, often steeply, as interest has grown.
The best known group for enthusiasts is the Ephemera Society of America (ESA), founded in 1980. This is a lively and active organization with 700 to 800 members according to ESA president, Richard “Dick” Sheaff, 77, a retired graphic designer based in South Royalton, Vermont.
“Collectors, dealers, archivists and curators know about the word ephemera,” Sheaff said; “it’s not the mystery it once was. Many book dealers are members and many book people follow us on the ephemera side.” He also noted that Swann, the well known NYC auction house, has been a longtime sponsor. “To me,” he said, “a live ephemera show is a very visual event.”
The highlight of the organization’s schedule is their annual March conference and show held at the Hyatt in Greenwich, Connecticut. Though 2020 was cancelled due to covid and 2021 was done virtually, Sheaff was hopeful that the faithful would gather there again in 2022 for what he termed “the biggest and best ephemera event of the year.”
He attributed the popularity of the Greenwich gathering to several factors: “The Hyatt Greenwich is an extremely pleasant venue. The location is handy for both New York and Boston. It typically occurs only weeks before the New York City book show. Dealers often visit it to find stock to take to New York. Typically there are live presentations on Friday and a large ephemera fair over the weekend.”
Shaeff explained the actual sales side is handled by an outside promoter, mentioning that for a number of years Marvin Getman has filled that function and its virtual offshoots. Getman will do so again when the live events resume.
In August 2021 ESA hosted an online event presented on the Getman platform. According to Getman, “The special summer edition of the virtual ephemera fair had very good results. The total sell-through rate was 20%, a number considered excellent for a virtual fair. There were 3,600 items listed from 102 dealers with average sales per dealer of almost $2,000. There were almost 3,800 visitors during the two day virtual event.”
One concern of the current board is the “greying out” of those interested in ephemera as well as other fields such as stamp collecting and books.“We’re working hard on getting youth involved,” Shaeff commented, including college age students as presenters and encouraging them to participate in our sessions. He observed that ”both undergraduate and graduate students have gotten excited about ephemera, particularly the Victorian period.”
“After all the emphasis on minimalism, the design schools are seeing the 19th century in a new light and that’s a positive thing.” He also mentioned typography and design from other eras are popular. “Whatever the period, it’s about printing.”
There is renewed interest in letterpress, steel engraving and other older forms in modern interpretations. ”We’re seeing this interest across the board,” he said, adding that “design schools are taking another look at earlier ways.”
Reviewing his tenure as president, which ends in December, he feels the society has made substantial progress, most notably by raising funds to design and launch its new website ephemerasociety.org. The bylaws were also updated.
Encouraging more youthful participation was a concern echoed by David Lilburne, 67, incoming president. Lilburne hopes to put a greater emphasis on attracting new and younger members and expanding the ESA’s use of social media during his two year term which will begin in January.
Australian by birth, Liburne was formerly based in London. Now an American citizen, he and his wife Cathy run their company Antipodean Books, Maps and Prints (ABAA) from a shop in Garrison, NY. As for his own interests he has an extensive collection related to tea. He recalled joining the ESA in the 1980s and has been an enthusiastic member ever since.
“Ephemera is just amazing," he said. “You see something and you’ll probably never see it again. I’m enchanted by the whole idea.” As for his view of other society members, “Their knowledge is enormous,” he said. Among the benefits of membership he pointed to the ESA directory which lists each member, contact information and area of interest. “Using it, you can reach out and find other collectors who are even further down the collecting path than you are.”
Longtime board member Barbara Fahs Charles,78, also spoke with Rare Book Hub. Charles is best known for her work with art and history museums as a partner in the Washington, DC firm of Staples & Charles. Now retired, she is presently a museum consultant and also has a strong personal interest in carousels. “I collect merry go rounds,” she said, “not the carved animals, but related materials such as, photos, catalogs, and prints.” She has been with the Ephemera Society since the beginning and witnessed its growth and evolution. She too was keen on the annual Greenwich event commenting, “Some of the best dealers in the country attend, there’s so much and it’s so visual, you never know what you are going to find.”
Charles also plays an important role in selecting and coordinating the society’s annual fall conference, which she said draws an estimated 25 members. This event is held in a different city every year, most recently in Ann Arbor, and Austin before that. At that time board members gather to discuss ESA business and tour a variety of institutions with ephemera collections and visit private dealers and collectors. Though suspended during the pandemic, she is hopeful that the next fall conference will be in Portland, Oregon in 2022. ”I’ve learned every time I go to a conference. It definitely helped our museum and exhibit business knowing about ephemera.”
Like many in the society Charles and her partner/husband Bob Staples have also bought and sold ephemera over the years, though she is not as active now as in the past. At one point, she said our entire collection was purchased so that left us no stock, but we kept collecting. Presently she is not dealing,”but I am writing and doing talks. I keep my hand in.”
As for the many benefits of the ESA membership she listed: There’s the conference and fair in Greenwich and the mid-year gathering. We have a journal that comes out three times a year, online events, monthly e-news listing auctions, shows and updates, and the membership directory. But to me the number one benefit is the friendships we’ve made. Many of our all time favorite people we have met through the society.”
Ephemera Society of America www.ephemerasociety.org/
Rates for membership range from Individual membership at $70/US & $85 International with somewhat higher fees for institutions and other categories. The first year of membership is free for students in the US.
Dick Sheaff www.sheaff-ephemera.com/
David Lilburne www.antipodean.com/
Barbara Fahs Charles www.staplesandcharles.com/