Wouldn't That Be Something!
By Dick Sheaff
What if somebody in, say, 1865 had decided to gather up every bit of interesting ephemera he/she saw, in crisp, clean mint condition, and carefully store each piece away under archival conditions? What if he accumulated every interesting ticket, invitation, trade card, poster, advertisement, mailed letter or envelope, piece of store currency, lottery ticket, booklet, pamphlet, almanac, sales brochure, price list, letterhead, billhead and store card he came across? And what if, further, he tried his best to concentrate on the most graphic, striking, well-designed items he could find? And what if he had persisted in doing this for twenty or thirty years, until it became his turn to be shelved in that Grand Archive in the sky?
And what if you came across this horde today? Wouldn’t that be something?
Most paper ephemera -- by definition, really -- is tossed away. Some vintage ephemera was collected in scrapbooks, but under conditions that were far less than archival. Heavy doses of glue bonded such pieces to cheap acidic paper pages. Many were cut and trimmed. Over the decades, many old-time "collections", as well as many simple accumulations of family papers and records, ended up in an attic: hot in summer, cold in winter, a source of food for nibbling rodents, a surface to catch fly, spider and mouse droppings.
If paper items were interesting or colorful enough to catch the eye, they may have ended up as playthings for kids, much like those of us who were kids in the 1950s used baseball cards to attach to our bicycles to make noise when the spokes went around. Less than archival.
We collectors share a disease, as we all know full well. Non-collectors will never understand us, that's just the way it is. So what? One way my own personal brand of the collecting disease presents itself began decades ago. When I was not finding any vintage paper to accumulate (or when I had no available funds), I learned I could satisfy my urges by collecting modern ephemera . . . every ticket, invitation, letterhead, booklet yaddah, yaddah. A century or two from now, future members of The Ephemera Society may be amazed that some zany person born near the middle of the 20th century had decided to become a steward for thousands of selected items of ephemera, plucked from the passing stream.
There is a ton of interesting material in the blitzkrieg of communication that assaults us each day. As has always been the case, 95% of the booklets and ads and promos we see are crass and without visual merit (though they, too, contain much cultural information), but the other 5% is well worth saving. If I don't do it or you don't do it, who will do it? Perhaps nobody and so perhaps 100 years from not a single example of it will exist.
I save each piece of my modern ephemera the same way I save each piece of vintage ephemera . . . in an archival sleeve or in a mylar sleeve with a backing board. Yes, it costs a bit of money to protect them thus, but to me a fine piece of contemporary ephemera is well worth 25¢ or 50¢ to preserve for posterity.
As I said, a disease. But a disease I'd love to see spread. I do know of a couple other folks doing the same thing, and likely there are others out there. I encourage one and all to rise up, toss interesting paper into a box, save it from the landfill. You'll feel better about yourself. Even if it seems to your spouse and kids to confirm their worst fears about your sanity. Wear your eccentricity with pride!
Some slow winter's evening you may find yourself dragging out the box, sorting, organizing, putting things in albums, thinking about arranging an exhibit or two.
Wouldn't that be something!