Collecting and Caring for Ephemera

All of the members of the Ephemera Society are in some way collectors. We collect for personal enjoyment, we collect for institutions, and we are vendors who collect so that we can bring what we have to the attention of others. The first step in collecting is to find out what is available, and we thank our dealer members and friends for telling us what they have. Once we learn what exists, we sift through the possibilities and then make our choices.

But, it does not stop here. What we do next is organize, store, and use our paper ephemera.

Organizing paper ephemera collections can be done in several ways. If collections consist of a variety of formats, the organizing principal might be by form. That is to say, all postcards would be filed together and all posters, illustrated billheads, chromolithographs, etc. would, likewise, be kept together. On the other hand, collections might be organized by what they illustrate. For example, a collection of paper ephemera that has been assembled to show different kinds of fish would be organized by the sort of fish shown, regardless of what the depictions were on. Alternatively, a collection could be organized chronologically.

Large collections like those in museums or libraries are often organized by format, irrespective of subject, chiefly because public institutions serve a wide clientele, and it is difficult to anticipate what topic each user will focus on. In addition, museums and libraries generally have the space that is needed to house different formats separately. Consequently, finding aids or indexes--today often computerized--assume great importance in leading researchers to what they want to see.

Categories chosen for finding aids are limited only by the compiler's imagination. A finding aid for trade cards might contain the name of the firm that advertised on the card and its address, the date of the trade card, the card's printer and his address, the name of an agent for the product if there was one, subjects describing goods advertised, and so forth. Allowing for a free text field gives the compiler an opportunity to describe the trade card further, adding particulars that predefined categories do not permit. Sometimes computer programs are designed so that thumbnail images are associated with descriptive text.

Housing is best done with acid free folders and boxes and high quality plastic enclosures. In addition, particular attention needs to be paid to the temperature and humidity in which a collection of paper ephemera is stored. Considering that personal paper ephemera collections are mostly kept where people live, a stable temperature of 68-70 degrees with relative humidity at 40-50 percent is recommended. In addition, items should be away from light sources, both sunlight and manmade illumination, to prevent discoloration and embrittlement.

Personal collections are often housed the way institutional ones are. Ephemera Society member Bryant Tolles keeps most of his collection of items on the White Mountains in a small library just off his living room. He uses acid free containers and envelopes, as well as Mylar plastic. Some of the prints and maps that he has assembled over the years are on display in his house and in his New Hampshire summer home; they have been matted and framed with protective backing.

Bryant's White Mountain collection is organized following the organization of Bent's Bibliography of the White Mountains, compiled originally by Allen H. Bent and first published in 1911. Not every collector has the luxury of such an opportunity.

Bryant based his own book, The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains, published by David R. Godine in 1998, on his collection. He has not computerized it yet, but looks forward to doing so in the years to come.

As Bryant, we collect because we want to look at, study, and enjoy what we have. In order to ensure that our collections will last so that future generations can use them profitably, it is important to follow a few simple handling guidelines. First and foremost, clean and dry hands are very important. To avoid staining and attracting insects, food and drink should not be consumed near collections; pencils, not ink pens, are for note taking; and "sticky notes" should be avoided because they leave harmful residue. Finally, never trace or write on top of your paper ephemera.

For further guidance on storing and using paper ephemera collections, you may wish to consult The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection, published in 2000 by Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, and the Internet site of the Regional Alliance for Preservation.

E. Richard McKinstry
Past President

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America