PBS, Life 360, and the Ephemera Society
Ephemera Society was invited to contribute material to the web site
of "Life 360," an hour long television program telecast
on many PBS stations Fridays at 10:00 PM. The show on November 9,
2001 was called "Junk," and it focused on six story lines,
as well as the music and song of Jude and the comedic insights of
What is junk? An old definition dating from 1353 says that it is
cable or rope and that sailors needed to keep it around because
new supplies were difficult to come by. The word started to become
pejorative when people associated it with discarded material in
general. Today, we have all heard the saying that one person's junk
is another's treasure. Unfortunately, the uninitiated sometimes
consider ephemera as junk. François, duc de Rochefoucauld,
added that "the principal point of cleverness is to know how
to value things just as they deserve [to be valued]."
The program's six segments did not address paper ephemera, but
they did highlight constants between collecting objects and ephemera.
The first, "Pile of Artifacts," was a story about an individual
from Columbia, SC, who used a metal detector to locate items that
had been buried for years and then sold them on e-Bay to an artist
who planned to use them in a special project. "Plastic Eye
Model" followed a glass eyeball from Jeannette, Pa., to an
optometrist In Las Vegas; again, the medium of exchange was e-Bay.
"John Fryer's Birthday Party" concerned another e-Bay
transaction. A graduate student from New York decided that he had
accumulated too many material possessions. To rid himself of what
he had, he put everything up for bid. Another New Yorker, a transplanted
young man from Indiana, was the successful bidder, and as Fryer
said: "that guy became me."
"Savers and Throwers" was produced in two parts. One
featured Ella Angert and her son, Alex, the other showed three generations
of Bunches. The segment's title suggests what members of the families
argued about. Some were rat packs while others needed to clean and
clear house regularly. Finally, "Take It or Leave It"
profiled the recycling facility on Nantucket Island, Mass., where
residents brought items they no longer needed and picked up others
they liked, all for free.
Although paper ephemera did not come into play in these stories,
e-Bay, where countless pieces of ephemera exchange hands daily,
did and so did the way ephemerists think about their collections.
As Margaret Cho pointed out, many people do not want to let go of
items from the past. They value vintage objects, the memories they
evoke, and nostalgic thoughts. Alex Angert summarized his thoughts
by observing: "material things remind you of things you don't
want to forget."
web site for "Life 360" is at http://www.pbs.org/opb/life360/junk/index.html.
It includes online versions of some of the stories on the program
and supplements them with a section on paper ephemera under the
heading "Celebrated Scrap." Clicking on the title brings
you to a welcome screen with the definition of ephemera, a picture
of the cover of a crossword puzzle magazine, and some introductory
remarks: "Some people think of ephemera as nothing more than
nostalgic junk: postcards, playbills, autographs, stuff you might
find in your attic or family scrapbook. But recently such items
have grown in esteem among serious collectors. Whether it's worth
thousands or has only sentimental value, ephemera offers an invaluable
glimpse into our past."
A section on trade cards uses three images from the collection
of Ephemera Society member Dave Cheadle, including colorful illustrations
for the New Easy Lawn Mower and other products. Accompanying text
notes that the popularity of trade cards exploded with the advent
of chromolithography in the 1870s and that their influence peaked
before advertisers turned to mass media ads in magazines and newspapers.
Stock certificates from the collection of Theodore Robinson and
Valentines from the collection of Nancy Rosin are next. Ted and
Nancy are longtime members of the Ephemera Society and both have
been collecting in their areas of interest for many years. Surprisingly,
stock certificates were first issued as long as 4,000 years ago.
Those collected by today's scripophilists for the most part date
from 1800-1940. Valentines-three of Nancy's are displayed-became
an accepted way of expressing love as printing developed in tandem
with America's burgeoning postal system.
The final section, "Other Ephemera," highlights sheet
music and early periodicals with an illustration of the first page
of "The City Guards Quick Step" and a cover from Harper's
New Monthly Magazine from the 19th century. Sheet music and
popular magazines offer much information about our country's musical
and literary heritage, as well as the development of printing technology.
Internet links on the web site of "Life 360" include
the Ephemera Society's URL, URLs of other collector groups, as well
as dot coms devoted to the selling of particular kinds of collectibles.
Included are the sites for the National Association of Collectors
The Trade Card Place (http://www.tradecards.com),
and the Universal Autograph Collectors Club (http://www.uacc.org).
E. Richard McKinstry
[This article originally appeared in the Northeast
Journal of Antiques & Art.]