The Essentials of Book Collecting

An Essay in Parts

by Robert F. Lucas

Part   1 - Introduction
Part   2 - Importance of priority relative to book collecting
Part   3 - Jargon - Reading a catalog description
Part   4 - Jargon - Condition and its importance
Part   5 - Bibliographies and other useful references
Part   6 - Rarity & scarcity and supply & demand
Part   7 - Ephemera - what is it and is it part of book collecting
Part   8 - Understanding book values & pricing
Part   9 - Some physical aspects of the book - bindings & paper
Part 10 - Book illustrations - variety of & illustrators
Part 11 - Investing in Antiquarian Books

Part 7 - Ephemera - what is it and is it part of book collecting

The Mayfly, a beautiful, fragile-appearing, almost fairy-like insect with transparent wings, lives from six weeks to three years as an underwater stage and then emerges as an adult to live only one or two days. Because of this very brief life (as an adult) the Mayflies as a group are classified in the insect family Ephemeridae, which comes from the Greek word ephemeros (meaning daily or on a day or approximately a day) and the Greek word for the mayfly actually is "ephemeron". These beautiful creatures are not to be confused with the tiny black fly (also called mayfly) which comes out in hordes in the spring in northern temperate areas looking for mammalian blood.

Anything short-lived or with a short-term usefulness can be referred to as ephemeral. Years ago, probably in the early nineteenth century, collectors began referring to printed, paper material, which was never bound in the form of a book or pamphlet and which had a limited, short-term life, as "ephemera". This non-book printed material includes calendars, labels, bookplates, advertising cards, letters (correspondence), deeds & other documents, broadsides, posters, transportation time tables, newspapers, sheet music, stock certificates, matchbooks, business brochures, rewards of merit, tickets, invitations, greeting cards, playing cards, paper toys, etc. Decades ago the concept evolved to include most forms of pamphlets — especially those with short-term usefulness such as magazines, theater program & other event programs, almanacs, trade catalogs, promotional material, investment prospecti, annual reports of towns & businesses, comic books, pamphlet cookbooks, museum exhibition catalogs, etc.

Today, the only printed paper material, which seems to be excluded from the concept of ephemera is hard-bound books. Most collectors would include printing on cloth in the form of menus, tickets, broadsides and other similar uses as ephemera. Some ephemera collectors even include short-lived items printed on metal such as tobacco tins and license plates and on wood or plastic such as yard sticks or meter sticks.

A few collectors believe the term "ephemera" as used to describe printed material was coined in the 1970's, but one has only to look through early 20th century antiquarian book catalogues to see the use of the term to describe "non-books". In fact, we have a copy of a Catalogue issued by Goodspeeds Book Shop in Boston (when the business was located at 7 Ashburton Place) entitled "Ephemera Americana, A collection of manuscripts, printed and engraved documents, and small prints, illustrating phases of American business, social, and political life from 1638 to 1875" which, although the catalogue is not dated, is from the mid 1930's. This catalogue offers incredible ephemera at prices which would be considered a dream today.

A few examples follow (please do not call to order these — the prices are from the 1930's):

33. THREE TICKETS IN A LOTTERY granted by act of the General Court of the Province of Massachusetts Bay for rebuilding Fanuel-Hall. The first of them dated June, 1765, is signed by John Hancock. The two specimens following, dated 1768-69, are signed respectively by John Ruddock and Thomas Cushing. The three $25.00

68. TRADE CARD OF JONATHAN HARRIS 24 Cornhill, Boston, and store adjoining, English goods of every kind. Fine wood-cut heading showing a view of the store front, figures of men and women walking alng the sidewalk. A manuscript bill is written on the back. Fine and rare specimen. Printed broadside. 1p. Sm. quarto. $15.00

90. NINE EXCELLENT SPECIMENS of the "Reward of Merit" used in primary schools a hundred years or more ago. The illustrations are both on copper and wood and include a view of the State House, Boston, boys skating, children playing ball, a plowman, school declamation, rolling the hoop, etc. The 9 pieces $4.00

102. SAML. STURGIS, HAT MAKER, opposite the Golden Key, Fore St., Boston. Copper plate engraved label. $1.00

Most of us would love to order all four lots and we would be very pleased to pay the prices asked for these interesting pieces of ephemera in the 1930's.

Why is there such an interest in collecting scraps of printed paper which were meant to be thrown away — why care about a ticket to a town band concert in 1851 or a calendar for the year 1895? There are at least three good reasons (and probably many more) for collecting ephemera:

These "scraps" of paper are a historical record of a country or region's culture including every aspect of society such as business, social events, politics, entertainment, literature, art, music, food, drink — all aspects of everyday living!

The study of printing history — ephemera was produced prior to the advent of printing, during the incunable period of printing (the first decades), through the advent of various printing presses, during the use of woodcuts, wood engraving, copperplate engraving, lithography, stereotyping, steelplate engraving, chromolithography to modern offset and laser printing.

The study of design — the art work, illustrations, typefaces, color inks, types of paper and other media. One can study specific periods of style such as early Victorian, Art Nouveau, Art deco and follow the evolution of design in all forms of ephemera including the recent advent of the use of holograms on ephemera.

If you stop for a few minutes to think about the vast quantity and variety of modern ephemera that you have used during the past month, you would easily understand how ephemera is a record of everyday life. You have probably used newspapers, magazines, receipts from all sorts of purchase, tickets to a movie or concert, food packaging, slips to pick up processed photographs or laundry, receipts from banking, advertising brochures, grocery store coupons, fast-food paper place mats, posters or handbills you have read, mail sent and received, birthday cards, invitations to a friend's social event and the list goes on.

One can easily get caught up in the "frenzy" of collecting ephemera — people do collect modern ephemera such as place mats, cereal boxes, matchbooks, tickets, movie posters, and even restaurant doggie bags. Other collectors collect only antiquarian ephemera and often only in a very narrow area such as rewards of merit, advertising or trade cards, postcards, valentines, letterheads, labels, tickets, clipper ship cards, theater programs, etc. Many book collectors look for antiquarian ephemera related to their collecting interest(s) to supplement their collection and often end up building separate collections of ephemera. Collecting ephemera is very challenging and can be a rewarding hobby.

There are a number of ephemera collecting fields that have been pursued by many collectors for many years and have developed as separate, well-established hobbies: postcard collecting, stamp collecting, map collecting, autograph collecting, comic book collecting, baseball and other sportcard collecting are a few examples. These areas have developed self-supporting infrastructures and there are organizations and clubs and sales events or shows or swap-meets and exhibitions and although there is considerable overlap between the collectors in these established fields with ephemera collectors in general, there is also a large degree of separation. At general ephemera shows/exhibitions you will find some comic book dealers and some postcard dealers, but the bulk of activity remains away from the general ephemera events and is well-sustained within the established venues.

Although there are trade or advertising card collector, newspaper collector, and stock certificate collector associations and other similar organizations, the majority of these ephemera collectors are also very involved in general "paper" or ephemera events and organizations. In the remainder of this part we will provide links to some ephemera organizations, ephemera fairs/shows or exhibitions and examples of some dealers as well as web sites specializing in ephemera.

There are two major ephemera collector associations which we will bring to your attention, both have web sites:

The Ephemera Society, 8 Galveston Road, London SW15 2SA an international society formed in 1975 to bring together ephemera collectors, visit their web site for information on membership, publications and activities

The Ephemera Society of America, PO Box 95, Cazenovia, NY 13035 Established in 1980, an American "sister" organization to the London-based society, offers publications, workshops, conferences, and annual ephemera shows as well as smaller regional bazaars; and also has members from many other countries


Part   1 - Introduction
Part   2 - Importance of priority relative to book collecting
Part   3 - Jargon - Reading a catalog description
Part   4 - Jargon - Condition and its importance
Part   5 - Bibliographies and other useful references
Part   6 - Rarity & scarcity and supply & demand
Part   7 - Ephemera - what is it and is it part of book collecting
Part   8 - Understanding book values & pricing
Part   9 - Some physical aspects of the book - bindings & paper
Part 10 - Book illustrations - variety of & illustrators
Part 11 - Investing in Antiquarian Books

Books and Book Collecting