Ephemera is a very broad category of collecting. It is anything that is transitory and not intended to be retained or preserved. It comes from the Greek and Latin words. Epi means “on” or “for” and hemera means “day”. As a site dedicated to books we mostly keep to paper based ephemera such as bookmarks, catalogs, film scripts and screenplays, greeting cards, letters, pamphlets, posters, tickets, zines, or other documents. While they are not technically ephemera, being that they were not meant to be disposable, AbeBooks also features some items which are author or book related memorabilia such as personal typewriters, portraits and illustrators sketches, official documents, and other such things.
A great piece of ephemera can fit alongside any tradition book collection or your entire collection can consist of ephemera. Every collector will do things differently and, just with books, you have to pick the type of ephemera that suits your passion.
Posters, labels, book and magazine inserts, catalogs or flyers and newspaper clippings are the most common forms of collectable print advertisements. The value of the advertisement depends largely on the collector’s interest but generally large brightly coloured logos, discontinued brands or products or famous ad campaigns are popular themes for collections.
In the 15th century book printing began to take off and the concept of the bookmark was born. The earliest bookmarks were generally cloth or silk and most often sewn into the spine. Detached bookmarks became more prominent towards the middle of the 19th century and paper bookmarks did not become commonplace until closer to the 1880s. Today bookmarks are essential promotional items for publishers, book retailers, libraries and much more.
Typed and autograph (hand-written) letters are one of the most vibrant areas for collectors of ephemera. From a simple ‘thank you’ note to a rambling incoherent rant, letters can offer remarkable insights into the lives of authors, artists, scientists, politicians and other figures of importance or interest. With the advent of email, letters also have historical importance.
Many book collectors are drawn to periodicals and magazines – novels used to be frequently serialised in periodicals, writers are regularly interviewed and many authors still contribute essays and articles to magazines. But literary ties are not essential when considering a collection of magazines, a collector could be drawn to the artwork or particular issues of historical or social significance. The first issue of Playboy would a prized treasure for many collectors.
Collecting maps is a rewarding and colourful pastime. It can also be quite expensive. Early maps are among the most valuable and collectable ephemera items available. Countless antiquarian book dealers also offer maps and atlases as the demand is so strong. Collectors can follow a specific cartographer or a region as large as a continent or a small provincial town.
A manuscript is usually the first iteration of a book as it was conceived by the author. A manuscript would be a copy which pre-dates an uncorrected proof or galley. These are often marked, unbound and sometimes handwritten. Most often they are one-of-a-kind or possibly copied for a small number of individuals.
Newspapers are somewhat similar to magazines, but papers contain current news that has been localized and, of course, they are published more frequently. If you are looking to collect newspapers it’s useful to know that papers printed prior to the American Civil War were printed on a much higher quality paper and are more likely to survive than their post-war counterparts. Modern newspapers are printed on a highly acidic paper and degrade at an alarming rate if not carefully managed.
This is one of the more narrow categories of ephemera and includes objects like checks, passports, birth certificates, wills and other official documents from deceased persons. On AbeBooks these kinds of documents occasionally appear for authors or other literary figures and for a hardcore collector these items could become a showcase piece for a collection.
Photographs can be collected as a beloved art form, or because of who or what is, or because of who took the image, or simply because early examples are instrumental in revealing the development of a new technology. The earliest photographs emerged from the first half of the 19th century from Frenchman Louis Daguerre who developed the “camera obscura” in the 1820s.
From the Linen Era and White Border Era to the erotic French postcards and saucy English seaside cards, postcard collectors have many genres to browse. But the most collectable and expensive cards are treasured because of who sent and signed them rather than what was printed on the front.
Posters are another beloved artistic medium, created as product or service advertisements, promotional tools for political campaigns or just for art itself. It has been an extraordinarily powerful advertising medium and given us some of the most iconic imagery in history – think of the Jaws movie poster or the Your Country Needs You posters.
Before financial transactions were digitally recorded, you would receive a physical piece of paper explaining what portion of a company you owned. These certificates were often very colourful and have since become quite collectable to some.
One of the more bizarre forms of paper-related ephemera, telephone directories are most often collected for a functional purpose even when expired. Genealogists will often use old telephone directories to track the movements of ancestors and learn where they lived decades ago.