What Is Ephemera?

vintage ephemera

Ephemera, by definition, includes various types of items (most often paper) that were intended to be used briefly and then discarded. Ticket stubs and playbills; receipts and certain documents; letters, envelopes, postcards and stamps -- you get the idea.

Nevertheless, people have been saving ephemera for centuries. Whether you call it collecting, recycling/upcycling, or even hoarding, we just can’t seem to let these things go.

But why? Exactly what is the appeal of paper ephemera? Especially in this digital age, in which information is saved in “clouds” and recalled instantly as if by magic, why would anyone need or want the clutter?

For me -- and for many others, from artists to historians to those simply longing to relive a simpler time -- ephemera holds the true magic. Sure, “the cloud” offers practicality for modern record-keeping, but holding these old pieces of paper, poring over the words they contain and admiring the pictures, breathing in the sweet musty aroma -- these are experiences, unmatched by anything modern.

Types of Ephemera

I’ve mentioned that ephemera typically includes “single use” or “transient” items. These may include:

  • receipts
  • stamps
  • envelopes
  • ticket stubs
  • playbills
  • flyers
  • postcards
  • ads
  • labels and other packaging
  • newspaper and magazine clippings
  • index cards
  • greeting cards
old ephemera

    Beyond truly “disposable” items, ephemera also includes other printed materials, such as:

    • playing cards
    • tarot cards
    • book pages
    • maps
    • ledger pages
    • school records (report cards, etc)
    • computer punch cards
    • photos
    • sewing patterns
    • record album sleeves
    • stickers
    • paper money
    • baseball cards
    • coloring books
    • matchbooks
    • calendars
    • diplomas

    Although the word ephemera is primarily associated with paper, thanks to the popularity of the paper arts (scrapbooking, junk journaling, and the like), we shouldn’t forget that not all ephemera is paper. Plenty of non-paper items are ephemeral in nature, including things like:

    • ribbon and lace
    • thread
    • toothpicks
    • burlap sacks (feed and coffee bags, for instance)
    • leaves
    • feathers
    • plastic plates, cups, and utensils
    • cocktail umbrellas and swizzle sticks
    • cigar boxes
    • political pinback buttons
    • tobacco tins and other small containers
    • fabric scraps
    • vinyl records

    Full disclosure here: as I was compiling the lists above, I found myself going back again and again to add things because there really are so many items to consider!

    Is All Ephemera Vintage?

    Of course not! Think of all of the items listed above...how many of these things have you accumulated over the past week? The past month? The past year? If you’re like me, you’ve got -- at a minimum -- a few receipts and some junk mail laying around your house. These are ephemera...and, if you keep them around long enough, they’ll become vintage (I seriously wouldn’t recommend this, though!).

    I guess my point is that all ephemera was, at one point, “new,” or not vintage. Which leads to the next logical question: what exactly does “vintage” mean? Unlike “antique,” assigning an age to the term vintage is a tricky task. Most collectors and dealers will agree that items produced more than 100 years ago are antique. “Vintage,” however, is more appropriately used in conjunction with a specific era; for example, “vintage 1950s kitchenware.” This said, I’ve observed a general consensus that the term vintage at the least should be reserved for items more than 20 years old. I might argue with this a bit...I hardly consider an item produced in 1999 to be vintage. But that’s a discussion for another time.

    Finding Monetary Value in Vintage Ephemera

    Obviously, not all vintage ephemera is valuable. Some items may have historical or sentimental value, but not monetary value. Other pieces may be valuable to a single individual (family letters) or community (flyer for a local festival) but not to society at large. Yet others may be worth a lot of money because they’re rare or associated with a famous person or event.

    To determine whether a piece of ephemera has monetary value, start with a simple Google search. Search results may include websites like WorthPoint or Kovels. However, unless your item is rare or highly collectible (like a first edition book, signed item, or something of significant historical value), these sites likely won’t be much help.

    For more run-of-the-mill ephemera you may have more luck considering comparative value. Searching for similar items on sites like eBay, Etsy, or Ruby Lane may help you determine if there’s a market for your item and what its value in that market is.

    Unless your intent is to parlay a vintage and antique ephemera collection into a serious investment opportunity, the monetary value of your collection may not be your highest concern. Still, it is nice to have some idea, and can definitely factor into how you handle and store your ephemera and whether you choose to upcycle it into junk journals or other projects.

    You’ve Got Vintage Ephemera...What Do You Do with It?

    Collecting ephemera can be rewarding...and not necessarily monetarily.

    Sure, you can seek out rare books, autographed photos, and other high-dollar items to create a valuable “collection portfolio” (I don’t think that’s an actual term...I just made it up).

    In my opinion, however, the true values of vintage ephemera lie in the history and sentiment they contain, and in their continued usefulness as part of upcycled art and functional items. What does this mean, exactly?

    Historical Value

    Documents like the Declaration of Independence aren’t the only types of ephemera with historical value. Everyday items like bills and receipts give us insights into past economies and lifestyles. Postcards mailed to friends and family show us not only how places looked (the pictures on the front) but also how people experienced them (the writing on the back).

    One of my favorite pastimes is reading through old newspapers and magazines. Not the big articles and stories so much as the want ads, society pages, local events, and all the other accounts of daily life. It’s fun to marvel (and sometimes laugh) at the antiquated notions, strange clothing, and different ways of speaking, but these all can help us understand how far we’ve come...and how far we’ve yet to go.

    Sentimental Value

    This is an obvious one, right?

    Like many poor, working class Americans alive during the Great Depression, my Nana (my mom’s mom) saved everything. I was very fortunate to have received a good portion of this everything, including boxes and albums of photos, postcards, slides, documents, and more. The oldest photos date back to the mid-to-late 19th Century. Although I’d MUCH rather have my Nana and Papa back, having all of this helps to keep their memories alive and learn more about their sides of my family.

    Here’s the funny thing, though...I even find myself feeling sentimental for people I never knew! Over the years I’ve picked up a number of very old scrapbooks in antique stores. I spent lots of time reading through all of the personal letters, cards, and other items in these books. By the end I really felt like I knew the books’ creators just a little bit. I’ve even done a little genealogical background to dig a little deeper.

    Hey, Ephemera...Make Yourself Useful!

    If you're not a "collector" per se, gathering ephemera can still be fun...and useful. Fun because you'll enjoy reading old articles, documents, newspapers, postcards, etc., and looking at old photos, ads, and more.

    Then, once you've enjoyed them you have vintage materials to use for a variety of creative projects. My favorite? Junk journals! To me, a journal created from and decorated with vintage paper and trims is the perfect combination of past and present. 

    Not a journaler? Not a problem! Other uses for vintage ephemera include:

    • greeting cards
    • garland, bunting, or streamers
    • decoupaged furniture or home decor
    • paper flowers
    • gift bags and tags
    • framed for wall decor
    paper flowers

        Where Do I Find Vintage Ephemera?

        Great question! Estate sales are absolutely my favorite places to pick up vintage ephemera. In the pre-COVID world, we spent nearly every weekend at estate sales shopping for vintage items for our resale business (you can check out some of our terrific finds in our shop, and more over on Ebay). I use EstateSales.net to browse sales in our area. 

        Other good options include garage sales and thrift stores, as well as websites like Ebay and Etsy. 

        If you're looking for a hassle-free way to receive a steady supply of vintage ephemera delivered straight to your door, our Junk Journaler's Delight Box is it!  Each box contains a mix of 15-20 pieces of ephemera and trims (all vintage--no reproductions). Sign up for a hassle-free monthly subscription or order a one-time box.