What is Ephemera and 10 Ways You Can Use It

vintage ephemera

What is 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 

game cards and stamps are examples of what is 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

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?

photos, hands, hold-256887.jpg

Before we answer this question, let’s define the term “vintage”. Most collectors and dealers will agree that items produced more than 100 years ago are antique.

“Vintage,” is more appropriately used in conjunction with a specific era; for example, “vintage 1950s kitchenware.” However, the general consensus for using the term “vintage” is that the item should be more than 20 years old.

Getting back to the question, “Is all ephemera considered ‘vintage’,” the answer is no. Think of all of the items listed in the examples we provided. 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 lying 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!).

Finding Value in Vintage Ephemera

family anno, anno, family-1326418.jpg

Obviously, not all vintage ephemera is monetarily valuable however, some items may have historical or sentimental 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…So What Do You Do with It?

Here are 10 ideas for what you can do with your ephemera:

  1. Scrapbooking projects
  2. Junk journal tags and pockets
  3. Table Center Pieces
  4. Vision Boards
  5. Handmade invitations
  7. Create your own journal or decorate an exisitng journal
  8. Create/ Decorate Gift Boxes
  9. Create personalized notecards
  10. Frame for wall decor

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