So much for the classical origins of ephemera. What does the term mean for us here and now in the opening years of the new millennium? For some basic paper training, one could begin appropriately enough with a published source of information . . . also known as the dreaded price guide.
I go to one crowded country auction where hanging on the wall near the slow checkout desk is a nice framed 1930s-era oil painting of an old-time auction. They were often held right in front of the failed farm house back then, and the auctioneer’s white shirtsleeves are rolled up as he knocks down the dispossessions of the defeated to thirty or so spectators and far fewer actual bidders. “Those were the days,” someone on line (rather than online) in the 1980s once commented. “Well I used to go to lots like that,” said a very old-timer near by, “and all they did was bitch about the good old days when you could find great stuff cheap and the crowds were smaller.”
Although everything is relative, there is something to be said for the modern-day theory that our related businesses have been somewhat ruined by the “Antiques Roadshow,” published price guides, eBay, and the proliferation of reproductions and fakes. As for the first bump in the road, although there is a heightened awareness among yard salers and estate settlers, I usually find it pretty easy to sidestep speculation that the proffered item would elicit gasps in the final segment on the Roadshow. General price guides that come out annually (Schroeder’s, Kovel’s) are pretty hit-or-miss for a particular piece. The prices in specialized guides (which cover hundreds of categories by now) are sometimes thought to be manipulated upwards by the top dealers who write them based on their own self-interest. (My brother numbers himself among early collectors of ephemera related to fireworks, and they all dread the day when that price guide comes out and quotes go sky high.) A good rule of thumb in some areas is that half the book price is a good starting point in most negotiations. One guy I know whips out 1980s-era price guides when he is buying but manages to quote current editions when selling. Ebay, largely responsible for spawning those packs of hyenas so evident every Saturday morning at estate and garage sales throughout the land, will require an article unto itself. To summarize, though, there’s an upside and a downside and a whole lot of shaking out going on.
So where do books and ephemera fit in the pantheon of antiques when it comes to description and value? Libraries catalog and loan books, but dispensing advice on pricing is generally beneath them. Scarce books, as we all know, have been rather difficult to find and price until fairly recently. Collectors would spend years tracking down an elusive tome that can now be had in multiple from kitchen table booksellers via the net. The beauty of books is that so darned many have been published that it’s impossible to list them all in one volume or set of volumes. (Another great advantage is that they are generally too difficult to counterfeit compared to their hard relatives in wood, clay, glass and metal.) “Prices realized at auction” in ponderous sets or fast but pricey CDs are generally skewed toward known valuables, and big city bidders often pay very inflated prices in the heat of battle. Only recently have online out-of-print book search services (and the meta-crawler comparison engines which keep them somewhat honest) standardized real-time pricing practices and separated the scarce from the truly rare.
Ephemera though, ever elusive, still slips under most of the above-mentioned radar. Some gets picked up by specialized price guides (e.g., sheet music), and searching eBay under “Completed Auctions” can be revealing, but there are millions of oddball ephemerons whizzing around which resist the banality of bibliographic description, the corral of the catalog record, and the pull of the price tag. We weren’t meant to see these often fascinating and beautiful items created “for its one April day of life” decades or centuries later, many examples survive and are readily available, there is always something to learn, and you can fill in historical blanks while making a nice profit from these slips and pages of paper while others fight it out over familiar items of known value which only yield so much profit after expenses. Even among ephemera fanciers, cluelessness often prevails. Would-be paper lions fight over the single Kennedy Life magazine everyone and their mother saved in the attic while I carry out the box of 1920s Vogues worth $100.00 each. All this to me is the great appeal of the Wild West that is ephemera.
There is one price guide that does a pretty good job of introducing us to the field in question. Warman’s Paper (Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead, 1994 first edition), which covers the various types of ephemera commonly sold and collected today, is probably the best single primer. It was reprinted by Chilton in 1997, and there are always ten or so copies available online in the $10.00 to $20.00 range. I remember reading this cover-to-cover on a long plane flight, and it still sits on the first shelf of my price guide collection. Though more mercantile than authoritative or scholarly, Warman’s is tops in both areas compared to any other general ephemera guide, and it’s always a pleasure to delve between these happy yellow covers.
Warman’s was written by Norman E. Martinus, an unassuming and otherwise unpublished Outer Banks ephemera specialist; and it was conceived and edited by the famous and incredibly prolific Harry L. Rinker. I used to read Rinker a lot some years ago, and two tidbits always come to mind. He is a pretty serious speculative buyer of new collectibles, carefully storing away multiple mint condition examples for future profit. Personally, I prefer older artifacts with more character that have been handled by departed souls, and items which are not so aware of their own collectibility. And Rinker once shared the fact that he avidly collects any rectal thermometer he can get his hands on, antique or otherwise, which is one item I would pass on no matter how high up they may go. We can let all that slide though, because Rinker is usually ahead of the curve and one gets the feeling that the authors of Warman’s have no hidden agenda other than to share their knowledge of and enthusiasm for the field of ephemera.
The book opens with a spirited discussion of “ephemera” versus “paper,” highhandedly concluding that the former term is “incredibly pretentious and snobby.” “A Salute to Our Predecessors” pays tribute to Robert D. Connolly’s Paper Collectibles: A Collector’s Identification and Value Guide, the second and last edition of which was published in 1982. Gene Utz’s Collecting Paper and the defunct House of Collectibles paper guides get the dissing they deserve. There are lists of ephemera-related reference books, periodicals, societies, shows, and repositories. The pricing philosophy and research methodology is explained. This is a buyer’s guide with retail prices, and sellers can only expect to make ten to fifteen cents on the dollar. “Not all paper is collectible. . . . Identifying and separating collectible paper from non-collectible paper in a large lot is time consuming.” Amen, brother! It takes years to develop expertise, to amass a large inventory, and to form relationships with the right sellers and buyers. The point is made that the paper market is a complex field that “differs substantially from other antiques and collectibles markets.” Subsequent sections include “Caring for Paper,” and “Spotting Restrikes, Reproductions, Copycats, Fantasies, and Fakes.” The lengthy front matter of this guide is highly informative, written in a lively manner, and well worth the price of admission all by itself before you even get to the thousands of items listed with their wonderful accompanying illustrations.
Warman’s is then arranged by topic and by subject. This may sound a little redundant or confusing, but they explain the difference and you get the hang of format versus content after awhile. Good indexing saves the day too. Topics include advertising, billheads, catalogs, diecuts, erotica, family letters, games, illustrators, lobby cards, menus, newspapers, photographs, record jackets, scrapbooks, tobacco cards, valentines, gum wrappers, etc. Subjects include amusement parks, barber, Civil War, Disney, Elsie the Cow, fishing, Girl Scouts, horses, Indian, jewelry, kitchen, Lincoln, motorcycles, Nabisco, ocean liner, political, radios, science fiction, Three Stooges, unions, Volume One Number Ones, world’s fairs, etc.
To illustrate, let’s start off with a healthy breakfast. Under the topical heading of “Cereal Boxes,” we sit down to a whirlwind historical tour. Wheat cereal and hot cooked oatmeal were dispensed by weight in a plain sack at the good old general store until the turn of the century. Packaged, ready-to-eat cereal came in the early 1900s, aimed at Mom. In the 1930s kids were targeted, either through “free” premiums or on-pack promotions featuring cut-outs, contests, and games. In the middle years, entire radio and TV shows were sponsored by various manufacturers. When this approach was jettisoned in favor of spot commercials, sugar-coated brand characters were created to ensure recognition (and tooth decay). Profits were Grrrrreat! The last few decades have seen a shift toward movie and sports tie-ins, which make the boxes even more transitory. One example of a “fantasy” cereal box (not just a reproduction but a fake which depicts an item which never existed to begin with) is a computer-generated Wheaties “Last Breakfast Cereal” box with Jesus Christ on the front. When I see old cereal boxes, it makes me wonder why on earth someone saved them to begin with, and how they came down to us safely. These boxes shared their contents for a brief happy moment in a sunny deco kitchen or in the blue glow of Howdy Doody over kitschy fifties formica, only to suffer decades of dark interment in some dry, milkless attic. “Box completeness” is key to these collectors. Rare unconstructed and file copies command the highest prices. I love early color print ads from pre-Depression periodicals, and I like some of the premiums, like a neat 1949 Post Toasties Popeye tin ring which recently sprang up spinach-like from a battered $5.00 auction box lot $45.00 stronger, but cereal boxes themselves don’t do much for me. As Count Chocula proved years ago, there’s no accounting for taste. Still, when Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (1950s Superman offer) and Nabisco Rice Honeys (1969 Beatles Yellow Submarine with stickers) boxes go for $300.00 a pop, one should crackle and snap. If this topic doesn’t leave you soggy, Warman’s Paper directs your attention to a couple of related periodicals—Free Inside, and Flake.
For an example of a subject heading, let’s run away to the circus. Circus Report seems to be a leading periodical. Clubs include the Circus Historical Society (which publishes Bandwagon). Among the categories of circus ephemera listed are advertising trade cards, books, booklets, broadsides, letters, letterheads, magazines, photographs, posters, programs, and tickets. Prices range from a $10.00 route card (Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, 15th/16th week, 1926, 3x 5″) to an $85.00 broadside (Zircus Hippodrom Und Menagerie, German, contortionist wearing spotted tights and other acts, circa 1920, 9 x 19″) to a $200.00 poster (Downie Brothers Circus, close-up of clown’s face surrounded by other performing clowns, Erie Litho, circa 1920, 28 x 41″). Some circus posters sell for thousands, and when the cost of any antique is high, reproductions and suckers are born every minute, so watch out! Ephemera is rife with crossover appeal, as Warman’s illustrates. I recently sold a colorful Ringling Brothers Circus Magazine and Program with 4/26/1953 Sunday afternoon tickets stapled to the inside cover. This issue happens to contain a great original Hemingway circus article. Who could provide such a rare paper item to the serious Hemingway collector for a mere $35.00? Only an earnest ephemeralist.
“I never met a piece of paper I didn’t like,” concludes Rinker. “The field is so vast that there is room for everyone. Jump in and enjoy yourself.”