In nuclear physics, a half life is the period of time required for the decay or breakdown of half of the atoms in a sample of some specific radioactive isotope. Plutonium 238, for example, has a half life of about eighty-seven years, while Uranium 238 takes about 4.5 billion years to decrease by half. (If you are thinking about relocating near a war zone, leaky reactor, or abandoned mine, numbers like these can come in handy.) I would venture that most ephemera has an average half life of something more along the order of one to five years. If ten thousand pieces were printed, five thousand will be left one to five years later. That still sounds like a lot, but using the one year half life model, that same large print run would be down to less than ten surviving examples in just ten years. Ephemeral depletion depends largely on the subject matter, of course. Condom wrappers and church supper menus would disappear a lot quicker than tickets to the seventh game of a Yankees-Brooklyn Dodgers World Series match, or that famous Marilyn Monroe calendar. As the decades fly by this disintegration by halves continues unabated.
Of the remaining survivors in any given era, half of those will be in rough or poor condition. Perfect copies will be thrown out when someone cleans an attic while their soiled and torn counterparts escape the purge. Survivors lose their crispness, sheen, and shape. Flakes, chips, chunks, creases, tears, and stains come next. Acidic post-rag paper generally doesn’t look better with patina like early furniture does. The very best examples of old ephemera are in the fine or near fine category, and generally comprise less than 1% of the original printing run.
I have a Big Bang theory of ephemera. It shot out in all directions from one small place with great force, and some of this matter (energy is eternal but ephemera is not) is slowly coming back toward the center of the universe, which in our field are the public and private collectors. These collectors are the ones who can be most entrusted to track down, acquire, catalog, and safely preserve the best remaining examples. When I lose a nice piece at auction to the gravitational and monetary pull of a collector, or a dealer who has that collector in mind, there is consolation in knowing it has reached a potentially safe haven.
Once there, two hazards exist. One is the destruction (usually by fire) of a large collection which would have been safer dispersed in many hands. The other is that supernova which occurs when a collector passes away and her or his life’s work once more hurtles through cold, hard space (i.e., at auction). The prudent collector pre-arranges a new home for these artifacts. Sometimes the best repository is a museum or library, where catastrophe and greed are less likely to intervene down the road, though there is always the danger of natural or unnatural disasters. If the donation is significant enough to warrant public attribution, that collector’s name and effort will live on in a setting available to the masses rather than squirreled away in a former cutthroat competitor’s trophy room. These are the stellar pieces though. The vast majority of good ephemera is worthy of collection but is not of museum quality. It is held by regular people who happen to have an interest in a certain subject and want paper collectibles to go along with and give context to their hard objects. The melancholy fact of life for most acidic paper items is that they will not be around by the year 2500 like many of their denser contemporaries will. But the information they hold can be researched and copied, and perhaps even the items themselves can be preserved in some way we don’t yet envision, such as through holographic projection.
At any rate of decay, we have a certain duty to make sure we don’t damage or destroy good ephemera. How does one define “good” ephemera? Simple. Send it to me for free. If it’s good I’ll sell it or keep it. Seriously, though, we have a duty to preserve these items during our commercial or collecting stewardship. “I can’t afford to be the National Archives,” as one inveterate packrat friend and colleague often says (he is a close second to the National Archives), but we are beholden. Our job is to make sure that a minimum of atoms depart while the piece is in our possession.
We can accomplish this in the following ways. Put your ephemera in a polypropylene or mylar protector bag, with an acid-free backing board behind it (the bag and board should be about 20% bigger than the piece it is holding). A bag without a board isn’t much better than no bag at all. How you store your ephemera depends on whether it’s at home in your personal collection or offered for sale somewhere. At home, it rather depends on what format most of the items are in, and whether you wish to display them or archive them. If pieces are stacked standing up they may bend, and if they are piled it may put too much pressure on the bottom of the heap. For uniform items such as baseball cards, archival plastic holders in binders may be best. There are good ways to preserve any item, from large movie posters to old cigar bands. Seek out experts in that line of collecting and learn how they do it. Keep your collection away from temperature extremes, avoid humidity, and shun immersion (leaks and floods) altogether. Most archivists shoot for 50% humidity and a little under 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t store your containers in uncontrolled basements, attics, or outbuildings, and don’t rest them directly on the floor. Some folks microwave, spray, or “bomb” newly arrived books and ephemera to eradicate tiny paper-eaters such as silverfish. This can be time-consuming, as well as disturbing to family members and customers. Some northern purveyors put their containers outside once a year on the most frigid and still winter night when it is well below zero for a more natural solution to the problem of bio-predation.
When it comes to items offered for sale, you have to make it easy for customers to flip through and see what’s there. It is frustrating and damaging to look through a large stacked pile top to bottom. Arrange these items standing up in a subject-labeled bin so they don’t flop over. Personally I prefer large clear or blue stackable Rubbermaid-type containers over more attractive but often dirty and splintery wooden boxes, but your silage may vary. Graduate down from big boards in the back to smaller toward the front. If you are running low on ephemera in a certain category, like your bin of transportation stuff, stick some related auto, railroad, aviation and nautical books up front to keep the stack upright until you can find some more stock. Keep rare, expensive, and fragile items in a locked showcase if at all possible. Never put a sticker or a written price on the item itself. Clearly record the price and other pertinent information at the top of the backing board. (I used to price in pencil but you have to press harder, it’s more difficult for the customer to read, and it’s easier for lowlifes to discount. Let the ink dry before you slide the item in.) For tears, learn how to use archival quality document repair tape or leave it as is, but never use Scotch tape. Don’t display outside, where polybags sweat and airborne grit can seep down. One day in the sun, outside or even in a front window, can bleed colors or curl photos like you wouldn’t believe. If you have ephemera at antiques centers where others will be handling sales for you, outline your concerns and special instructions to the staff. Talk with the management about emergency preparedness. Consider leaving a couple of clean tarps under your tables for quick and ready protection against water or smoke damage. I showed up at one center only to find that the owner had decided to move his front desk operations to the middle of the floor, which put my booth next to a construction site. Everything was covered with a nice layer of sawdust and powder. It would have been pretty easy to throw one of the nearby affected quilts over my ephemera buckets beforehand, no? It’s not like the ceiling caved in without warning overnight because a previously mentioned would-be National Archivist stored a pile of 1,800 worthless law books in the attic directly overhead. I am no longer in either of these buildings, by the way.
To obtain protection, there are some local and national distributors who advertise on the internet and in ephemera publications. Bags Unlimited will probably be around for awhile so I’ll name that company as one example. If you are lucky enough to live near such a distributor you can save a lot on shipping, as the backing boards can be quite heavy (and if they ship for free the cost is built in). During lulls in New York State paper shows I became acquainted with bookish Bill Kammer of Mega-National Industries, Inc. (I kidded him that the Round Lake Polybag Company would sound a little less corporate.) M.N.I. carries an amazing inventory of hundreds of display supplies, from tiny jewelry tags to the gigantic tents favored at Brimfield and elsewhere. In terms of white backing boards, they cut thirty-five sizes, from 3 3/4″ by 5 5/8″ up to 18″ by 24″, with regular and archival quality polybags to match. Special size orders and volume discounts too. The prices are reasonable, such as 100 9″ by 12″ boards for $10.00, with 100 matching bags for $6.00. These very quickly pay for themselves in terms of presentation and preservation. At first I just purchased needed supplies from Bill but after awhile we started watching each other’s booths, getting food for whoever was busier, etc. Eventually I began placing large annual orders approaching $1,000.00 worth of bags and boards which he was kind enough to deliver right to my back porch.
At first glance Bill appeared rather scrawny and reserved, but I learned that he took winter breaks from the breathtaking world of ephemera and antiques supplies to participate in more mundane Central and South American archeological digs, in addition to leading more profitable Euro-tourist jungle tours. I once sold him a major bibliography of early exploration of these areas and he seemed familiar with most of the titles listed. Bill told thrilling tales, and had interesting firsthand opinions on global trade, ecology, world peace, etc. I came to enjoy his company very much and planned to join him on treks (free assistance in exchange for free transportation and lodgings), but it wasn’t to be. Everyone who knew Bill was devastated to learn of his sudden and early demise several years ago. “Ephemeral” is so often applied to paper, but it is only the written word which remains.
I’d plug his business here, but Bill’s widow is winding it down. I purchased as much of the remaining stock as I could, which should last a lifetime. Bill Kammer put out a nice little catalog in his day and I’ll close with a quote from that in this small tribute to his memory.
“This is our first Ephemera products catalog. Since it is issue #1, and limited to a few thousand copies it will probably be a collector’s item someday. In the meantime keep it safe and close to you, and refer to it so you can make your orders properly. When the time comes for a new catalog (#2) this one can be put in your collectible archives (properly protected with one of our protectors I hope).”