Clipper ship card circa 1846-49, hand-painted and valued $300 to $1,000 each.

Last month we discussed the Golden Age of Collecting, 1975-1989, and teased readers about how one word affected our personal collecting habits and those of many others.

In 1982, the high point of this era, a well-dressed man came into our booth in New York City and, after looking around, said, “You have a lot of great ephemera.” We looked at one another and didn’t know what he meant. Was it a skin blemish or what? 

We admitted we were not aware of the term. He said, “Your posters, handbills, pamphlets, tickets are all ephemera.” He then said, “You should join the Ephemera Society of America,” and handed us a card that indicated he was the president of such a group.

As soon as we got home, we went to Webster’s for a full definition. Wow! We were interested and joined this “upscale” organization. Our first newsletter changed our whole world of collecting.

At the bottom of one page in a small notice, we read, “Important auction to be held by the United States Library of Congress, collection of all paper labels, boxes and wrappers approved by the Food and Drug Act and entered to Congress. Call for details.”

We called and set an appointment to view said ephemera. Upon arrival at these intimidating, hallowed halls, we were ushered down to a basement and saw aisle after aisle of thousands of file boxes. The official brought a cart with one box of sample material for us to view. After our viewing of this never-before-seen material, we decided that we wanted it.

We entered our bid, not knowing how many boxes were involved.

A month later we received a call that we won and had to wire $200 for shipping. A few days later, a truck pulled up to our home and delivered 32 boxes! It took a week to sort out the wonderful, graphically beautiful “ephemera” – the new word in our life.

When the Society held a fair for members, we exhibited a handful of our newfound treasures. We became the new kids on the block and drew a crowd to our booth.

Our collecting world changed with a whole new understanding of exactly what the word meant. Webster’s brief definition of “ephemera” is “Collectibles, as in posters, tickets, letterheads not intended to have lasting value.”

So, there you have it … when something in quantity is quickly destroyed, surviving pieces become very collectible. The list includes trading cards, playing cards, manuscripts, sheet music, Valentine cards, invitations, labels, political handouts, postcards and almost anything paper and cardboard. The most interesting aspect of this ephemera world is the historic value of each category, along with the artistic graphics of the period.

Right on the heels of this new interest, an ad in the Newark Star Ledger Daily announced, “An auction of an estate will be held at the Mayflower Storage Warehouse, featuring period furniture and quantities of collectible ephemera. Viewing will be held three days prior to the sale.” I took a two-hour lunch break from my job to see what was offered.

Fast forward to results: We purchased several posters, broadsides, and two boxes of old paper because it was our newfound collectible interest. Only about 25 other people attended the event, so our purchases were bargains!

At the bottom of a box, we found 119 clipper ship cards. After researching exactly what their purpose was, we realized this was truly a treasure. It became the biggest find in our collecting lives.

Clipper ship cards were postcard size on heavy board and hand painted. Sea captains at South Seaport, N.Y., would seek prospective travelers in 1849 to go to the California Gold Rush. The cards would tell how many days to reach the West Coast and promote the anticipation of wealth. Come to find out, these cards are one of the rarest forms of ephemera known. The South Seaport Bank had 12 in a glass case as rarities – we had 119!

Had we not known what “ephemera” meant we would not have realized these great finds.

Recently, we conducted a “mother-in-law” research and asked nine people if they knew what ephemera was. Seven of the nine had no idea.

So, whether you are a philatelist (stamp collector), numismatist (coin collector) or ephemerist (paper collector), you know specialized collecting is rewarding and can also be a good investment.

We might not have another Golden Age of Collecting, but there certainly are a lot of things that can be collected for historic value. So, Mom, don’t throw out the kid’s baseball cards!

Jerry Glenn, former owner of Reminisce gift shop, currently is an appraiser of certain collectibles.