A popular area in ephemera collecting is holiday-themed items. It is relatively easy to get started collecting this sort of thing, because there are so many available examples, and since they are designed around a theme, it is easier in comparison to some collecting areas to compile groups that seem to complement each other visually. I would like to delve a bit deeper into several types of holiday ephemera to discuss different things to look for, and techniques used in the production of these items. A quick aside before I get started: many of these holidays feature prominently in postcard designs. Read the postcard section of my blog Ideas for the Beginning Collector for more about building that type of collection.
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, which is part of what inspired me to choose this topic for this month’s blog. Rather than dive right into that holiday, though, I would like to approach things chronologically. So, let’s start with New Year’s.
NEW YEAR’S DAY
The main advantage of New Year’s related ephemera is that much of it will announce itself as a one-off item by explicitly referencing the year. After all, that change in the calendar is the whole reason for the celebration. Event advertisements, menus, invitations, signs, party favors, etc. will usually try, sometimes cleverly, to sneak the year (or at least the last two digits of it) into the graphic design. We all remember the novelty glasses from the first decade of the 2000s. Collecting items that share this element gets more interesting as your collection grows, because the collection will begin to show how much material of this sort was produced in that year, which elements of design have remained popular and which have changed, and how the types of items available has evolved over time. Arranging one’s collection requires very little guesswork in terms of organization, as well, since grouping things consecutively by year is the obvious choice.
A lot of New Year’s items are flashy and brightly colored, and because it is a holiday focused on rebirth, renewal, and hopes for a bright future, text and images included are designed to inspire. Since a great deal of items created to celebrate New Year’s Day are produced for the purpose of advertising or decorating an event with a party atmosphere, there is a mix of a lot of different types of items (some of which cannot properly be considered ephemera). This is something to consider when deciding whether to collect it, since you will need to be prepared to store items in a wide variety of sizes, materials, etc.
Valentine’s Day is considerably less problematic in terms of developing a focus, as the most desirable and recognizable items related to this holiday are, of course, Valentines. These have the advantage of either being handmade or personalized, so each one is likely to be unique. Since it is a holiday that celebrates relationships, rather than just a day on the calendar, the likelihood of unearthing items that have interesting stories associated with them is considerably higher. Valentine’s postcards were quite popular in the early to mid-twentieth century, and these arguably have some of the best and most colorful designs among postcards as well, using high-quality illustration techniques like chromolithography. I have even seen Valentine’s postcards with movable parts (these examples are particularly collectible). Valentine’s Day has historically encouraged many to pen their own verses, which of course leads to results ranging from heartfelt and beautiful to regrettably bad. Sometimes these are short poems that appear on postcards or Valentine’s cards, other times they are separate letters.
Since Valentine’s Day is often an occasion for couples to enjoy a night on the town, marketing materials related to it also fall under this collecting umbrella. We all know that these days there is no shortage of prix fixe menus designed to appeal to those who want something special. How long has this trend been in place? How have Valentine’s Day cards marketed by Hallmark and other companies changed over the years? Beginning a collection can help provide answers to these questions.
While Mardi Gras, which literally means ‘Fat Tuesday’, has its basis in the Christian tradition of feasting and celebrating in the days leading up to Lent, it has now become inextricably linked with the uninhibited celebrations that take place in New Orleans. The Big Easy has been celebrating the holiday since 1699, and records indicate it held its first Mardi Gras parade in 1837. The holiday has a long history before this, though, which can make collecting Mardi Gras related ephemera particularly interesting. I once had a poster at my shop that depicted the various floats participating in a parade during the 1920s. Each was named and described in some detail, and took its inspiration from classical stories of Greek gods and ancient rulers. This shows the lasting influence of much earlier festivals, and of other cultures and traditions, on Mardi Gras. Because this holiday is strongly associated with revelers wearing elaborate and colorful costumes, the costumes themselves, and ephemera related to their production, would be an interesting area to focus on for collecting.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY
Modern celebrations of this holiday focus primarily on alcohol consumption, mainly because the holiday is religious in origin, and one of its main characteristics was the lifting of restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol associated with Lent. The green shamrocks commonly used to represent the holiday are representative of the holy trinity in Christianity, and the day of celebration marks the death of the holiday’s namesake. Because of the widespread association with alcohol, and in particular beer, building a St. Patrick’s Day collection should be of particular interest to beer enthusiasts. There is no shortage of ephemera in this realm: coasters; beer posters; magazine advertisements; bottle labels. Anything associated with leprechauns, who are traditionally symbolic of Ireland and thus linked to St. Paddy’s Day as well, will fit with this sort of collection also.
This, and Christmas (see below), are particularly good collecting areas because there is a good mix of traditional religious iconography and light-hearted imagery. Decorative Easter items can feature Christian symbols like the cross and Jesus, or they can feature anthropomorphized bunnies in bright colors. Items with crossover appeal like this are good candidates for collecting: anything that appeals to multiple groups of people will be more widely collected, which makes finding things for your collection easier. It also makes it easier to sell items from your collection (or to sell your collection as a whole, if it’s time for that). While the holiday has a rich history related to Christianity, and also to earlier festivals related to the coming of spring, since the late 17th century the Easter Bunny has also been a popular character, and tracing the evolution of that imagery through collecting adds to the fun. Many towns sponsor Easter egg hunts, so collecting advertisements and other ephemera related to these is a good way to develop a collection with a bit of local flavor.
July 4th is a traditional day to show patriotism, and this means lots of flag iconography. Red, white, and blue everything. A decent sized Independence Day collection will be recognizable from across the room, because the colors are so closely linked with the holiday. The flag, of course, has changed quite a bit since the founding of the United States, so collecting distinct examples of the flag itself is a great place to start. This collecting area is great for someone interested in various types of objects. Off the top of my head, I can think of the following as places to start or areas to branch out into: patriotic songs (sheet music); fireworks, firework advertisements, and packaging; flags; patriotic clothing; postcards; Revolutionary era journals and correspondence; books about early American politics, rebellion, and political philosophy; Founding Fathers material; Boston Tea Party materia; festival broadsides (I currently have one at the shop from 1879, advertising a celebration two towns away). July 4th is sort of a nexus point for collecting a variety of material related to the genesis and history of the country.
Halloween has always been the holiday that allows us to venture outside of ourselves. Costumes allow us to don a new persona, and trick-or-treating as children allowed us to masquerade as someone else for a night, with the promise of candy as a reward. Because of its link to pagan festivals and rituals, Halloween also has a sense of darkness and mystery, which invites us to explore the things that scare us. Ephemera related to the traditions of trick-or-treating, material related to witchcraft and wicca, and items connected to horror films and other productions with a Halloween feel are all likely candidates for the Halloween collector. There are multiple film franchises related to the holiday itself: the most obvious is, of course, John Carpenter’s Halloween series; but more recent films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Hocus Pocus, and Trick ‘r Treat continue the tradition. The holiday’s origins in All Hallow’s Eve and the tradition of carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns are other interesting areas to explore.
Thanksgiving, apart from its significance as a historical collaboration between Native Americans and European settlers in New England, is largely focused on food. Those interested in cookery and culinary history will find this a rewarding collecting area. The earliest recorded recipe for pumpkin pie dates back to 1796, when Amelia Simmons anonymously published American Cookery as ‘An American Orphan’; only four copies of the original edition of the book are known to exist, though many pirated editions quickly followed. Old books likes these are great places to find culinary interfoliata (see my recent article about interfoliata here), such as handwritten recipes, or clippings from food-related periodicals. There is a long-standing association
certainly not least, Christmas. This celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ
has become an occasion on which to exchange gifts. This tradition is
representative of the gifts given by the three wise men. Though the timing of these
gifts has fluctuated throughout history, the popularity of the poem The Night Before Christmas (originally
entitled A Visit from St. Nicolas) and
of Charles Dickens’s famous novella A
Christmas Carol, established Christmas Eve and Christmas as the common days
for gift giving in modern times. The mythologies and iconography surrounding
the Christmas holiday are numerous: Santa Claus and his reindeer; The North
Pole; toy-making elves; talking snowmen; candy canes; Christmas carols and
carolers; silver bells; gingerbread houses. All of this makes for a ripe field
in collecting. I would venture to guess there is more ephemera associated with
Christmas than with any other topic, partly because
of the holiday’s popularity, and partly because
of the massive levels of commercialization surrounding it in modern times.
Possible items to check off your Christmas list: Christmas carols; gift tags; vintage gift wrap; Christmas greetings cards and postcards; ornaments; appearances of Christmas trees, snowmen, angels, reindeer, Santa Claus, and other icons of the holiday in printed works and advertisements; first editions of Christmas-themed books (Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Carol are the tip of the iceberg here); nativity scenes; children’s Christmas wish lists; early appearances of Christmas carols in print; holiday movie memorabilia.
The list could really be endless, but my personal ‘holy grail’ in this regard would be a manuscript copy of The Night Before Christmas: though the original is lost, four manuscript copies are known to exist, the oldest held by Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Wouldn’t it be nice to find the fifth in your attic? Depictions of Santa Claus are traditionally quite collectible, probably because they are so recognizable, and because so many people hold a special sort of nostalgia for these images. This is due at least in part to that poem, which gave to children everywhere such a vivid depiction of Santa’s arrival, and captured so well the anticipation and excitement associated with the Christmas holiday. Perhaps an interest in reliving this excitement is part of why collecting Christmas-related items is such a popular hobby.
I referenced colors associated with holidays a few times above. Well-established holidays always seem to have a color scheme: Valentine’s Day has red; Easter has pastels; Independence Day has red, white, and blue; St. Patrick’s Day has green; Christmas has red and green; Halloween has orange and black. These colors, sometimes almost all on their own, can help link a collection visually. Chances are that an image of Santa Claus in a red suit is going to be more desirable to collectors than one of an earlier version of Santa (Cinder Clause, St. Nicolas, etc.) in a green, brown or blue suit, and that is because the iconography is part of the nostalgia that collectors are buying. We each have a very vivid picture of what a holiday looks and feels like to us, and when we are searching for and buying things associated with that feeling, we are going to tend towards those predispositions more often than not. This is an important thing to keep in mind when choosing items for your collection. Ultimately it is up to you what themes you want to focus on when building your collection, but color is a good place to start, especially for a holiday-themed collection, because it provides a built-in narrative thread that weaves everything together.
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
Something to be wary of when collecting in popular areas is lack of discernment. Without a bit of discipline, it is very possible to accumulate large quantities of items that are, at the end of the day, quite common and relatively unremarkable. While collecting is not primarily about value, it remains the case that all but the most fortunate of us have limited space and financial resources, and that hoarding anything and everything that relates directly or peripherally to our collecting interest strains these limits. An over-abundance of common items in a collection also has the effect of drawing attention away from the truly special items. For these reasons, I would urge collectors to adopt a set of criteria to use when acquiring new items, and to reevaluate these criteria periodically as the collection grows. I will talk more about this in a future blog post, as creating, modifying, and enforcing these criteria can be a very complicated and personal process.
next time, happy hunting!
Jonathan Smalter owns Yesterday’s Muse Books, located at 32 West Main Street in Webster, and online at www.yesterdaysmuse.com. His bookstore has been in operation for ten years, and he has nearly twenty years of experience in the book trade. He is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and the Independent Online Booksellers Association, and currently serves as the head organizer of the annual Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair.