Ideas for the Beginning Collector

Often the world of collecting is prohibitive to some (or many, depending on the material), because the values of items in particular subject areas are high, and do not tend to trend downward. Collecting fine art, ‘high spots’ of American literature, or incunabula, for instance, often requires deep pockets. So, if you are not lucky enough to have a trust fund or a handful of successful start-ups under your belt, but you have a strong interest in collecting, what avenues are there for you to explore? Not to worry! There are many accessible areas of collecting for you.

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Every collector needs to start somewhere, and it is often difficult to decide where that should be. There are so many things to collect, and so many ways to collect them, that it can be a bit overwhelming to contemplate. This article will break down a few common collecting areas within the world of ephemera to help you decide what speaks to you and what sort of collection you would like to build.


One area of collecting that I would recommend as a great starting point is postcards. The collection of postcards is known as deltiology, and became a popular hobby in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Smithsonian Institution Archives).

post card

Postcards represent a diversity of subject matter, visual styles, printing methods, and value. As such, starting a collection is not cost prohibitive, and locating new material to purchase is relatively easy. Because there is such a wide array of postcards, it is also possible to develop a collection with a very specific focus. For these reasons, postcards offer an enjoyable collecting experience for beginners, though the sheer variety and quantity of postcards in existence still provides a reasonable level of challenge for experienced collectors interested in filling out the hard-to-find examples within their collecting focus.

Another advantage to postcards is ease of storage. Archival supplies are easy to find and inexpensive, and a diversity of organizational methods are possible (e.g., binders, thumb-indexed boxes). Because they are lightweight and compact, they are also very portable, and rearranging your collection to accommodate new acquisitions is relatively simply.

Postcard History

The first United States copyright for a postcard was issued in 1861, to John P. Charlton. As early as about fifteen years before this, ‘mailed cards’ were sent through the mail, but these are not considered true postcards. During the period of mailed cards, envelopes were often printed with images on them, and some believe these envelopes led to the later development of postcards. Government-issued postcards followed in 1872, and private mail postcards were approved by Congress in 1898. The words ‘post card,’ however, did not appear on these cards until 1901 (previous to this, only government-issued cards were allowed to be called ‘postal cards’). Once postcards became popular, designs evolved to include ‘divided backs,’ (1907) which ushered in a golden age that lasted until 1915. Other important periods in the history of postcards include the ‘white border period’ (1915-1930), the ‘linen period’ (1930-1945), and the photochrom period (1945-present). (Smithsonian Institution Archives).

So, the heyday of postcards lasted under a hundred years (in the United States, at least), and these were a particularly important range of years: the American Civil War; the industrial revolution; the invention of important technologies such as the automobile and the airplane; World War I; World War II; the invention and rapid development of photography; the evolution of the United States postal system… all these factors lend the collecting of postcards greater interest, because these pieces of ephemera provide interesting snapshots of moments representative of these historical events. What’s more (at least in the case of used/postmarked cards), they tie large-scale historical events to the lives of individuals.

Here are a few categories of postcards that may strike your fancy:

Holiday Cards

Postcards with graphics representing holidays are a good starting point. Most of these are highly decorative and colorful, and they have a wide-ranging appeal. Christmas, Easter, and Valentine’s Day postcards are particularly popular. Postcards with images of Santa Claus are especially prized.


Articulated Postcards

Unlike most types of ephemera, postcards sometimes include moving components, similar to pop-up books or other animated paper publications. These are less common than most postcards, so it may be trickier to build a collection. Because they have moving parts, they are also more prone to damage, so it is a good idea to make sure those you buy are complete: check for any loss within the moving components, and inspect them for tears or chips that might worsen in the future.

Unusual Postmarks or Stamps

While postcards are interesting for their images, they are also examples of postal history. For this reason, collectors of stamps and covers will sometimes have an interest in certain postcards. This area of postcard collecting is somewhat more complicated, as there is a lot of information to learn regarding the history of postmarks and which examples are more difficult to find. Finding rarities in this collecting area, though, can be more rewarding, as there will be interested buyers from several collecting areas instead of just one.

Real Photo Postcards

First produced using a Kodak postcard camera, these were divided back cards paired with original photographs. Due to the method of production, some of these postcards were ‘one-offs’, and unique items are always a big draw for collectors. Many collectors focus on real photo cards depicting certain things (e.g., trains, their hometown, nautical images, etc.). This is another area where there is some overlap with other collecting areas (collectors of photographs will have some interest in real photo cards).


A while back I was fortunate enough to acquire a large collection of material related to World War I. This included numerous historical books treating the event as a whole; military publications on unit histories, army training and strategy; trench art; medals; letters; and posters. Among the items that I found most compelling were the posters advertising war bonds. Many of them featured vibrant artwork, some by known artists such as Howard Chandler Christy and E.M Ashe. This sort of item has appeal for military collectors, collectors focusing on the graphic arts, and those interested in American history on the home front.


Posters are, of course, a much broader category: there are posters advertising movies, bands, branded merchandise, cities, tourist attractions, etc., etc. Like war bond posters, these sometimes featured the work of known artists or photographers. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a Post-Impressionist painter, was also well known for his posters, most notably for the Moulin Rouge cabaret. Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, produced advertising for Essomarine, and later worked for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board designing posters.


Broadsides are similar to posters, but generally were produced in a smaller format, and were sometimes double-sided. These could be used to advertise all sorts of events, from poetry readings to concerts to auctions. They were sometimes also used to spread news about current events, including political and social movements or protests. I currently have in my inventory broadsides advertising: a local baseball game; a country store; a book of poetry; and a 4th of July celebration. In the past I have had broadsides related to labor disputes, the proposed formation of a local bank representing the interests of coal miners, railroad operations, union organization, the tenth New York infantry, and a livestock auction.

The good thing about posters and broadsides is that, in most cases, they were designed to be discarded, sometimes within a very short amount of time after their production. This lends a sort of built in scarcity to them (though those initially produced in large quantities would be an exception to this rule). Be careful about reproductions, though: some broadsides with historical significance have been reproduced for sale as gift shop items (the Constitution is a great example), and these reproductions have little value in comparison to the originals from which they were copied.


Most businesses and professional organizations will create some sort of printed materials during their lifetime. Sports teams and theatre troupes produce programs; breweries produce coasters, menus, draft lists, and kitschy signs; bookstores and other merchants produce catalogs; etc. This is a great way to enter the world of collecting, because you can focus on hobbies or forms of spectator entertainment that appeal to you. Again, these are often items that are quickly discarded, so you can be fairly certain they are not too common, which of course adds to the fun of hunting them down. If you are a sports enthusiast, getting these items signed by players can add another layer of challenge to building your collection.



Correspondence is somewhat different than other areas of ephemera, in that locating a sufficient amount of correspondence between two individuals can form a very detailed story, and even paint important historical events in a new light. For this reason some find this area of collecting very rewarding. Due to their personal nature, letters are often retained (for a generation, at least), and stored together in a one location, which means the possibility of locating archives of letters is not as remote as finding related groupings of other types of ephemera. Often they are signed and/or dated, and include the original mailing envelopes, which can provide additional information about chronology and relation to other events. A couple important terms to remember when collecting letters: ALS and TLS, which stand for Autograph Letter Signed and Typed Letter Signed. In this context, ‘autograph’ means ‘in the author’s own handwriting,’ and serves to distinguish a handwritten letter from one produced on a typewriter or word processor.


If images are of more interest to you than text, prints may be something to explore. There are many different types of prints (too many for me to enumerate here), but there are great resources for this information online and in printed reference works. My two favorite formats are steel engravings and chromolithographs, and there are many examples of these running the gamut of subject matter.


Cartography is a wide-ranging area for collectors, as maps were printed in a variety of formats (e.g., fold-out maps for use in books; plat maps; wall maps). Some are color, others are black-and-white. Maps can represent geography, topography, regional statistics, etc. Differences in maps from certain time periods provide a glimpse of exploration, politics, scientific progress, military history, and even superstitions. A good place to start here is local maps, as they will provide you with a basis for understanding the methods of production and the vocabulary associated with maps.


A Few General Collecting Tips


Whatever you decide to begin collecting, try to have a consistent focus. It is very easy to venture off the path, as you will constantly encounter material unrelated to your collecting focus, and inevitably some of it will be interesting. You will quickly discover that it is very important to learn what not to buy. If you find that you have difficulty with maintaining discipline, perhaps this means you should redefine the focus of your collection, or that you are really interested in having multiple collections. I often see collections that were accumulated indiscriminately rather than carefully selected, and they tend to be filled with items that were acquired not because they fit the collection, but merely because they were readily available; or, if they do fit the collection, they are in poor condition, and should have been passed over in favor of better examples.

2 mil REGULAR Postcard Sleeve

REGULAR Postcard Sleeve. 3-5/8 x 5-5/8″. 2 mil POLYETHYLENE. NO flap.

While initially this is not too problematic, given enough time you will find yourself running low on storage space, and possibly money; what’s worse, when you try to make room for more, you will find that those items that were not so carefully chosen are the ones you have little or no luck selling to other collectors or to dealers.


I have made this point in earlier posts, but it bears repeating. Talk to fellow collectors and to dealers as often as you can. They will likely share a few handy tricks, and they will probably also be good sources of new material. This seems obvious with regard to dealers, as it is their job to find things for customers, but fellow collectors are also shopping regularly, and sometimes encounter things they do not need. If they know what you have, and what you are still seeking, chances are they will be happy to quickly flip things they find to you – after all, that’s more money for them to spend on building their own collection.

This works both ways, of course: once you know the dealers and collectors working within your area of focus, you are in a good position to make beneficial trades and sell material that you no longer need.


In the grand scheme of things, there are not many items you will have the opportunity to buy that you will never see for sale again. Do your best not to let the excitement of finding something interesting lead to you overpaying (auctions are particularly dangerous), overlooking flaws, or neglecting due diligence with regard to authenticity (whether of the item itself, or of signatures). Collecting is about having a long-term plan, and executing it as effectively as possible within your financial means. It is not a race to reach a particular point, or a competition against other collectors. Keeping these things in mind will help you make sure that building your collection is always a positive experience, and not a source of stress or anxiety.

Until next time, happy hunting!

Jonathan Smalter owns Yesterday’s Muse Books, located at 32 West Main Street in Webster, and online at 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.