What is Ephemera?

An overview by Jonathan Smalter of Yesterday’s Muse Books

Other articles by Jonathan Smalter

As a professional bookseller, I sort through all sorts of ephemera as part of my daily work: posters; broadsides; photographs; postcards; typed letters; trade cards; stamps; magazine and newspaper advertisements; manuscript correspondence; and all manner of interfoliata (I’ll touch on what that last one is in a later post). It makes sense that someone such as myself, dealing in examples of printed material, would happen upon these sorts of things as well. What exactly is ephemera, though? What makes everything on this list fall into the same large category? What similarities are there to books and other collecting fields, and how is that information useful to buyers and sellers? How does one preserve and display such things, and how is this different than other sorts of collectibles?

Movie posters like these are prime examples of Ephemera. Originally intended for temporary display, they have become collectors items over time.

Technically, the word ephemera refers to any sort of collectible that was produced with only short-term use in mind, but it is primarily used to describe written or printed material, which is what I will be discussing here. Fun fact: the word is the plural form of ‘ephemeron’, which is Greek for ‘lasting only a day’. I feel confident in saying, though, that you won’t hear the singular form any time soon, just like you won’t hear about anyone seeking a memorabilis or knowing a trivium. The term ephemera is, then, less of a reference to what an item is, and more of a comment on what it was for, how it was made and used, and the likelihood that it would be treated similarly to other pieces of personal or commercial property. It encompasses the myriad items that most would agree were destined to be discarded, often almost immediately.

The goal of most serious collectors is to purchase items in as close to perfect condition as possible. They are preserving the item, but in a sense, they are also preserving the moment at which it was created. As such, the fleeting purpose of ephemera makes it particularly fascinating to collect. By nature, these items were not intended to be kept, so the most economical methods of production available were used, and they are often fragile or particularly susceptible to deterioration. Part of the fun becomes hunting down the best examples of things that were either intentionally destroyed, unintentionally damaged, or forgotten to the ravages of time (and moisture and insects). Common types of damage (e.g., folds or thumb tack holes in posters) become unwelcome in all but the rarest pieces, and premiums are charged for items that are in unusually good condition, or for items that are complete when most examples on the market are not. Preservation of one’s ‘finds’ in the condition they were found is an important concern.


So far, this sounds similar to book collecting. For instance, it is well known that books including their original dust jackets are more valuable than examples without them (probably the most prominent example of this is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: jacket-less copies of the first edition, while still sought after, bring about 5% of the price of first editions including the iconic jacket), and of course a copy in excellent condition will bring a higher price than one with significant flaws (all other things being equal). The same factors inform the value of each, as well: demand and scarcity. As any good economics student knows, when supply goes down and demand remains constant, price increases, and when supply remains constant and demand goes down, price decreases. In other words, you can have the only example of something, but if no one wants it it’s worth nothing; conversely, you can have something most people want, but if there a million examples available, it’s worth very little. Almost all books were printed in an edition of multiple copies, usually at least 500, and more often in the thousands or tens of thousands. Books by bestselling authors like James Patterson number in the millions. Ephemera, by contrast, most often appears in more limited quantities, with many more unique items (in the word’s true sense of one-of-a-kind, not just interesting or unusual).

Because books and paper ephemera are produced from similar materials, terminology used to evaluate them is similar. Collectors in both areas will understand the distinction between ‘fine’ and ‘near fine’ and know that ‘good’ is not as positive a word when describing condition as it is in most other contexts. The accepted hierarchy of condition grades in the book world, in order from best to worst, is as follows:

Near Fine
Very Good

These are often used to describe ephemera as well, though sometimes condition grades originally meant for other types of collectibles have been co-opted. For example, comic book grading employs the word ‘mint’ in a number of its grades, despite the fact that this is a reference to the ‘mint state’ of coins, indicating that they have not been circulated. Books and printed material, since they were never minted, should not be described using this term. In most situations, buyers and sellers of ephemera should have at least a passing familiarity with the above terms, and how flaws should be interpreted when assigning a condition grade to an item. For a more detailed description of each condition grade as it pertains to books and general ephemera, I would recommend the following link:


and for a more exhaustive selection of terminology:


Since comic books, as mentioned above, are a bit different, I would recommend going by the Overstreet grading criteria, which is available through various sources online, or in print as part of the regularly released Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide.

But books can be stored in the same way they are displayed: on shelves; many pieces of ephemera are single pieces of paper (often small ones), which complicates how to display, preserve, and organize them. In many ways the challenges presented by the format of these items are the same challenges that make them ephemeral in the first place: the difficulty of finding a proper, safe place for something results in it being tossed in a drawer, left in a stack of other items on a desk, or simply tossed out in frustration, and that difficulty does not go away once the item is rescued and becomes part of a collection. What’s more, the collector feels an obligation to preserve that thing, which already was almost lost once. At the very least, they need to be protect it against the various sorts of deterioration that can occur over time. Ideally, they will also take steps to ensure that it can be handled without causing damage.


First, then, we need to know what those threats are. Here is a brief list of some condition problems to which certain types of ephemera commonly fall victim, as well as a few that affect all types of paper items:

Non-Archival Materials:

Newspapers are printed on extremely cheap paper and are notoriously prone to toning (see below), and eventually become very brittle and nearly impossible to handle without causing further damage. Comic books often use cheap paper as well, and are usually published in stapled bindings. In the wrong environment, the paper can deteriorate more rapidly, and the staples can rust.

Anything written or printed on paper is susceptible to toning, foxing, and transfer. Toning is uniform discoloration of the paper caused by the reaction of chemicals in the paper to the surrounding air. It is usually a larger problem in paper with high acid content or that is otherwise cheaply made. Foxing is a chemical reaction that causes a pattern of spotting, usually yellow or brown. It is also more prevalent in lower quality paper. Transfer occurs when ink on a printed or handwritten page degrades enough to impress an image of itself on a facing page. Unfortunately, tissue guards designed to protect images in books from transferring to text pages (and vice versa) are particularly prone to foxing.

Adhesives can also be problematic from a preservation standpoint. Cheap glues eventually dry out and fail. Other adhesives discolor over time, including those used in the clear tape so many people choose when attempting to repair documents and other paper materials. Anyone who has ever seen an old library book with a protective cover taped onto it knows how this tape ends up looking in the end. Stickers are equally problematic, and the longer they have been on an item the more difficult they can be to remove. Sometimes a blow dryer will do the trick to loosen up the glue, other times a solvent is required (be careful, don’t use anything that can stain the paper!).

Acidic paper, staples, tape, and a host of other things that can degrade over time are what the trade calls ‘non-archival’ materials. Where possible, I recommend avoiding them. However, many items were produced using non-archival materials, so the next best thing is to employ archival materials in their preservation, which I will discuss further below.

Environmental Factors:

Mold and mildew are also concerns for paper items. Controlling humidity is important, but more so than this, it is critical to control the temperature. Large swings in temperature wreak havoc on paper items, which is a shame considering how many of them are relegated to attics and basements, the two areas of houses most susceptible to these fluctuations (not to mention, basements are prone to flooding).

Also See: How to detect mold, how to get rid of it, and how to prevent it.

Perhaps one of my favorite euphemistic descriptions is ‘biopredation’, which refers to damage caused by something chewing on an item. This is usually insect damage (the word ‘bookworm’ is a general term used for various insects responsible for these acts of vandalism); but in particularly bad storage situations mice and other rodents have been known to munch away the edges of things.

Damage from Use, Storage, Transportation, or Accident:

Posters, broadsides, maps, and other items originally designed to be displayed on walls often have damage to the corners from adhesive or pins. They are often found rolled or folded, and if stored folded for too long, or folded too many times, can begin to tear and chip along the folds. Letters are almost always folded, the exceptions being ones that were not sent through the mail, or ones sent in larger envelopes (usually because other items were also included in the same package).

The list of ways items can be accidentally damaged is too long to include here, but some common ones are: ring stains caused by poorly placed cups and mugs, ‘tide marks’ caused by spilled liquids, writing on the exterior or interior, dog-eared corners, and torn or chipped edges. I commonly see garage and estate sale prices, sometimes written directly on the item, other times written on a sticker or tape. Previous owners may have marked their property with a name, or done a bit of arithmetic on the piece of paper that was most ready-to-hand at the time.


So, if we manage to find things that have escaped the injuries listed above, how do we go about making sure these treasures stay rescued? These things liberated from shoeboxes, pulled from old forgotten file folders, carefully removed from dusty albums, need more permanent homes, places in which they are in less danger of being forgotten again. Here are some tips on how to avoid the types of damage described above.

Archival Materials:

Poster Sized Archival Mylar (Polyester) Sleeve with Archival Backer (click for info)

Many products are available today that are designed to protect collectibles. For paper items, I highly recommend archival sleeves, preferably paired with some sort of backer (make sure this is also an archival material!). These provide protection against direct contact with a variety of damaging things (dirty or sweaty hands, errant food and beverages, etc.), while also offering some structural stability. A wide range of sizes, thicknesses, and qualities of sleeves exist. If you are framing a piece, make sure to invest in glass that protects against UV rays, or you will find out (too late!) that prolonged exposure to light causes fading or discoloration. Do a bit of research to find what best suits your situation, fits within your budget, and includes the features you deem most important. Things to avoid: tape, acidic paper, stickers, non-archival boxes or display cases.

Climate Control:

Keeping items clean, dry, and in a climate-controlled location will help them stand the test of time. Mold and mildew need heat to grow, so aim for a temperature under 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and keep the temperature as consistent as possible. Large drops in temperature can cause moisture in the air to condense onto the item or its container, and if the air heats back up again mold and mildew are happy to take advantage of that environment. Attics and basements should be avoided unless heating, air conditioning, and dehumidification solutions are in place (and even then, if there is any danger your basement may flood, avoid it for that reason). Keep the area surrounding your collection clean and uncluttered as well. This will discourage biopredation, all the culprits of which enjoy a good mess.

Care and Caution:

The most important factor in preserving items is proper handling. I would venture to guess that more collectibles are damaged through improper handling or transportation than any other factor. Learn how to properly handle the things you collect, and always lift and move them slowly and carefully. Avoid storing or handling items in areas that are unclean or cluttered. It’s very easy to set something down on a surface that didn’t appear to be sticky or wet but was, to knock over a glass of wine or water, or to handle something improperly because there wasn’t enough room to do it the right way. Even with the requisite care, everyone makes mistakes, so hedge your bets: store and display your collection in a way that takes into account what might go wrong. I will stress again the importance of archival sleeves, and explain why backers are a good idea: a good piece of archival cardstock can take an impact that would have severely damaged the corner of a pamphlet or poster, and absorb it. It’s best to use a backer that is larger than the item so that there are ‘crumple zones’ along the perimeter. Don’t store heavy items in difficult to reach locations. Avoid stacking things, especially if they are in sleeves (they are slippery!). Avoid mixing items of different sizes and weights where possible. Stay as organized as you can. The more you break your own rules for how things are stored, the likelier it is something will go wrong. So, proceed with caution, but…


I will continue to post more here about ephemera, with tips on buying, selling, storage, and display, so keep an eye out. Until next time, happy hunting!

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