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Ephemera...What is ephemera?

ephem-era | \ i-ˈfe-mər-ə , -ˈfem-rə \

plural ephemera also ephemerae\ i-ˈfe-mər-ē , -ˈfem-rē \ or ephemeras

Definition of ephemera

1 : something of no lasting significance -usually used in plural

2 ephemera plural : paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles

Restaurant or diner paper placemat designed by the Nelsons of Stony Brook from the collection of TVHS

“It comes to us through Latin from the Greek epi (about), and hemeris (day)...The word, ephemera, is used to denote the transient everyday items of paper-mostly printed-that are manufactured specifically to use and throw away...Above and beyond its immediate purpose, it expresses a fragment of social history, a reflection of the spirit of its time..(Rickards, Maurice, This is Ephemera: Collecting Printed Throwaways, Grossamer Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1977)

At the time of his death in 1998 Maurice Rickards was working on a much more detailed work about ephemera. In 2000 his The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian was published, having been edited and completed by his associates. This 400+ page book contains over 1000 categories of ephemera with detailed descriptions, histories, and examples. This new volume reflects an expansion of the “categories of ephemera that have emerged since the 1980s” but, as pointed out by the authors, is by no means a complete list. “Another important aspect of ephemera…is the fascination they hold for the collector, either for their content, their appearance, or both. There is, of course, a link between the use of ephemera as evidential material by historians and the interests of collectors…..Collectors provide a useful service in preserving items and, thereafter, making them available for historians to study.”

As with many collection categories there is an organization for collectors of ephemera. In 1975 The Ephemera Society was founded in the UK by Maurice Rickards.

In 1980 the Ephemera Society of America (ESA) evolved “to serve as a link between and among collectors, archivists, researchers and dealers, and to encourage interest in all aspects of vintage paper.” The organization hosts an annual conference and Ephemera Fair in Old Greenwich, CT. Checkout this link for some great examples of ephemera and other information.

How, what and where to collect?

Where can you find ephemera? Check out your local antique shop, flea market, online auction site, or specialty collector’s fair.

With so many choices how could one get started collecting? Think about a particular topic.

An example of just one of the many themes of cigarette or tobacco trade cards. (front and back)

If you love gardening how about collecting gardening or flower related items. For example,

seed packets, catalogues, trade cards, or cigarette cards.

Of course, many of the specific categories have their own collecting organizations. Paper and postcards have a huge following with shows throughout the country with several shows a year in Manhattan and the tri-state area. There is also a Long Island Postcard Club.

What do you like to collect? Search the internet for your favorite collection topic and look for organizations or collector’s groups.

From the obvious to the obscure, ephemera has something for everyone. Among some of the categories that are readily identifiable:

Advertising material including posters, trade cards, labels, etc.

Advertising postcard 1961 from the collection of TVHS

Broadsides & posters

Business related items including billheads, bills & receipts, letterhead, stock certificates, etc.

There is some wonderful artwork found on old billheads, stationery, stock certificates, etc.

Receipt July 2, 1900 from the collections of TVHS.

Stock certificate 1911 from the collection of TVHS

Business cards and calling cards


Catalogue ca. 1958 from the collection of TVHS

Cigarette cards

What is a cigarette card? Learn about them and the huge variety of topics and themes within this category.

Actors and literary figures were favorite topics. Private collection.

Greeting cards - holidays, birthday, etc.

Magazines, Newspapers, etc.

True Detective magazine Nov. 1938 from the collection of TVHS


Collection of TVHS

Collection of TVHS


Whether it is a restaurant menu, the menu for a banquet or other special dinner or celebration, whether handwritten or printed, or perhaps from a European cruise, think of the information that can be gleamed by the historian or the researcher- changes or trends in cuisine, the evolution of ethnic foods and culture, food costs, and even the artwork on a menu. The New York Public Library has a collection of over 17,500 menus which are currently being transcribed and indexed “dish by dish”. Check out their collection at

Do you remember this popular Stony Brook restaurant? From the collection of TVHS


There are so many topics to choose and a category for everyone, from your hometown to those of your ancestors, holidays, animals, people, transportation, specific types of buildings i.e. hotels, outhouses (yes, even outhouses), etc. Most dealers will have their cards arranged in categories for easy browsing. For some ideas on how to get started and what to look for

Postmarked 1939. Collection of TVHS

These types of “Greetings from…” postcards are referred to as Fake Scenery cards as they are not an actual scene in the community. These stock images could be stamped for any town. Postmarked 1917, collection TVHS.

Engine 38 when it stood on the grounds of the Long Island Museum. From the collection of TVHS

Postmarked 1909. Collection of THVS

Real Estate brochures

Crane Neck Farm sales brochure ca 1945 from the collection of TVHS
Strathmore at Stony Brook sales brochure 1966 from the collection of TVHS

School items - report cards, graduation programs, newspapers, etc.

8th Grade graduation program and class roll (below) from the collection of TVHS

Seed packets

Seed packets, private collection

Sports-programs, tickets, etc.

Tickets-transportation, movies, concerts, theater, sporting events, etc.

Trade cards

1000s of topics to choose from for specific products, companies, occupations, illustrations, comic themes, nursery rhymes, etc. There were stock image cards which individual businesses could choose from and personalize with their own business name, etc. such as the Willis & Snow and Stryker cards below. Therefore, you can find the same design used by multiple businesses from multiple locations. Large companies such as J. P. Coats had their own specific designs. These cards were often collected at the time they were produced and pasted into scrapbooks. Cards often came in a series so collectors look to complete the set.

front and back (below) of trade card. This type of stock card would be printed for each specific business, private collection

J & P Coats thread, private collection

Comic cat card for carriage builder, private collection

Granite Ironware, private collection.

Transportation related items-time tables, maps, travel brochures, automobile brochures, etc.

1963 LIRR time schedule from the collection of TVHS

And countless other topics....

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Hello I recently came into a variety of vintage sheet music for piano and violin,in excellent condition,,along with many, vintage European postcards,etc,I really enjoy collecting, thanks sam

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