After a bit of a hiatus…here we are finally on letter E! Thanks so much for sticking with me. Selling Vintage A to Z is really one of my favorite series and you can see the collection of former posts (A to D) by clicking here.
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So yes, today we are discussing EPHEMERA. I do think I had a bit of a mental block on doing this post because it is such a HUGE topic. I think I was at a loss on how to approach this topic and still provide value so I kept putting it off!
But…how do you eat an elephant?? One bite at a time.
So let’s take this big topic and break it down a bit.
What is Ephemera and Why Should I be Interested?
The overall idea of ephemera is something that doesn’t last a long time. Ephemeral beauty anyone? If we give ol’ Merriam Webster a quick look we see a bit more specific meaning given:
“2. paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles”
Ah-ha! We see why we are interested! “Paper items that were meant to be discarded after use” — and in most cases probably were. What does that mean? It means the pieces that did survive are more rare! And in some instances rarity will affect value.
Which brings us to the second half of that sentence…”but have since become collectibles“. This is not going to be true of every piece of paper that has ever been saved by anyone. There still has to be a certain amount of common interest. Items connected to famous people, famous places, places that are still in existence but have changed, and places or attractions that are still part of people’s collective memory will hold the most value.
Vintage Cat Photo from Papers of the Past on Etsy (a great ephemera shop!)
Also, think of paper items that possibly give a glimpse into life in the past. Old photos probably come to mind. Fashion, jewelry, decor and old cars are a few of the things that collectors love to examine old photos for. Now it’s true, old photos were not technically meant to be discarded after use, but we can add in paper items like this to our overall theme. Just the nature of their makeup..paper, cardboard, etc….makes them fragile and vulnerable. Again…scarcity can affect value.
Examples of Ephemera Categories
There are many different ways a seller of vintage could go in sourcing and selling ephemera. Here are some I’ve come across (and have had a little experience with).
Book plates (from damaged and falling apart books).
I have actually had an entire Etsy store based on this and I still have a lot of the inventory. Old books that have seen better days are fairly easy to come by and many of them have color plates or illustrations that people want for framing and decor. We did best with juvenile books and very specific subject books…such as in the mechanical or technical fields. That shop is on vacation right now (only so much time in a day) but you can see the types of items we sold if you click here.
Photo cred: PBS Antiques Roadshow
You may immediately think of movie posters or band posters and those can definitely be profitable. But there are a few other types that may not immediately spring to mind. School posters, work safety posters, travel posters (Antiques Roadshow anyone?), motivational posters and advertising posters.
One of my bucket list BOLOs (Be On the LookOut) items in this category is a vintage Apple Computers poster.
Me: What is your favorite type of ephemera to sell?
Mitzi: I’ve sold all types but posters and prints are what I tend to deal with the most… They can be good sellers, and I just really like them – especially illustrated ones, I enjoy the retro illustrations a lot.
Me: What was your favorite/best selling score/sale?
Mitzi: I found a box of posters that I originally thought were like promotional posters for the different departments of a school, they were really unique. After a bit of research I discovered they were actually the 1967 yearbook for the Pratt Institute, a college in New York. I actually was able to chat with one of the artists who worked on the project, and my blog post about them went a little bit viral – which of course led to the posters basically flying off my virtual shelves.
Me: Why do you like selling ephemera?
Mitzi: Well it can be super interesting, which is always fun, but it is also very easy to handle – easy to photo, easy to store, and easy to ship. It doesn’t take up much room either which is a big plus.
Me: Where do you find it ephemera to sell?
Mitzi: Estate sales, flea markets, yard sales, online auctions, and sometimes I can find a set or lot of something on eBay or Etsy that I can break up and sell individually.
Thanks so much for the insights! You can find Mitzi’s current blog here:
Vintage Goodness – A Blog for all the Vintage Geeks
Think about it. You get a postcard in the mail. You read it. You stick it on the fridge. After a bit it gets thrown in the junk drawer. Eventually, when you’re in spring cleaning beast mode…it gets tossed. Or you’re on vacation…you enthusiastically gather up postcards to send to friends and family or to save in a scrapbook. They get thrown in your vacation tote….and that’s as far as it goes. Later they meet the same fate as the ones in your junk drawer. Classic ephemera definition.
I’ve seen boxes of them at vintage shows and flea markets…but didn’t really know what to look for.
So I was intrigued when I came across a fellow member of one of the Facebook groups I’m in (The Thrifting Board), who makes a great income selling postcards and sells about 6000 cards a year. Check out his shop: Popeye’s Postcards where he currently has about 18,000 postcards listed.
Here’s the lowdown from John himself:
“In all reality, postcards are mostly a high volume low price item. My average selling price is about $7 per postcard But, I sell about 600 postcards a month and my average cost per card is around $.25. So, it’s a great profit margin. They are easy to pack and ship. I can pull/pack/ship about 40 cards in an hour. Also easy to list as I can get about 50 new listings ready in about an hour using a 3rd party listing tool.”
And of course, the chance of hitting it out of the park is always out there, such as this NYC postcard that John sold for over $500.
It’s those stories that keep us resellers going!!
Want to learn more? John Miller was a recent guest on the YouTube show Thrifty Business with Jason T Smith. (yes, same show I was a guest on about a year and a half ago). You can click here to see his episode! Such great info!
We’ve had success selling maps of states and countries…individual pages from old atlases. I sold some directly on Instagram back in the day. These are great sellers!
But other maps to keep an eye out for are vintage gas station maps. Back in the day when traveling the country in your car was a popular pastime…you could pick up colorful maps for free at a gas station. Other businesses also gave away highway maps. People collect these as well.
This list could go on all day. Keep an eye out for vintage restaurant or cruise ship menus and placemats; matchbooks; receipts; invoices; military related paperwork; tickets – (concert, airline, railroad, movies); playbills and travel brochures (check out Disney ephemera!).
Also: vintage flashcards; handwritten recipe cards; greeting cards; labels – (cigar, medicine bottle, grocery); old letterhead stationery (especially hotels); vintage stickers (scratch and sniff!); advertising giveaway booklets; catalogs; public service booklets and vintage business cards.
Even if an item doesn’t seem worth listing individually, sometimes several items in the same theme can be lotted up. Also, “lots” of paper ephemera are often sold to crafters and scrapbookers on Etsy and Ebay.
So seriously, don’t ignore the paper! At estate sales, check out the junk drawers, the desk drawers, the office. And don’t forget your own house and attics! You never know what paper treasure you might unearth.