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An introduction to collecting ephemera


What is Ephemera, and does it matter?

Exhibits of ephemera will be on display at Spring Stampex 2018 for the first time. Here, postal historian and ephemera exeprt and dealer John Scott provides an introduction to the subject…

The classic definition of ephemera is a transient document of everyday life.

Today a bus ticket, if you can still find one printed on paper, would be a classic example, and two centuries ago it would have been a stage coach or toll road ticket. Such commonplace, small and insignificant pieces of paper were seldom kept and consequently they are now among the scarcer collectables, although still cheap by philatelic standards.

A postage stamp is also an ephemeral item as it has no useful purpose, other than to a collector, once it has served to evidence payment for a letter in the postal service. Other ephemeral documents such as invoices and dinner menus may have been retained after serving their initial purpose, either to evidence a monetary transaction or to serve as a memory of an event in the life of the recipient.

In isolation a postage stamp, or even a piece of postal history, has limited appeal to those who have not been bitten by this particular bug. However, by setting the item in its social and historical context you bring to life the very reason for its purpose and its survival. That is the principal reason why ephemera is so important to the philatelist and why this Stampex sees its inclusion among the competitive exhibits for the first time.

While the vast bulk of ephemera has no connection with our hobby, the very fact of writing a letter created another ephemeral layer. The paper on which a letter was written, or the envelope in which it was enclosed, or the wax or wafer used to seal the missive, are all items of ephemera in their own right.

While philatelists are accustomed to studying watermarks on stamp paper, on writing paper they may tell you where the paper was made, by whom it was manufactured and the year of production. If a letter bears no other year, then that narrows down the possibilities as paper was an expensive and fragile commodity which did not bear lengthy storage.

If you are curious about life in days gone by, a growing passion in itself, then both the text and the images on an ephemeral document bring the story to life and, in the days before photography are often the only idea we have as to what a person, a product or a building looked like at the time when the first postmark was used in 1661 or the first postage stamp in 1840.

The carriage of a letter from one place to another relied upon the existence of a whole raft of ephemera, from the way bills for the mail bags to the receipt upon delivery. Ship letters are much sought after and those from the smaller ports carry a price to match their scarcity but you try to find the printed document which the ship’s captain had to hand over on arrival and it may be like searching for the end of the rainbow.

So, ephemera really does matter to us as collectors and has a vital role to play in completing the jigsaw which enables the whole picture to be seen.

However, finding the object of your desires, and even being aware that it exists, is no easy task. The fact that ephemera has been ignored relative to philately means that all but the most sought after pieces cost a small fraction of their worth and well below the minimum auction threshold.

The Ephemera Society was founded in 1975 by the late Maurice Rickards with the aim of bringing like-minded collectors together and their twice yearly ephemera fairs in London are one of the few occasions where the leading dealers and collectors come together for their mutual benefit.

Maurice was also the author of the bible for ephemerists, The Encylopedia of Ephemera, which includes definitions of Postal History, Postal Labels, Postal Stationery and Postcards. Ironically philately makes its appearance as a sub-set of postal history whereas most philatelists would see the relationship in reverse.   

Hopefully the inclusion of ephemera at Stampex will help to bring us all closer together and give us greater understanding of the mutual benefits that can result.

Visit Stampex International at the Business Design Centre, Islington between 14 and 17 February 2018.Stampex 2018



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