Friday, July 07, 2006
Ephemera -- Excavating For Treasure
To me a great evening at home is a box of ephemera the size of Rhode Island and a glass of chilled pinot grigio. There’s magic in life’s flotsam and jetsam – letters, postcards, instruction manuals for 1940’s pressure cookers, receipts for the sale of cows, holy cards from great-grandma’s funeral in 1918 -- and I am totally caught in its thrall. Ephemera is my guilty pleasure, a sneak peek into the dresser drawers, cupboards, basements and attics of strangers, a chance to time-travel back to eras defined, at least in part, by what their people saved, bought, and had to say about their lives and times.
Of course not all this stuff has great monetary value, or even any monetary value at all, but some of it does and it’s these gems which make me feel like an archeologist digging deep to find an untouched sarcophagus. The good news is I am happy to wait for a big find, as I enjoy even the smallest shard unearthed along the way. What I don’t sell I keep for collage, as I am also an amateur dabbler in the art of the altered book.
Ephemera, if you have the patience and passion for it, is also the great teacher. I have learned more from motley scraps of the past than I ever have from school, or even books. An old cardboard key advertising the Redpath Chautauqua led me down a fascinating path to the bygone era of tent chautauquas and the culture, fun and excitement they brought to small towns across America. The Redpath Lyceum Bureau took luminaries such as Warren B. Harding and Susan B. Anthony to the masses – up close and personal.
Another time a booklet of recipes from an old TB sanitarium led me to learn what it meant to have tuberculosis in the early part of the 20th century – its treatments, its fears and the endless days of lying bundled up on cold porches far away from home. I could go on and on with examples, but the point here is that if ephemera is to matter than the buyer/seller must be willing to do some serious research. For me the research is great fun, but it’s also the marketing tool that helps each piece find its perfect home. Both of the above examples were quickly snatched from the marketplace, the former by a European buyer and the latter by a woman who had just visited the site of the old sanitarium in Indiana and was haunted by its history.
The word ephemera comes, of course, from ephemeral, that which is not meant to last. The fact that so much of it defies the odds of marriages, moves, divorces and deaths is, to me, one of life’s small miracles. But the fact that the very best of it achieves a level of importance in the 21st century is no miracle at all. It’s a direct result of the hard work of excavators who not only see diamonds in the rough, but are willing to get their hands dirty -- both figuratively and literally.