What is Ephemera?


When I tell someone that I love ephemera, I occasionally…okay often, get that stare.  If you are here, you too have either been given or gave that stare.   You know that stare, the one that conveys “I don’t get it”.  With that in mind, I would like to attempt to breakdown the basics of ephemera and why I love it.

So, let’s start with the dictionary definition.  There are two parts to the Merriam-Webster definition.

1something 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

Let’s talk about Part 1.  

Of course, I disagree with the “no lasting significance”, but it is also true.  Much of the ephemera that is created has been lost to time and the recycle bin.  Ephemera is often created in mass quantities.  It is still created today.  Ephemera is not a term that only refers to a period in history.  Think about the junk mail received just about daily.  We view it and then determine if it warrants saving from File 13.  In most cases, it is not saved from the rubbish bin.

This is the sorting process that folks have been doing for 100+ years.  However, there were not always piles of third-class mail, there were also letters and postcards being sorted.  Today, it’s a rarity to receive either.  We so often call or post on social media to let someone know we are thinking of them.  We simply don’t reach out in a paper form as often as previous generations.

In those prior generations, someone took the time to write a physical paper letter, note or postcard.  And, someone felt touched enough and saved it.  They stashed it in a box in the garage or in a used greeting card box in the bedroom closet.  Fast forward to today, and there are folks who enjoy finding those and reading the long lost sentiments.  In most cases, it’s about the period in history being told in one single snippet wrapped in that letter found in that long lost box.

This takes us to the second part of the definition above.  Items that were meant to be discarded but were kept.  Originally, the items were kept either because it meant something significant to the person or they thought it was worth saving for artist value or for any number of reasons really.  The point is it was kept.


Many paper items were created for a single event.  And, at the time, people enjoyed it- read it- and then threw it in the trash when the event was completed.  This includes playbills, tickets, graduation programs, concert posters,  and any other events.  I have seen a lot of these type of items.  It’s easy to understand how someone would want to keep mementos from such a significant event in their own life.

There is also newspapers, magazines, and restaurant menus.  Newspapers offer a larger review of an area for the day but are not as personal to the individual who kept it.  There are lots of complete newspapers from when John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas; there are also a lot of newspapers and magazines from when Princess Diana died.  However, if it’s a specific article that the person had a connection to, it’s normally just a small cut out of yellowed paper with no date or newspaper name attached to it.  The article is interesting, but it’s hard to determine the significance without digging more into who the person who kept it was and why it would be important to them.

This my last point and the primary reason that I do love ephemera.  I like digging.  I like researching who the person who kept it was.  Where did they live?  Why was this significant to them?  Why was this simple piece of paper kept for so long?

So, to recap in short, ephemera is paper.  Paper items that were probably mass-produced, but not necessarily, and has been kept even though it was not intended to be.  Examples are letters, postcards, posters, playbills, newspapers, and magazines.