Ephemera: Paper Collectibles

This is post #5 for #BlogchatterA2ZThis includes blogging every day in April for 26 days, except on Sundays. What’s special about it is that every day’s post will be corresponding to each letter of the alphabet. 

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Have you come across a scribbled note, a discarded bookmark, or a forgotten letter in a second-hand book?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll cherish these small treasures and feel honoured to have been the one to find them. I feel like I have been made a part of someone’s secret or aspects of their private life.

It turns out that these pieces of paper have a name—ephemera—and they’re considered precious and charming in the book collecting world.

Ephemera paper collectibles

Origin of the term Ephemera

In the English language, ephemera means something that does not have a lasting significance. The word is derived from Greek ephemera (epi = through and hemera = the day), meaning short-lived or lasting one day and was first used in this sense in 1650

The term is not limited to general English—biologists use it to describe the short life of a mayfly and other insects that live for only a day. It was also used to describe fevers that appeared and left quickly.

Now, librarians and archivists use “ephemera” to mean documents that are relevant for a short period of time, usually for one or a few days during which an event takes place or a situation remains significant.

Examples: bookmarks, flyers, matchbooks, almanacs, automobile literature, booklets, letterheads, broadsides, calendars, maps, postcards, telephone directories, stock certificates, posters, periodicals, magazines

Definitions of Ephemera

Paper ephemera

The Ephemera Society of America defines ephemera as “documents created for single or short-term use.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes them as “paper items such as posters, broadsides and tickets that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles.”

Maurice Rickards, author of the Encyclopedia of Ephemera, offers an interesting definition: “the minor transient documents of everyday life.”

Ephemera are either printed or handwritten.

Ephemera Collections

A noteworthy collection of ephemera is housed at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, called the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera. Around 2,000 images from this collection can be browsed for free online via VADS (Visual Arts Data Service), a service of the Library at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA), UK.

Over 32,000 Victorian greeting cards and 450 early 19th century Valentine’s Day cards are available at the Laura Seddon Greeting Card Collection at the Manchester Metropolitan University.

The Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Los Angeles, houses the Ephemera Kabinett that contains the first few items that marked major cultural events, such as one of the first AIDS red ribbons and a copy of the first Marvel comic in which a main character openly declares sexual orientation.

Examples of Ephemera

Some fascinating examples of ephemera are:


Sometimes called bookmarkers, the concept of bookmarks originated in the 15th century when the printing of books gained popularity. Earlier, bookmarks were made of silk or cloth and were sewn into the spine. Around the middle of the 19th century, detached bookmarks made an appearance and towards the 1880s, people began to use paper bookmarks.

Modern bookmarks are among the most popular promotional materials used by publishers, book sellers, libraries, and various other businesses.

You’ll find some more beautiful photos of vintage bookmarks here.


The most common collectibles are vintage advertisements like flyers, catalogs, book inserts, posters, labels, and newspaper clippings.

Collectors favor advertisements that show discontinued brands or products, famous ad campaigns, or brightly colored logos.

Vintage ads are of special interest because it shows us how people in that day and age used to live.

Previously, newspaper advertisements did not contain any pictures. Small stock wood engraved illustrations began to be used to attract more readers, which became bigger and custom-made eventually. After magazines and color printing came into vogue, bold colors began to be used.

Letters and Envelopes

Collectors of ephemera value letters—both handwritten and printed—that cover a wide variety of topics: thank you notes, love letters, rambling rants, matters of everyday importance.

Letters provide valuable insight into the social, cultural and business aspects of the time. The beautiful penmanship of handwritten letters is of special importance.

Letters in the 19th century used to be written in a peculiar way, called “crossed letters,” wherein lines were written over each other, usually at right angles. This was done to save paper and money on postage costs. Sometimes, letters were folded in such a way as to become its own envelope.

Once email became popular, letters acquired a historical importance.


All sorts of almanacs are printed, but collectors are mostly interested in small printed booklets with paper covers.

The earliest known almanac was written in 1088 by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Zarqali called Almanac of Azarqueil. It contained the true daily positions of the sun, moon, and planets between 1088 and 1092 as well as other tabular information.

One of the most popular English almanacs was written yearly by Richard Allestree between 1617 and 1643.

Other popular almanacs were:

  • Astronomical Diary and Almanack (1725)
  • The Rhode Island Almanack (1728 – 1735)
  • North-American Almanack (1771 – 1784)
  • The United States Almanac (1782 onwards)

Almanacs are usually annual publications that contain information like farmers’ planting dates, weather forecasts, dates of eclipses and religious festivals, and other tabular data.

Here’s a quick video that describes ephemera or paper collectibles:


1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephemera

2) https://www.biblio.com/book-collecting/what-to-collect/ephemera/ephemera-what-is-it-and-who-wants-it/

3) https://www.ephemerasociety.org/definition/

4) https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/bid/230108/ephemera-and-your-rare-book-collection

5) https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ephemera

6) https://rbm.acrl.org/index.php/rbm/article/view/294

7) https://greatlibrary.blog/2020/03/11/ephemera-in-rare-books/

8) https://www.abebooks.com/books/rarebooks/collecting-guide/what_books_collect/ephemera.shtml

9) https://a-z-ephemera.org/az_leaves/bookmarks/

10) https://a-z-ephemera.org/az_leaves/letters/

11) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almanac

18 thoughts on “Ephemera: Paper Collectibles

  1. Oh I didn’t know there was a term for this and such s beautiful word ‘Ephemera’ I use ad pamphlets, clothing tags and grocery bills as bookmarks. The real bookmarks are preserved, to be used someday. Beautiful post and illustrations, a book & paper lover’s delight.

  2. Wow, now you added a new word to my vocabulary. The collectibles which my mom and I preserved to date have such a beautiful name Ephemera. You had done commendable research on this topic my dear

  3. What a wholesome morsel of ephemera this post was Satabdi. Thank you.
    I’m in the habit of keeping maps and tickets as keepsakes from out travels. In this day and age of google maps and Waze, they’re becoming a thing of the past already.
    Fab post as always.

  4. They are quite interesting, aren’t they? If you read regency romances, you’ll find mention of crossed letters often.

    Thank you for reading!

  5. Learnt all new things today. Had never heard that these had a name Ephemera.. i love the pictures in between of the book marks and advertisements. Another thing that intrigued me most was crossed letters.
    A very informative post
    Deepika Sharma

  6. Ephemera…what an interesting word and meaning. I’m sure I might have some of these things in my old books.

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