My World of Ephemera and Welcome to It
by Stephanie Dew
I am not your average collector as I collect a very wide range of items. My interest in collecting antique papers and postcards dates back to my childhood. My mother was interested in old prints called mottos that were framed and hung about the house. She had been an interior decorator and always enjoyed collecting unusual antiques and prints. She also enjoyed decoupage and collected papers from around the world to use in her projects. Her interest became mine as I found myself attracted to any kind of craft project.
I studied art and fashion design at Syracuse University. Upon graduation, I moved to New York City and pursued a career in fashion design. At a couture house in the garment district, I designed and made bridal headpieces and veils. After a year and a half of staring at white and ivory, I high-tailed it out of there. I happily landed a job as assistant to my idol, Betsey Johnson. She had opened a number of stores, often decorating interior pieces with vintage scrap paper from England and Germany. As I worked for her, my interest in scrap papers grew.
I joined Danskin as an assistant designer, working with colors and fabrics as well as production. During my time in the garment district, I started collecting antique paper scraps and ephemera. My real love was always doing crafts, and I have always liked jewelry and accessories. The whole while, in the back of my mind was the dream of having my own business.
In 1985 my husband and I started our own wholesale line of handcrafted decoupage jewelry and various gift items. My collection of ephemera is directly used on our wholesale line. Almost everything I collect is dated from 1900 to 1960. I'm always looking for particular items that include dogs, cats, Christmas, Halloween, valentines, mermaids, Thanksgiving, florals, fish, diners, Easter, romantic couples, and hula girls. I search high and low for images that are either unusual or make a personal connection. Recently I purchased a very unusual card featuring a rather Gibson-looking woman sitting in a spider web and looking very glum. It's a black-and-white photo that is hand-tinted with pastel shades. I found her very odd, yet compelling. I ended up using her image for a business card holder, and people find her very interesting. I really love searching for unusual antique images that people enjoy.
I also love collecting images that make a personal connection with people. Another item that I found was the image from the cover of a board game, The Man in the Moon. Even though his image is peculiar, people will always comment on it. At a recent trade show, a man came into my booth and told me how he had purchased this original board game for $5,000.
Sometimes people won't recognize where a particular image comes from, but will find that it evokes a personal memory. Halloween is one of my favorite themes to collect. Over the years it has become increasingly difficult, not to mention more expensive, to find. I have Halloween decorations from the early 1900s that I use for pins and earrings. Of all the items I have made, these seem to elicit the strongest reactions. People always talk about how their mothers or grandmothers had these decorations hanging every year. Old holiday images seem to remind people of their childhoods.
As any collector knows, even when vacationing, your eyes are always searching for possible sources of interesting ephemera. Recently, I was at my family's cottage on the St. Lawrence River. We made a trip to Clayton, New York, where I found an antique store. I went in hoping to find some interesting cards and was happy to find some great postcards of sunny beach scenes at great prices.
Another type of ephemera that interests me is kitchen decals from 1940 to 1950. My favorites are cherries that I picked up at the Nyack Street Fair a few years ago. They are so cheerful that you can envision the gingham curtains in the window. Old vegetable seed packets have some really great illustrations. They are colorful and amusing. I recently found a pepper girl to add to my collection. I've always wondered just how many different vegetable characters there are.
Another thing I have collected over the years is trade cards used for advertisements. My favorite is a group of mermaids in an ad for hair tonic. I find that people really love mermaids and other mythological creatures.
I have a fairly large collection of cover art from paperback pulp fiction, most of which could not be reproduced today because the subject matter is politically incorrect.
Although I don't collect actual signs, I have a collection of memorabilia from diners, bowling alleys, and road stops. Currently, we have several clocks in our line with reproduced photos of bowling alleys and drive-ins.
I am probably an unusual collector in that I don't collect from a particular time period. My collection is based on themes of images. The only common theme of my collection is a sense of whimsy or beauty. My favorite time period is the 1950s. I love anything to do with bowling, drive-in movies, cars, and pin-ups. As we get farther and farther from this period, it becomes apparent that people long for a simpler and gentler time reflected in this artwork.
This article first appeared in Ephemera News or The Ephemera Journal, publications of The Ephemera Society of America, Inc. Ephemera Society Reprinted by permission.
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