Just Add History

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By Mary Ellen Polson

ephemera

A large collection of choice ephemera is played up in a vignette featuring an old suitcase, atlas volumes, and a globe against a vintage map. (Photo: William Wright)

Do you love navigational maps, or old photographs of college football teams where the players wear leather helmets? Don’t just collect them, display them—in a hallway, family room, or an entertaining space like the living room or eat-in kitchen.

Students and starving artists have long used ephemera—public notices, maps, event posters, photographs, handbills, even canceled banknotes and old menus—as a way to enliven and decorate spaces. What’s more, pieces just a few decades old lend instant history to a home.

In a child’s room, the walls below the picture rail are completely papered in maps. (Photo: Tim Street–Porter)

In a child’s room, the walls below the picture rail are completely papered in maps. (Photo: Tim Street–Porter)

For the most part, such collectibles needn’t be very expensive. The most arresting ephemera have strong graphic appeal: fancy typefaces, intriguing shapes, and most poignantly images of people, especially if they are wearing fashions of 60 years ago or longer. As a general rule of thumb, the older the piece, the better it will look framed and hanging on a wall.

Choose photographs for their artistic value, not just as family memorabilia. You’ll get more impact from sharp, clear images measuring 5" x 7" or larger, especially if taken by a professional photographer. Groupings of photos are especially powerful, whether hung on the wall or displayed on a shelf or piano in well-chosen frames. It may be worthwhile to explore having a professional photography studio strike new prints from old black-and-white or color negatives.

At a Catskills retreat, a poster from a 1904 fair in Onteora is an atmospheric accent. (Photo: Edward Addeo)

At a Catskills retreat, a poster from a 1904 fair in Onteora is an atmospheric accent. (Photo: Edward Addeo)

Family photos are usually free, of course, but it’s also possible to pick up striking portraits or group shots at vintage, salvage, and antiques shops. The same goes for other kinds of ephemera, especially maps, sheet music, handbills, and similar treasures.

Very old or highly desirable original maps can be expensive, so try for more recent finds, or maps of an area specific to your locale. (If you simply must have a map of New York City ca. 1926, though, consider a high-end reproduction.) While regional maps and charts used for navigation have great graphic appeal, other maps are highly detailed, perhaps showing the very location of your house. Between roughly 1866 and the 1920s, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company produced maps of more than 12,000 communities for insurance purposes. The maps show the overall shape and location of each house on its lot, including outbuildings and even the type of materials used to build the structure. The present iteration of the Sanborn company (edrnet.com) makes maps available digitally.

Where To Look

Panoramic group photographs and other vintage pictures share space with collections of loving cups and historic camera equipment. (Photo: Chris Considine)

Panoramic group photographs and other vintage pictures share space with collections of loving cups and historic camera equipment. (Photo: Chris Considine)

The best places to find old ephemera include vintage stores and flea markets, especially summer antiques fairs like Brimfield, Mass., (brimfieldshow.com) or year-round fleas in cities like Nashville, Tenn., and Alameda, Cal. You are more likely to turn up locally interesting ephemera and can examine items for condition and quality. Online sources are legion, starting with eBay and Etsy. Or just use a search engine like Google or Google Images. A recent Etsy search turned up such treasures as a 1926 color map of Virginia taken from an atlas; reproductions of city maps including New York and New Orleans; and a photograph of a girls’ sports team from the 1920s. All were priced under $20. To search for old photos on eBay, try the “photographic images” category and choose “vintage and antique (pre 1940).” A search for architectural photographs yielded more than 400 hits, including 16 photographs of vintage houses.