Sunday, November 6, 2011

At the End of the Paper Trail

Since midsummer, when I acquired a captivating collection of ephemera, I've been conflicted about revealing its story. It's a compelling story, for sure. But, for me, it's been difficult to determine how to tell it appropriately.

I've been collecting since I was a child. It started with four-leaf clovers (it was a small collection), insects and butterflies, stamps and postcards and troll dolls. Today, my collections range from milk glass to amber glass, cameras to Thermos, flower frogs to pottery stars, vintage Colorado kitsch to vintage linens. And more.

Each person who feels compelled to collect does so for reasons unique to the collector. I don't know what drove me to collect as a child. Perhaps so I could have many of something my younger sister didn't have. Maybe to earn that next Girl Scout badge. Maybe it was simply because I found the things I collected to be interesting.

I continue to collect today because my collections all have special meaning to me. My grandmother gave me my first piece of Fenton milk glass when I was about 13 and she took every opportunity to expand my collection. Today, I still pick up pieces that catch my fancy.

When my mom gave me the Kodak Vigilant Six-20 folding camera she'd had as a girl, I dug my own Hawkeye Flash Fun out of storage and another collection was born.

My passion for vintage Thermos began with the beat-up model that resides in the likewise beat-up metal lunch  box my farmer grandpa took with him to the field every day. And, so it goes with me.

This past summer, I read a story in the hometown newspaper about a local woman who had been featured on one of those cable television shows about hoarders. I still have never seen one of those shows, but I've seen the commercials for them. This woman's story sounded similar to how those commercials appear.

Over the years, she had amassed so much stuff that she could barely turn around in her house. But, she had gotten help and was slowly clearing the clutter out of her life. The newspaper article noted she was having the second of two sales that weekend. (How did I miss the first? I still wonder.) I had to go.

I wasn't sure what to expect at the sale, but certainly was surprised to see the woman hosting it herself. I was thrilled to find a large selection of ephemera--just the type I like to incorporate in my handmade journals and other craft projects.

Souvenir ticket stubs. Travel brochures. Vintage drink napkins. Unused hotel stationary and envelopes. Corporate stationary and business cards. Handwritten ledgers. Old books. The selection went on and on. I quickly filled up a couple of small boxes with an eclectic collection of ephemera dating back to the early 1900s.

Today, I find most of the items in my collections at estate sales, garage sales and thrift stores. I seldom am lucky enough to learn the stories behind the pieces. So, I play a game with myself and try to imagine the secrets that are locked forever in the treasures I find.

When I presented these wonderful paper treasures to the woman to settle up, she picked each one up, gently handling it as if she knew she was parting with a piece of herself. She was a delight, telling me the story of each. Some were funny, some poignant. Most of the ephemera originally belonged to her parents or grandparents. Much had been her father's and was related to his business.

I was touched by the stories, but also a bit saddened that her compulsive hoarding had forced such a fun and witty woman to part with memorabilia that had been dear to her.

As we were wrapping things up, she asked, "Do you like handwritten papers, too?"

"Very much," I responded.

She asked her daughter to show me the handwritten letters. "The box under the table," she told her daughter. To me, "Go ahead. See if there's anything in there you'd like."

I followed her daughter across the room and, as she pulled a sealed box out from under the table, I noticed a handwritten warning on the lid:  DO NOT SELL.

But, the daughter opened the box and told me to feel free to pull out anything I was interested in. The box was packed so tightly, I could barely get my fingers in it. The contents were a collection of  personal, handwritten letters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as a wonderful collection of vintage cards. Birthday. Christmas. Sympathy. Enclosures. Victorian. Art deco. Mid-century modern. Beautiful.

Most items had handwritten signatures, many with personal notes. All with original envelopes and stamps intact. A collector's dream come true.

When I realized what I was sorting through, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation. And, as I gingerly looked through some of the contents, the woman approached me.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"It's all very wonderful. And very personal," I said.

"You know," she said. "Saving these is what got me in trouble in the first place. And now I must part with it all." She gestured broadly around the large space where many of her other belongings were displayed.

As she walked away, I hesitated, but out of respect for her generous gesture, selected a few small, more impersonal cards and called it a day.

Every day, in my work room, I see these boxes of papers whose stories I do know. Paper I normally would have incorporated into several projects by now sits untouched--for the moment, too precious to use. It serves as a constant reminder that every treasure we acquire does have a story. But, perhaps it's best simply to imagine what that story might be.

Make it a great day!


  1. The stationary and napkins are beautifully designed. What an amazing collection; it looks like an amazing sale. Lucky you!

    As a child I collected handkerchiefs. My mom was a big "estate-saler" back in the day and I amassed a pretty good collection. I still have them, but once 1 reached a 75-100? I decided to cool it.

    They're nice to give as little tokens now and again.

    thanks for sharing,

  2. This was a very interesting and thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing.

  3. You really found a great collection. As I strolled through I noticed an envelope from the Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis. Back in the 60's (that's telling my age) I worked across the street from it. Now there is a freeway entrance ramp there.
    Thanks for bringing back some long ago memories. :0)

  4. Ann, what a lovely and touching story. As another one that collects, I can relate, you get one pretty or interesting thing then another and before you know it you have a collection. As a kid my first collection was milk bottle caps, my Mom could understand why I wanted to save those, out they went. I recently bought and framed some of those old caps as a reminder of my first collection. I also noticed in your collection stationary from the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island, this is near me at the Cottage. Thanks for sharing your collections, Laura Cottage and Broome

  5. Ann, Thank you for sharing that experience. Am currently in the clean sweep process to prepare my home for sale. Have found myself setting aside bits of memories in a box, knowing that I need to go through them with my grown children and share my memories. Perhaps by documenting their significance, these precious bits and pieces won't turn into mysterious estate sale finds.

  6. What an incredible collection! You have acquired some very beautiful pieces...things that are priceless. Very, very, nice.

  7. Ann,
    What an wonderful collection you have going there..thanks so much for sharing with all of us at NTT!!!


  8. I love ephemera, and this was a touching story. Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting! I'm your newest follower.

    Deborah@Confessions of a Craigslist Addict.

  9. What a story. As sad as it was for her to have to sell these, I'm so glad they are with someone who cares. One more layer to the story.

  10. I love vintage paper item, especially ephemera and advertising items. Very nice collection!

  11. Loved your post - I often wonder about the history of some of the vintage things I buy. Like you - I am a collector from way back - I've had many collections over the years - I can't remember a time when I didn't have some sort of collection on the go!

  12. What a great post. My heart sorta clinched when I read it. I felt sorry for that lady, and letting her treasures go. What an amazing paper lot you found here!! One thing about "hoarders" when you find a sale like this one, you really find some great things. I think however, I agree...sometimes it is better not to know the story. I always wonder about what stories the treasures I find and bring home would tell....maybe it is best not to know! Happy VTT!

  13. A wonderful and interesting story. The best part is the lady herself was doing something about her problem. Most hoarders do not. Great treasure finds.

  14. I collect vintage holiday postcards and the messages written on the back provide a glimpse into the lives of our ancestors. I can certainly understand why the personal correspondence was kept in reserve under the table. You demonstrated a genuine interest in these treasures and the seller knew their history would be preserved in your hands. Lovely post. Debra

  15. I think your collections are wonderful. And great stories that go along with them. Thank you for joining us at TTF and have a great day!

  16. I'm so glad it found its way to you and not into a dumpster somewhere.

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