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A New Guide to Little Things That Mean a Lot


LONDON — You throw it away without a second thought.

Today it might be a candy wrapper, a parking ticket, a paper bag, a fax, a price tag, a razor blade packet, a lapel ribbon, a touring map or a timetable.

In times past it might have been a deck plan for passengers on an ocean liner, a bill of sale for slaves or a broadside about a capital crime hawked for a penny to crowds watching a hanging.

Someone, somewhere, collects these things, and now they have their own guide, "The Encyclopedia of Ephemera."

The term is the plural of ephemeron, Greek for something that lasts through the day. Your ephemera could be valuable one day, though you might have to wait.

Maurice Rickards spent most of 30 years studying what he described as the "minor transient documents of everyday life."

Before his death in 1998, he entrusted his manuscript to Michael Twyman, who completed the book. The British Library has just published it.

"The British Library is a major depository of ephemera, and we would like other collections in the world to understand the importance of this 'gray literature,' as librarians call it," publishing manager David Way said.

Rickards founded the Ephemera Society, helped start the American one, and was first to sort out and define categories of ephemera.

A designer, writer, photographer and public relations man, Rickards classified such things as soccer match programs, visiting cards and ballot papers; newspapers, cigarette cards, seed packets and wartime ration books; items designed to be thrown away, such as bus tickets, cheese labels and beer mats, and things to be kept: bookmarks, stock certificates, playing cards.

Among much American material in the encyclopedia is an illustrated callback card: "DRY BONES WANTED. We are still having an excellent demand for DRY BONES and can pay very high prices. If you have anything in this line, either carloads or less, please let us hear from you. Carroll S. Page, Hyde Park, Vt., Dec. 1, 1915."

The 416-page encyclopedia is to be published in North and South America this month by Routledge Inc. of New York City and will cost about $60. The index runs to 26 pages of nearly 6,000 entries, from the A1 Gramophone and Record Stores' record covers to Gerhard Zucker's rocket mail--a short-lived pre-World War II attempt to deliver mail by rocket.

It does not put money values on its entries, but a London dealer, Valerie Jackson-Harris, said prices depend on age, rarity and association.

"Millions of wartime ration books were issued, and people kept them, so they don't cost more than 4 or 5 pounds ($6 to $8), but if it was Sir Winston Churchill's, it would be worth thousands," she said.

Among items in her stock from the early 18th century are a ticket to accompany a coffin to a funeral, worth about $3,500, and a tobacconist's trade card, worth about $1,700.

Asa Briggs, the historian who succeeded the late poet John Betjeman as president of the Ephemera Society, said his own collection of ephemera--matchboxes, pens, needles, spectacles--helped him to interpret the Victorian age.

Famous collectors included Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, who amassed 1,600 ballads --those roughly printed doggerel accounts of topical events.

Ron Stegall of Deer Isle, Maine, a consultant in Third World economic development, specializes in Victorian Valentines and Soviet political propaganda. He was at the book launch as vice president of the 1,100-member Ephemera Society of America.

Twyman, 66, a retired professor of typography and graphic communications, directs the Center for Ephemera Studies at Reading University west of London, to which Rickards left his own collection of 25,000 ephemera from the past 400 years.

"Family affairs, advertising, public forms and notices, greetings cards--you name it and it's there," Twyman said.

"Your notebook is ephemera," Twyman said, eyeing a reporter's scribble.

What's most rare? A King's Evil certificate, Twyman said.

It was believed that a monarch's touch would heal scrofula, the glandular disease known as the King's Evil. King Charles II touched some 90,000 people from 1672 to his death in 1685. So many sought it that parish clergy and churchwardens were ordered in 1672 to issue a certificate that the patient had not been touched before.

"It appears that not a single certificate has survived," Twyman said.


On the Net: U.S. Ephemera Society: www.ephemera

U.K. Society:

British Library:

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