When Alexandria-based designer Barbara Charles was starting out in California in the 1960s, she lived in a cheap apartment in Santa Monica above the twinkling lights of its gaudy pier. Right below her bedroom spun the carousel manned by Paul Newman in the classic heist-flick “The Sting.” It played “The Yellow Rose of Texas” late into the night while its horses rose and fell, tossing their carved manes.
“I still can’t listen to that song,” she says.
But affection for the carousel itself became infatuation, and Charles spent the summer of 1971 traveling America, photographing carousels, documenting their provenance and chatting with their owners. Her career moved along and she became a successful designer of museum exhibits, but carousels kept a place in her heart and turned her into something new.
“I would like to say I am a serious historian,” Charles says, from the design studio she runs with her husband in Alexandria, where she sifts through boxes of tickets, circus posters, vintage photographs of fairgrounds and archives of carousel makers. “But there’s a collector’s mentality, a wanting to share.”
Across America, there are thousands of people similarly collecting and cataloguing things that were made to be thrown away. Haunting the fringes of eBay or jostling with one another at fairs for their particular Holy Grail — a pristine Nixon button, a racy cigarette card, an old railroad ticket — they are drawn together by their love of collecting and, often, membership in a group called the Ephemera Society of America.
Charles joined the society in the ’80s, along with husband Bob Staples, also an exhibit designer, who collects cigarette cards and advertisements, specializing in ones called “metamorphics” that have a flap or pop-up trick of some sort. Over the years, the pair has visited countless fairs where they rubbed shoulders with people flicking through old fliers and baseball cards.
The society was founded 32 years ago by a group of dealers and collectors. Each member collects something slightly different — the group recently gave a grant to a woman collecting locks of hair for research on 19th-century romance — and the group has swelled over the years to several hundred members. They produce a quarterly newsletter, with missives from members and photographs of collections, and have annual meet-ups at which they pick one member’s collection to go visit.
Ephemera, explains Art Groten, a retired radiologist who heads the society, comes from the Greek words meaning “for a day.” It was used to describe short-lived mayflies, and now means anything that was never meant to be kept. The desire to hang onto these disappearing scraps, usually some kind of paper, began in Britain with the Victorians. Middle-class women, who usually did not work outside the home, took up the hobby of cutting out pictures from catalogues and pasting them, decoupage style, onto screens and vases in a riot of kittens, corsets and flowers. As this British delight in collecting gradually spread to America, and as manufacturers began issuing series of beautifully lithographed trade cards for their products, collecting became more systematic, widespread and fun.
“Sixty years ago, when I was 8,” says Groten, “the postal service ran the Ben Franklin stamp clubs in every school, and I had a whole bunch of friends who collected.” Unlike the stereotype of the lonely obsessive, he insists, stamp collecting was very social, centered on swapping with buddies and going to stamp shows together. As he grew up, he collected more seriously and made friends across the world through his hobby. “Letters would fly back and forth, guys would come and visit me, I would go and visit guys,” he says. “The collection is a leveler; you’re just collectors and you share this common passion.”
They each have their own story of why they collect. “Most people have a desire to make order out of chaos,” Groten says. “Collecting is a way to get control over your environment.” Another reason is that if you know enough, every item tells a story.
“I loosely define a collector as someone that accumulates knowledge, not just stuff,” says Cheryl Ganz, who today is chief curator at the National Postal Museum. Her best-known collection is that of zeppelin memorabilia, which she began collecting as a child when her grandfather gave her a bundle of pictures of the airships that were, in the 1930s, the most elegant and newest way to travel. “I became enamored of it, like little kids do with dinosaurs,” she says. Decades later, her collection is still growing.
Opening meticulously ordered files at her Washington home, Ganz pulls out a postcard written on board the Hindenburg, the giant, ill-fated German airship, in 1936. Its stamp depicts an eagle, and a swastika rising sunlike from behind mountains. One of the postcards she has from the trip was autographed by German boxer Max Schmeling and silent-movie swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks. “People now don’t see the art of conversation,” Ganz says, “but part of this trip was about meeting people.”
Other people just think collecting is fun. “I guess I find them amusing,” says Bob Staples, giggling over dozens of albums of antique cigarette cards with girls showing a little leg next to titillating slogans, and a series of advertisements depicting vegetables as people. Although he doesn’t travel across the country to paper fairs as much as he once did, Staples loved the thrill of the chase, filling in the gaps to make his the finest collection of vegetable-people cards in the country.
Susan Sontag mediated on the value of collecting in her novel “The Volcano Lover”: “To collect is to rescue things, valuable things, from neglect, from oblivion, or simply from the ignoble destiny of being in someone else’s collection rather than one’s own,” she wrote. “Buying a whole collection instead of chasing down one’s quarry piece by piece, [is] not an elegant move. . . . Mere acquiring or accumulating is not collecting.”
Others have theorized that withdrawing into the microcosm of a collection is the perfect escape from reality. Simon Wiesenthal, who devoted his life to hunting down Nazi war criminals, went to see a doctor about his severe insomnia in 1948. “He suggested that I do something at night to take my mind off my troubles, and that’s how I began collecting postage stamps,” said Wiesenthal, whose collection is now in the National Postal Museum. Keith Richards’s doctor once advised him to collect stamps while the Rolling Stone was making an effort to combat addiction.
But collecting these days is not what it used to be. Groten worries that today’s young people don’t have the attention span for a long, slow hobby such as collecting. He is reaching out to them via Facebook and Twitter in an effort to recruit a new generation to the society. Others are more sanguine, pointing out that while stamp collecting may not be as popular, there are plenty of people collecting posters, cards, pictures of graffiti or examples of unusual typography, even if they are not members of the society.
Ephemera itself has also changed. The Internet has made life both more ephemeral (often there is no paper evidence of an event, advertisement or letter) and less so (floating around somewhere in the electronic ether is everything we write, every picture we look at, saved for eternity). For some, this is unsettling. It leaves them wanting more than ever to hang on to the tangible.
Nancy Rosin, who is set to head the Ephemera Society next year, understands that. She collects valentines — she has 10,000 — and is excited about receiving a new iPhone for her 70th birthday.
“I love the Internet,” she says. “But if you want something to cherish and look at years later — I am looking at a Valentine on my wall from 1806, from a man coming back from sea to his wife, and it’s so beautiful, with primroses. They seem so alive, and maybe I have kept them alive.”