As someone who has done archival work, studied archives in grad school, and uses an archive as my main source for the biography on Gardner Fox I am writing, It’s probably not surprising that I pay attention to seemingly random items most people wouldn’t keep. This behavior started when I was quite young because I would see my mother save these types of things from my childhood in a giant chest in her room. When I left the house at 18, she gifted me a chest of my own and it quickly became the location where I kept items I had personally saved over the years. The saving of these items was a coping mechanism for me. I suffered from a great deal of depression and anxiety because of bullying, as well as other factors, and the items I saved reminded me of better times. They became a way of reminding myself that I could be happy and that there were people in my life that cared about me… even if I didn’t believe it at the time. I still do this and my trunk now has items from my own childhood all the way to a picture youngest son drew last week. Just as my mother would open her trunk and share stories related to items I may or may not remember, I now replicate that action with my boys. It encourages a shared reminiscing that makes us closer as a family. Because these types of items hold such importance in my life, I decided to send out a prompt on my twitter asking what kind of ephemera my followers collect and why they collect those items.
This prompt garnered many responses and also some confusion, so I thought I would start with the definition of ephemera. Going with the experts, The Ephemera Society of America cites Maurice Rickards’ definition of “minor transient documents of everyday life” as their base and acknowledge that the understanding of the term has shifted to include many items that would not normally be included in that definition. That said, the key term remains “transient,” which implies that once these (often) printed items have served their intended function, they were “generally expected to be discarded.” Obviously, this definition is fairly open to interpretation. For me, ephemera is a commonly thrown away object that serves only as a reminder of something from the past. The more important that something from the past is, the more important the object that reminds one of that past something becomes. One of the most common examples are tickets to movies, concerts, and other types shows.
Tickets were included in several responses to my prompt and I admit I keep many of these as well. I keep tickets, playbills, and even promotional flyers from events that were particularly impactful for any given reason. Once again, the bigger the impact the show had on me, the more likely I am to hold on to something related to it. Emotional resonance is a key reason somebody might save an item with multiple people saying that the reason they save things includes remembering a simpler time or the prompting of a sense of positive potential. This certainly mirrors the reason I saved so many things as a child and why I save things from the lectures I attend etc. One of my followers invoked emotionality when he shared that he and his wife built an archive of their relationship through the ephemeral items attached to important moments they have shared.
This is a beautiful reason to hold on to ephemeral objects and something that was once much more common. I admit that one of the objects in the featured image comes from a box related to a recent relationship in my life. Similarly, I have a scrapbook I made as a teen containing letters, photos, and other ephemeral items like sketches and poems etc. in my trunk that represent the friends I finally made in high school.
Another common response included comics of many kinds. A particular favorite of mine was clippings of comics strips. This touched me because I lived outside of newspaper delivery as a young child, but I still got to read the funnies because my grandmother was a big fan and would clip out her favorite strips and send them to me via mail. I kept many of them and still work strips into my life by putting them on my fridge and in my office etc.
Considering the fact that I stick to comics twitter, it isn’t surprising that most of the comments were related to comics. What was surprising is that the conversation brought a new light to the subject I had not considered before. A couple of people brought up the idea that comics themselves could be considered ephemeral. If we look at the definition provided above, it seems pretty clear that older comics very much could be considered ephemera. Even the creators saw them as something to be read and then thrown away. Additionally, they most certainly trigger positive memories and that remains a primary reason so many people collect them.
I agree that comics can no longer be considered ephemera as we now see their value and purchase them because of that value, but we can still see examples of ephemera within them. A shorthand way of telling us a lot about a character is the inclusion of ephemeral items in the background. Examples of this include everything from a fashion magazine left on Hawkgirl’s bed in the Golden Age to the protest sign propped up against Alison Bechdel’s dorm room wall in the more modern Fun Home. Readers can derive a lot of information from the through lines presented in these items because we know what those types of items represent in our own lives. They show us what kinds of activities characters enjoy and a semblance of what their life might be like. In short, it is a way of nonverbally characterizing them. Real or not, our lives are surrounded by ephemeral objects and their impact remains the same regardless.
The final topic that was raised calls this certainty into question. We are very much moving into a digital age where paper is being used less and less. This means that tickets and the like are now regularly purchased online, thus having physical evidence of said purchases require an extra step. Receipts are often texted instead of printed and even bags are disappearing as we necessarily move away from plastics. These changes are indeed needed for environmental reasons while the reduction of ephemera is simply an unfortunate consequence. This shift makes comments about items people wish they had kept feel particularly relevant. I was wondering if we were witnessing the end of an era by the end of this twitter conversation, but then something happened. My family and I went on vacation up in a Washington tourist town and I was handed a bit of ephemera after making a purchase. As expected, this is now in my big red trunk where it will remind me of the fun me and my boys had together playing with all the old nickel and dime machines in this strange little store/museum this summer.
Perhaps, instead of completely disappearing, ephemera will simply be relegated to a charming callback to the past. In the end, ephemera may just end up ephemeral.
To read the original prompt along with responses from those like TwoMorrows Publishing writer Doug Zawisza and leader of Sirens of Sequentials CJ Pendragon: