Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Practical Guide to Collecting & Dating Vintage Paper

Why collect old paper? I hear this question a lot when I tell people that I'm interested in ephemera. For those unfamiliar, ephemera is commonly defined as transitory written and printed matter that was produced for short-term uses-not intended to be retained or preserved. Aside from ephemera being an interesting and often valuable collectible in its own right, it has several practical applications for everyday life, including:

1. Historical Research. Authors and historians use ephemera for deep research into companies, people, and products. And many genealogists find it to be indispensable in their work. Ephemera collections are housed at many universities, libraries, and museums specifically for its value in academic and scholarly research.

2. Decorative. People hang framed ephemera, such as vintage posters, advertisements, vernacular photography, lobby cards, etc., on the walls of their homes and offices. Collectible paper can be a conversation piece or the focal point of a room.

3. Artist's Raw Material. Many commercial and fine artists use ephemera as the principle source of raw material in their work. Several well-known collage artists, for instance, use old paper as a principle ingredient. Commercial artists sometimes use ephemera in print, broadcast, and outdoor advertising. Amateur artists use it to produce a variety of crafts, and scrapbook enthusiasts use ephemera to decorate the pages of their albums.

Of course, there are just as many or more whimsical reasons to collect ephemera: it may remind you of a past experience, occupation, or loved one; it may be collectible for its own sake (e.g., baseball cards, postcards, and stamps); or, it may add value or interest to an existing collection of other collectible objects.

One of the more difficult aspects of ephemera collecting is judging the age of a piece of undated paper. It's easy to determine the age of an antique document that has a date clearly printed on it. However, when a date isn't present, it pays to know a few tricks to help judge its age. Here are three tricks to roughly gauging the age of undated paper:

1. Check the Address. If there's an address but no zip code, then it's likely the item was printed prior to 1963 when zip codes were introduced by the U.S. Postal Service. They became mandatory in 1967.

2. Check the Phone Number. If there's a phone number with no area code, then it's likely the item was printed prior to the late 1940s, when area codes began to be used in major metro areas.

3. Paper produced before 1953 won't fluoresce under black light like paper produced after that date. (This is due to lack of certain chemical "brighteners" that were added to paper during the manufacturing process after 1953.). Most paper, even antique paper, will fluoresce somewhat, but the difference between older and newer paper should be noticeable.

I use these tricks while doing research as the Webmaster for ephemera. However, none of the dating methods I've outlined are scientific, and they certainly do not provide conclusive proof of a document's age.

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