Broadening the hobby: stamps and covers as ephemera

Apr 28, 2021, 8 PM

By Janet Klug

Stamp collectors are not the only hobbyists who go wild over bits of paper. Collectors of ephemera share much with those of us who collect stamps.

Ephemera is defined as written or printed matter that is not intended to be kept. Using that definition, stamps could be considered ephemera, but ephemera also includes vast categories of other items.

Some of these items are related to the stamp hobby. Picture postcards are a good example. We stamp collectors like them postally used with a stamp, postmark and any ancillary markings intact. Those who collect picture postcards for the picture side prefer them unused and in perfect condition with no bends, folds, marks, scuffs or rounded corners. Anything that negatively impacts the picture side will make the postcard less desirable.

Collecting envelopes with illustrated advertising is popular both in the world of stamp collecting and in the world of ephemera. Collectors tend to concentrate on the illustrations from a thematic standpoint, and might even become enamored of any matter – ephemera – that is enclosed in the cover.

Illustrated letterheads are just as collectible as the outer covers. The contents become an unexpected bonus and help us better appreciate the cover. Figure 1 shows an illustrated cover and part of the illustrated letterhead that was mailed in the cover.

The cover was sent from the Roycroft Shops in East Aurora, N.Y., in 1926 and advertised a set of books.

Advertising trade cards frequently bear the same image found on advertising covers and letterheads, so these can be of immense interest to stamp collectors as well.

Many of us collect train and plane schedules because these timetables define the routes that carried the mail. In addition to being ephemera, they are primary source documents that prove helpful when doing research about mail routes.

There are countless post office brochures, pamphlets and advertisements for special services and promotions. Figure 2 shows the cover of a fascinating pamphlet titled Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Letter Carriers of the Post Office in Cincinnati, O. It is dated Oct. 1, 1879, and contains 42 instructions on the code of conduct for mail carriers.

Road maps are also collected as ephemera and are useful to those of us who collect postmarks from our hometown or a certain county. An old road map might identify villages and hamlets that may have once had post offices, but which no longer exist.

Baggage tags, airplane tickets and labels of all sorts can enliven a stamp or postal history collection and add the human element to a collection. Many countries have arrival and/or departure taxes for travelers. Stamps are applied to airline tickets or passenger ship tickets and canceled with a dated handstamp. Is the ticket, which is not meant to be kept, a philatelic item or ephemera? I say both.

Pamphlets and brochures that describe historic places, products or tourist attractions are ephemera, but they, too, can be useful to collectors of postal history who are researching commerce that drives a town's economy and generates mail to and from the town.

In the past, merchandise and university catalogs qualified for a reduced postage rate. Matching a catalog with a cover can be a time-consuming but satisfying endeavor, somewhat like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. The cover is definitely of interest to stamp collectors, the catalog of interest to ephemera collectors. Lucky are those who acquire a merchandise or university cover that still contains its catalog.

Antique stock certificates frequently have gorgeous engravings that are similar to the engravings found on stamps. Stock transfers usually incur taxes and fees, and collectors will find revenue stamps applied to the paperwork to indicate that the fees have been paid.

Figure 3 shows a photographically cropped portion of a New Zealand stock transfer document for a transaction that took place in 1948. Two postal fiscal stamps were applied and canceled in payment of the tax on the document.

Newspapers definitely fall into the ephemera category, and are of interest to all who have a curiosity about history. Newspapers that were sent through the mail may bear postage stamps.

Sometimes wrappers or bands were used for mailing newspapers. A wrapper is a cover that is wrapped around the paper and sealed. A band is a narrow strip of paper that is wrapped around the paper and sealed.

A postal impression may be preprinted for this purpose on the paper, which is then sold by the post office. Conversely, stamps may be used to pay the cost of mailing. Those are the philatelic aspects of newspapers, but the papers themselves frequently contain reports of train robberies, crashes or other events that may have affected the delivery of mail. These, too, are of interest to stamp collectors and to ephemera collectors.

Many other kinds of ephemera might turn up in covers, box lots or in grandma's attic.

You probably already have ephemera hidden somewhere within your stamp collection. Find out more about collecting ephemera by writing to the Ephemera Society of America Inc., Membership Secretary, Box 95, Cazenovia, NY 13035-0095; or visit online at