Ephemera Worth Keeping

Ephemeral: what a lovely sounding adjective. My thesaurus has the following synonyms: transitory, fleeting, brief, short-lived, momentary, impermanent, passing…you get the idea. Its origin is the Greek ephemeros which means “lasting only one day,” according to Wikipedia. The singular noun form is ephemeron; the plural is ephemera. In the fields of history and genealogy, you hear of collections of ephemera. What is it? Professional historians say that ephemera consists of anything printed on paper that was of passing interest at the time it was created. That’s irrelevant to what I’m talking about, since I’m neither a historian nor a professional.

I’m talking about keepsakes. Family heirlooms. Mementos. You know–Stuff!

Since I spend so much time working with and talking about photographs, I’m going to leave them off of this list.

Here are examples of items other than photos that people back in the day would stash away in closets. Some where, in fact, meant to last; some were not. Some of it is indeed printed matter; much of it is not. The list is in no particular order.

  • High school and college yearbooks.
  • Birth, marriage and death certificates.
  • Diplomas and similar educational certificates.
  • Awards and trophies from work, school and hobbies.
  • Original paintings, sculpture and handmade craft items.
  • Religious mementos; bibles and hymnals.
  • Handmade family trees.
  • Diaries, journals and sketchbooks.
  • Locks of hair or baby teeth.
  • Military uniforms, discharge papers and memorabilia.
  • Passports, naturalization documents, probate documents.
  • Sheet music of original compositions; manuscripts that later became published works.
  • Newspaper or magazine clippings.
  • Mailed birth announcements, birthday and anniversary cards, party invitations, sympathy cards and thank you cards.
  • Tickets and programs to theatrical or sporting events in which a family member participated.
  • Church programs from baptisms, confirmations and memorial services or funerals.
  • Advertising brochures and flyers from businesses owned or companies worked for by relatives.
  • Handwritten or printed collections of home-created recipes.
  • Personal telephone and address books.
  • Postcards and souvenirs from honeymoons or big vacations.
  • Contents of wallets or purses, such as driver’s licenses, insurance cards, club membership cards.
  • School report cards.
  • Menus, placemats or matchbooks from family-owned restaurants.
  • Résumés and letters of recommendation from employers.
  • Cancelled checks from banks that document important purchases.
  • Old road maps with the route of a life-changing cross-country trip marked in pen.
  • Artwork created by children.
  • Personal letters, including love letters.
  • Timepieces and jewelry; keys and similar hardware.
  • Wedding dresses, baby blankets and clothing.
  • Stamp and coin collections (which sometimes have actual monetary value!).

In trying to determine what is and isn’t ephemera (in the view of a serious hobbyist) this is what I think: If the item has become, regardless of original intention, something that has acquired meaning to someone in the present, then it is worth keeping.

I have in my possession items from several categories in the list. I’ve kept or collected them because they either have emotional value or are useful in my research. Sometimes I only have a digital version of an item. If eventually the meaning or usefulness to anyone of an item fades, either the original or the copy (or both) may be discarded.

Edwin Theilig was not related to me, but to the families I am currently doing a project for. Here’s his high school algebra class report card for the school year 1922-23.  Now doubt it was originally saved by his mother. Decades later, when she passed on, we can assume Edwin found it and decided it meant something to him. Eventually he died, and his widow kept it for the remaining 22 years of her life. Edwin’s daughter, is now in possession of it.

Ed Theilig's Algebra Report Card

The report card itself has no monetary value or historic significance. It’s possible the signatures at the bottom are the only remaining handwriting by Edwin’s parents, Max Arno Theilig and Ruth A. (Merrill) Theilig.

As long as I’m discussing the Theilig family, here’s a dispatch from the U. S. Navy (the spelling “despatch” was in use at the time) from 1928 from the U.S.S. General Alava somewhere in the Asian Sea. Apparently there had been an attempt to contact 20-year old Edwin (with the description “Fireman”) to inform him of his father’s death back home, and there had been trouble locating him. No doubt some modern-day veterans would consider this a typical military SNAFU.

Naval Dispatch

I am neither an obsessive packrat nor a minimalist, but since it’s likely I won’t have any blood descendants, lately I’ve tended to do more tossing out rather than stowing away the effluvia of my own life. But that doesn’t keep me from keeping some of the stuff of my forebearers (and other people’s forebearers) while I am here and letting whomever I give it to before I go decide what to do with it.

Please mention in the comments any items you have kept belonging to a ancestor, relative or friend that I don’t have in my list. I’m sure there are many I haven’t thought of. I’ve purposely left out the many types of sound and motion picture film recordings from the past century or so, magnetic videotape from the past 40 years, as well as the digital versions of almost everything created in the past quarter century.


  1. Most of the ephemera (love that word, it is a perfect description of these items) that have come to me from my father’s family, though I do have a few things from my mother’s family. One of them is her older sister’s autograph book. In it many of her ten siblings wrote silly things. My parents were from a small town in Illinois and for over twenty years, from the late 1940s to 1970, here in the Los Angeles area there was an annual “Staunton Reunion” of former residents from that town. By the 1960s there were often up to 100 people there. I loved hearing the town stories (I was a weird kid). Because of those stories, and those people at the reunion who were old friends of my parents that we sometimes saw at other times of the year, I recognize quite a number of the names signed to the funny verses in my aunt’s autograph book. One of them is Louise “Weezy” Siputa, the grandmother of the actor Nicolas Cage. It is fun to see things like that. Thanks for this excellent blog post!

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