“It’s just paper”
That’s what the woman at the outdoor flea market told me. I asked her about the stacks of postcards, letters and old black & white photographs on display. Bundled in piles or open in plastic bins to thumb through. A musty smell hung over the tables, reminiscent of old boxes forgotten in an attic – or basement – for decades.
Everything for sale.
These collections are personal. Handwritten postcards, in childish script, to Gramma and Grampa postmarked 1945 from a vacation spot in Florida. Carefully posed serious groups of family members circa 1920 (?). A wedding party from the 1940’s (said the seller, based on the suits worn by the men). And letters written home from soldiers during World War II. I started to open one, but when I realized what it was, I just couldn’t unfold it. Put it back. Invasion of privacy.
“Where did you get all this?” I asked.
A shrug of the shoulders. “Oh, everywhere. Estate sales. Other flea markets.”
I still didn’t understand.
“What about the families these are from?” I asked, looking into the smiling faces of women in their Sunday best. Long dresses and fancy hats.
I kept getting the same answers. Families don’t want it. There was no family left to take it.
But every photo has a story! Someone wrote that postcard and I’ll bet someone loved receiving it. It was important. To someone. It’s not just paper.
And now being sold to strangers. To gawk at or buy and sell at a profit. Photos spread outside on tables in the full sun, curling and fading fast. Like yesterday’s newspaper.
I don’t get it. And I don’t have a solution for other alternatives – on what to do with all the…paper.
Today – at the latest flea market – I heard a term I had not paid much attention to before.
We get all kinds of ephemera, one seller mentioned.
Ephemera? I asked.
Yeah, it’s just paper – things that have been around a long time. People collect it.
So, when I got home I looked it up – not Wikipedia, but Merriam Webster no less…
Definition of ephemera
plural ephemera also ephemerae play \i-ˈfe-mər-ē, -ˈfem-rē\ or ephemeras
1: something of no lasting significance —usually used in plural
2: ephemera plural: paper items (such as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles
“Something of no lasting significance” – this caught my attention.
No lasting significance? To who?
And…if that’s the case, why collect it?
I also wonder…if someday there is no ephemera to collect, to sell, to display under the hot sun – when postcards and private letters are completely replaced by email. When all photos are digital. And “what is meant to be discarded” is permanently erased by the click of a delete button or a cloud power surge. No going back. No undo.
Because as we know, the “cloud” is just scores of huge buildings with hard drives & machinery humming away somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Full of terabytes of our future ephemera. Which will never end up at a flea market.
But what about our children’s children’s children? How will they know of who came before?
I did not buy any photos at the flea market. Or postcards. Or letters.
However – a real family photo – is below. And in a photo album on my shelf.
It is not ephemera.