Downsizing and Decluttering Tips: What To Do With Ephemera

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One of the things that has been difficult for me in sifting through the contents of first my parents’ home and now mine, has been what to do with all the vintage items, especially vintage items on paper that first my grandparents, then my parents, and then I have saved through the years.

This kind of material is called “ephemera,” and it is actually a very interesting category of collectibles. The dictionary tells us that ephemera is: “Items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.”

Among the things I had moved with me from place to place through the years were many brochures from touristic sites; old (some VERY old) postcards (some written on, some not); old maps; old Valentines; many ticket stubs and playbills; and even some postage stamps torn from letters. These things were kind of interesting at the time I originally kept them, but of course through the years they have become even more so, and some of them have become more valuable. (I suppose. I don’t really know!)

Collecting ephemera is for some people an interesting and fun hobby, and for some—those who take the time to do the research and make it a serious hobby, or even a professional expertise–it may even be a way to make money. For some artists it is material for collage. And for museums and libraries it can be valuable documentation of times gone by to share with the public.

But for me, I have come to realize, it is none of these things. For me it is really just more clutter, but clutter that I recognize as having historical and/or archival and/or artistic interest and value: therefore it is Not To Be Thrown Out. (My Inner Archivist absolutely will not allow me to do that.)

The question is, Inner Archivist, what do I do with it, then?

One of the experts I interviewed when we were writing our book was the director of a local historical museum in Minnesota, who told me that one of the things she wished people wouldn’t throw away when they were emptying out a home full of stuff was ephemera: she held up a birthday card she had recently received that was lying on her desk by way of example. She also explained to me that these are the kinds of things that become valuable and interesting to historians, because most people do, as a matter of course, throw them out. She told me that the curators of historical museums are often very interested in acquiring such things, and that even when the items in question are not going to be of interest for their collections, they still like having the chance to see them. She said that sometimes with certain items–for example, old photographs taken in another county or state, or printed materials from or about other places–the curators will take the items and “send them home.” Meaning that if the photographs, or documents, or whatever, don’t fit into the local collection, they may be sent to another historical museum that would very much appreciate having them.

I loved that phrase “send it home,” and I loved knowing that there was a network of professionals dedicated to preserving these items for posterity. And shortly after our book was published, I did salvage some items that I knew were of at least potential interest to the historical society near where my parents had grown up, and donated those items to them. And I got a thank you note from them that made me feel very much like I had done the right thing. That was a nice feeling.

But. There were still many more boxes of stuff to go through, and by the time my kids were grown and I was able to start (well, continue) going through them, I was far away from those places. And I still didn’t have the kind of time that would have been needed to spend sorting and deciding and hauling off to the nearest local historical society, because the next round of downsizing I engaged in was a far-too-rapid, radical downsizing that involved an international move.

So, in that round, I made a compromise with my Inner Archivist: I put all the tourist brochures, maps, old postcards and so on together, and took them to a thrift store and dropped them off, with just a brief comment that some of the things in the box might possibly be of interest to collectors. Then I walked away, and deliberately closed my mind to thinking about the possibility that they would be thrown out by an overzealous volunteer. I preferred to think that they would be bundled into batches for sale, and picked up by a very excited collector of whatever the items were. (You can guess which of these options my Inner Archivist would find the most pleasing.)

The point is, I was able to (finally) tell my Inner Archivist that this really just couldn’t be my problem anymore. My turn for watching over these potentially valuable historical items was over. I wasn’t going to throw potentially valuable historical artifacts into the garbage, but I wasn’t going to keep them any longer myself, either.

My Inner Archivist wasn’t completely satisfied, and quite honestly the better solution would have been to take them to a historical society where the possibility of an overly zealous volunteer throwing them out was not such a distinct possibility.

So. I guess the advice here is: if you have the time, and these things are, to you, really just clutter, do your local historical society a favor and let them do the deciding, or perhaps let them guide you to another institution that might welcome the items of ephemera you have.

And if you don’t have the time to do that, please just don’t throw them into the trash or the recycling barrel: at least leave open the possibility for someone to find and appreciate these treasured bits of our past, and to rescue them from obscurity.

But you don’t have to keep hauling them around from place to place, and you don’t have to have them filling up your closets or your storage locker. You really don’t. Trust me on this. I’ll bet even your Inner Archivist will be willing to give you a break.

For those who would like to know more about ephemera, here is a link to the Ephemera Society.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

Creative Downsizing: Selling a Collection for a Cause

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Sara Somers, wearing her (signed!) Frank Thomas jersey, with Dennis Eckersley.

Sara Somers is a retired psychotherapist from Oakland, California. Three years ago, after  vacationing in Paris, she began the process of moving her home base there. She is currently back in California, preparing for the next stage of her international move. When I read about a unique approach she had come up with for dealing with her collection of baseball memorabilia, I wanted to know more, and thought her story might inspire others who are contemplating downsizing, or who are already in the process. Sara kindly consented to answer my questions via e-mail: our exchange follows.   (Questions by Janet Hulstrand)

Thanks for doing this, Sara! First of all, why have you been downsizing?

I started downsizing seriously when I was packing up my apartment in Paris to move back to California for four months. It was a shock when I saw all the STUFF I had accumulated over the period of just two and a half years. Instead of loving all my purchases, I was hating the growing pile: it started to resemble some kind of monster, and I hated the time it was taking me to deal with it. It actually paralyzed me for a few days.

Once I got back to California, I saw the exact same problem in the hidden areas of my house. Everything had been put into storage: those storage areas were bursting at the seams with things I didn’t even remember that I had.

I seem to be the only person surprised at this knowledge. I think my friends are all saying “It’s about time she acknowledged this.”

When did you begin your baseball memorabilia collection? And how big is (was) it?

I have been a true baseball fan since 1987. I lost what memorabilia I had in the Big Oakland Firestorm of 1991. Some part of me thinks that when you lose everything, the need to replace it all with twice the amount takes over. Since 1991, I have collected mostly Oakland Athletics things. However, as I learned more about baseball and its history, my collection expanded to include the baseball greats. I went several times to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and to a few baseball shows. These are places where memorabilia is bought, sold, and traded. I didn’t really think about what I was doing. Learning the history was a great source of joy, and I somehow convinced myself that having something tangible would make it that much more real and memorable. I think that a large part of the collecting was a way of being different than my other baseball friends. Having something to talk about, to show people, and to brag about. I love talking baseball, and I love that I know so much more than the average person.

I would guess that the bobbleheads, signed baseballs, bats, jerseys, bases, programs, etc., take up about half of what I am selling. The other half is made up of T-shirts, many of them signed, and also jackets, stuffed animals, and books, lots of books!

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What gave you the idea to sell the collection, and donate the proceeds to organizations you want to support? Has it been hard to part with the items in the collection? Will you keep one or two items for yourself?

When I got to California in early January and my jet lag wore off, I began to experience the depression about the new era of politics that most of my friends had been feeling since November 9. It was a deep depression that caused me to feel extremely helpless and powerless. Since I write a blog, I decided to write about my state of being, and I came to the same conclusion that most of my friends had gotten to weeks before: the only antidote to the depression is action.

I had no idea what I could do, as I am scheduled for surgery in two weeks. Then, while meditating, the inspiration hit me: I could sell my baseball collection and all that goes with it. I’m sure that since I’ve  also been downsizing, somewhere in my unconscious, the two things intersected, but prior to this moment, I was not thinking about selling the baseball things. I hadn’t yet gotten to the place of wondering what to keep and what to throw out.

I decided to pick two organizations to support that I knew were going to lose federal funding if the wind keeps blowing the way it has been. One of the organizations I chose to support is Planned Parenthood: this organization is a gift to every girl, boy, and family if they take advantage of what is available. The lives of many of our loved ones would be in great danger if Planned Parenthood disappeared, and without a doubt would make life miserable for many women.The immigration issue is also close to my heart, as my father’s family immigrated here from Russia. Living in Paris, I also periodically see those who have escaped Syria, and hear heartbreaking stories.

It hasn’t been too hard to let go of things. And it’s fun watching people find things that bring them happiness, especially when everything is so cheap. I decided today that I will keep a 1989 Oakland A’s World Series bat signed by Tony LaRussa, who was the manager of the A’s then. The A’s beat the Giants in four games in what has now become known as the Earthquake Series. An earthquake hit the Bay Area in the middle of the World Series!

I will also keep the cover of a Sports Illustrated magazine showing Dallas Braden jumping after he pitched a perfect game (there are only 21 of those in baseball history). It is signed by Braden and his catcher.

What kind of response have you had from friends, and strangers, to this project? Has anyone wanted to buy the memorabilia but not donate to the organizations you are choosing to support? If so, how did you handle that?

Within days of announcing on Facebook that I was going to do this, I realized I had to have a separate page just for the memorabilia. People’s responses have been extremely warm, cheering me on. To my knowledge, I have had only one ugly post on the page. The fighter in me wanted to defend my actions, and the causes I’m supporting, but I decided that’s a battle no one can win, so I just deleted the post. How simple!

A lot of the younger men that have wanted to purchase objects have asked for a “deal” if they buy a lot. I did my research on eBay and I am selling things very cheaply. I explain that I am not in the profit-making business, I am just raising money and that is why everything is so cheap. So far, that has been accepted. And by the way, I have raised almost $1100 in just over a week!

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What do you hate most, and what do you love most, about downsizing?

What I hate most is the time it takes to move things around—and that is what I have been doing until now—just moving everything around. When I was moving to Paris, it took me several months to make my home in Oakland clean and simple, but I was just moving everything  into storage. I couldn’t throw things out. Now two and a half years have passed, and it is easy to ask myself “Did you miss this? Did you even remember that you had it?” It is still hard. I HATE throwing something perfectly good and useable out. So I am having a garage sale, and what doesn’t sell will go to charity. All of this takes time. Time that I hope to use in a completely different way when I finish all this!

What I love about downsizing is looking forward to simplicity. A friend sent me Marie Kondo’s book, Spark Joy. I have read the first part, and the first instruction was to visualize my ideal space. It’s not so different from what I have had. I like the warmth of a home with well-loved things that  bring me joy scattered here and there. What hopefully will be different after I’m done with all this is that there will be enough space to really enjoy each thing and not be overwhelmed by the amount. And there won’t be anything in storage!

I also look forward to the fact that cleaning the house will take a lot less time and will be that much easier.

What I neither hate nor love, but find very hard to do, is to not pause over things as I rediscover them. The author of the book says absolutely do not do that, don’t spend half the day looking at photographs of the past. I can understand that. My inclination is to reminisce, and then each thing is that much harder to throw out. And then the time is gone, and I can’t get it back.

Do you have any tips or advice for those just beginning the process of downsizing, or those who are perhaps dreading it?

I am probably the last person in the world to give advice about this. However, I am sure of two things that are true for me:
1—Have someone else there to keep you focused, and to be harsh. They aren’t attached to any of your stuff, and will help you make good decisions.
2—Get some instruction, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I had been at the downsizing for about three weeks when I received the book Spark Joy from my friend. This is not a minimalist book: the word is never mentioned. Ms. Kondo gives very clear instructions and asks terrific questions, and I feel a renewed spark of energy to continue at what for me is a massive job. And, as with all things instructive: Take what you need and leave the rest!

I will let you know how it all progresses. My goal is to get rid of 50% of what’s in the house!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Collecting: The Things We Love…

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“The things we love tell us what we are.” Thomas Merton

“The Keeper” is a fascinating exhibit at the New Museum in New York City that explores our relationship to things and reflects on “the impulse to save both the most precious and the apparently valueless.”

The exhibit is a series of studies spanning the 20th century that tell the stories of various individuals through the objects they chose to save and make us ponder the motivations behind their collections. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeies, a display of over 3,000 family-album photographs of people posing with teddy bears.

Some of the collections are of the result of a chance encounter. The Houses of Peter Fritz, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, is a collection of 387 buildings built by Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk, that forms a comprehensive inventory of Swiss architectural styles.

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Some collections were saved by artists who were interested in the natural world. Korbinian Aigner, known as “Apfelpfarrer” or apple pastor, was a priest and art teacher in early 20th century Germany who inherited his family farm and began to document the apple and pear varieties on the farm. He continued recording to the end of his life, even documenting the species he cultivated while at Dachau.

Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) was the son of Vermont farmers who grew up in an area that received up to six feet of snow a year. From childhood on Bentley kept a daily log of the weather and made drawings of snowflakes. He photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes. Such focus, such single-mindedness from both these artists.

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And sometimes a collection is just so personal. Howard Fried, a California-based Conceptual artist, displays the wardrobe of his mother Hannelore Baron, who died in 2002. It provokes the viewer to ask: Is this collecting, is it hoarding, is it art?

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In a follow-up article to a review of the exhibit in The New York Times, readers were asked to explain their collections. Perry Casalino of Chicago found an album of photographic postcards of old Chicago in a building that was to be torn down and that started him on an eBay hunt for more, which led to collaboration with other collectors and eventually a database of the scanned images that is used by authors and historic preservation groups.

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Why do we collect?

Psychologists point out many reasons for collecting. Some people collect for investment, some for pure joy, some for the quest, some for the satisfaction of classifying and arranging one small part of the larger world, and some people collect to preserve the past.

When does collecting become hoarding?

According to psychologists, collecting becomes hoarding when it interferes with normal daily life. If it doesn’t, then a collection is to be enjoyed.

Do we bequeath a collection?

According to one collector who is selling a collection, to inherit a collection is a burden because the heirs never had the pleasure of the hunt or the satisfaction of the accumulation.

What to make of it all?

According to the exhibit, a collection often attests to the power of images and objects to heal and comfort, and a desire to honor what survives. In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about ‘throwers’ who relish the experience of cleaning out and ‘keepers’ who are compelled to preserve special things as well as memories. The collectors shown here are keepers beyond compare, people who were compelled to save things that heal and comfort and honor the past.

What does your collection say about you?

We would like to hear about what you collect – and what it says about you. What do you love? Leave us a message in the comments space below.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home