Downsizing and Decluttering Tips: What To Do With Ephemera


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.


“Downsizing Lessons from Two Women Who Have ‘Been There, Done That'”

Many thanks to Janet Barclay for inviting us to share an excerpt from our book (Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home) on her organizing blog. Our guest blog posted on May 8, 2014. Here’s the intro:


“Typically our guest bloggers here on Your Organizing Business fall into one of two categories: (1) professional organizers / productivity consultants who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with their colleagues; or (2) experts in marketing or another aspect of business. Today’s guest brings the perspective of adults who have helped their parents through the process of downsizing.” Read more