Investing On A Shoestring – Paper Ephemera

The last time I mentioned investing on a shoestring, I wrote about buying, collecting and reselling books. There are other forms of paper with profit potential: paper ephemera. That’s a fancy name for items like photographs, trade cards, postcards, prints and advertisements.

These have several things going for them. First and foremost, they’re easy to find. It doesn’t take much to unearth an old magazine with intriguing graphics from the pile at your local antiques store — or damaged bound volumes (6 months to a year of issues) on Ebay. (Breaking up a perfectly good volume of mags may not be illegal, but it sure is criminal!) These may go for as little as a quarter, though they’re usually in the $5 range for single issues, and up to $50 for bound volumes. (Damaged volumes are more inexpensive — and you’re going to pick and choose from it, anyways.)

I look for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar (good historical graphics, and often Thomas Nast engravings), Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s (wonderful ladies with amazing outfits, crafts and even cute children/animal combos), Punch (excellent for political and patriotic themes), or periodicals with mostly pictures, like The Graphic. Some of these have a special center page with a larger engraving — perfect for framing.

Many famous novels, like Wilkie Collins’ Woman in Black or nearly all of Charles Dickens’ novels, started as installments in magazines. (Dickens also edited several magazines, including Bentley’s Miscellany, Household Words and All the Year Round.)  Collectors who value these will want these magazines — and they’d enjoy an engraved ‘photo’ of their favorite author, too.

Twentieth century magazines like Woman’s Home Companion and Priscilla — yes, McCall’s, too! — are excellent for strong, graphic advertisements that promote everything from automobiles to cigarettes. Look for bright colors and good contrasts, as well as articles with a special cultural and political bent. Years like 1932 (Washington’s birth bicentennial) and 1976 (America’s bicentennial) are especially good for historical themes.

Second, these items are often modestly priced. While you’re at it, check the bins or the postings for unusual postcards or photos. Collectors are looking for anything unusual, certainly, but there’s also a market for graphics and photos of animals; famous people; historical and cultural references; occupations, like farming, storekeeping, etc.; the military; and everyday hobbies, like sewing, knitting and such. (Don’t set aside the state postcards, either; people often collect state and famous place postcards if they have a personal connection.)

One unsettling subject is ‘post mortems’ …”dead baby photos.” There are more of these than you would think — in a good year, approx. 25% of America’s births in the 19th century died before the age of 2! Often parents would have nothing left of their beloved child but a few clothes, a lock of hair, and the photo taken of their bodies. (Dead adults were photographed, too.) Post-mortems are heavily collected today, and can go for astonishing prices — I’ve seen good examples sell consistently for more than $25, and as high as $200!

Trade cards are another good buy. These handheld cardboard advertisements (like the sewing one shown below) were given as freebies for special products or events. They range widely on subject. Look for cards connected with events like the the World’s Fair; larger ones (Arbuckle coffee was famous for these) are excellent for framing. Tractors, polar exploration, flowers, holidays — there’s a collector somewhere who will value these. Don’t ignore calling cards, reward and stock certificates, either — find them at the right price, and you’ll make a good profit reselling them.

So what is the right price? Like collecting maps and books, you’re best off doing your homework. Studying the current listings on auctions and online stores will tell you what people are interested in, as well as the prices they’re willing to pay. (Ruby Lane is one good source.) If the anniversary of a special event is coming up in a year or so, collectibles connected with it often increase in value. (Olympics memorabilia often does this, for example.)

Websites are available for more information, like this one. Or look for books — there are many on the subject, including Picture Postcards by C.W. Hill.

Once you get a better idea on pricing, use that as a gauge for how much you’re willing to spend. Most dealers figure to double their money, at the very least — many price their items at triple or more. Even you find a $1 postcard that goes for only $3-5, those profits can start to add up. (Don’t forget to factor in any selling fees or percentages you might have to pay.)

The rewards for reselling these items can be modest — or very rewarding. The photo below, of a performer showing off a scandalous bit of ankle, plus a crazy-quilted costume, went for $86 and change on Ebay a few years ago. Its original penciled-in price, no doubt picked up from an antiques store: $4.

This is another installment of a series on shoestring investment options. (See the first post here — on silver. Other subjects include maps and books.) You can be involved on a large scale, but small, regular investments are even more easily accomplished. Please note: I am a certified personal property appraiser — but not a professional investment counselor. These are my takes on the subject, albeit backed up with resesarch and expert opinions. Invest at your own risk.

This post is by staff writer Cindy Brick. You can visit her at or visit her personal blog.

4 thoughts on “Investing On A Shoestring – Paper Ephemera”

  1. It’s all in knowing what to look for, as well as following trends — a little bit of research, especially in an area you’re already interested in, can really pay off!

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