Follow the Badge Lady

Badge Requirements

1. Start a collection or add to one you have already started.

2. Figure out a way to arrange your collection at home. Use scrapbooks, shelves, boxes, or whatever seems best for the collection.

3. Group or label the objects in your collection so they will be interesting to other people.

4. Choose three objects and write a display label for each telling such things as: Where you found it. Age of object. How it was made. Story about it.

5. Find out more about your collection in one of the following ways: Visit another collector to see his or her exhibit. Read books or magazines. Talk to someone who knows about what you are collecting.

6. Show your troop your newest addition and one of your favorite pieces in your collection.

7. Display your collection at a troop meeting or hobby show, or invite some troop members to see your collection at home.

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Purpose: Start a collection or add to one you have already started.

Wish You Were Here

I start a postcard collection with help from the Ephemera Society of America 

I think of myself as more of a saver than a collector. I hang onto things with sentimental value. Old letters, photos, ticket stubs, playbills, cards -- the memorabilia of my life. But I don't apply much thought or care to what I keep. Some things get saved, some don't. It basically happens by accident. And those things that do survive are tucked away in boxes and drawers without concern for organization or categorization. By contrast, serious collectors apply thought, care, and purpose to their things. They document a history and store their finds in archives and libraries. Me, I merely have junk drawers.

I realized that to convert myself from low-caste saver into higher order collector, I would need a concrete plan, and I set about researching the field. First, I discovered that there is an actual name for all the letters, cards, and other paper stuff in my junk drawers. It’s called ephemera, and there is a large network of people and institutions involved in its collection, preservation, research, and display. Ephemera is a broad category that includes virtually any type of everyday document intended for one-time or short-term use. Among the many items that fall under its umbrella are stamps, postcards, theater tickets, posters, bookmarks, baseball cards, luggage tags, and maps, to name only a small portion.

As I began to wade through the abundance of information --  websites, books, newsletters, magazines, all devoted to the collector – I felt I could use some guidance and contacted the Ephemera Society of America, one of the best resources in the field, which offers a mentorship program to it members.

I had already narrowed down my sub-category of ephemera to postcards. I liked the idea of collecting what amount to mini pieces of artwork, which, since they are basically uniform in size, would make a nice picture book. But I was interested in more than the visual aspect of postcards; I'm also drawn to the senders' messages -- little snippets from lives from the past.

I explained all this in an email to Diane DeBlois, active member of the Ephemera Society of America and my number one pick for a mentor. Diane had a lot to recommend her. She had written a number of entertaining and informative articles on the Society's website, writes the Society's newsletter, is an editor of Postal History Journal, is on the advisory board of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, and, along with her partner, runs a company specializing in ephemera in the fields of transportation and communication. Also, she lives in upstate New York (only a few hour's drive from my home).

I received an enthusiastic reply email right away. Diane was happy to help me in any way she could. We made a date to meet at the Northeast Postal History and Ephemera Show in Albany on the coming weekend. "There will be postcard dealers galore, and we can talk strategies," she wrote. I’d had a good feeling about Diane, and my intuition seemed to be proving right. Not only was she a talented and informative writer, she sounded really nice. But best of all, I was thrilled to discover that Diane is a former Scout herself! She was enthusiastic about my project and eager to help me “earn” my Collector badge. She said she had loved and valued her experience as a Brownie and Girl Guide (Canada's version of Girl Scouts), and had devoted herself to earning as many badges as she could. She thought she might still have her old badges somewhere and said she’d bring what she could find.

On Saturday, I arrived at the Ephemera Show, which was held in a large banquet hall at the Polish Community Center. There were about 35 dealers, all with a tremendous number of boxes and notebooks set out on tables to showcase their collections. I spotted Diane near the entrance and went to introduce myself. We said hello and she reached across her table to grasp my hands in hers like I was an old friend. Diane is tall and slender with short curly gray hair, lively, bright eyes, and a contagious enthusiasm. People flock to her table as much for her company as for her collection. 

My mentor, Diane DeBlois, modeling her Girl Guide uniform from her teenage years.Diane had indeed been able to dig up all of her old scouting gear, and she began to spread out her badges to display them for me. She had a plethora from Brownies alone. Then she took out her Girl Guide uniform, covered in badges and tokens of her many achievements, slipped the dress on over her clothes (it still fit!), and modeled it. She had some serious badges, including lifeguarding and firefighting. And these were the real deal: she’d actually had to learn to save lives and put out fires. Even her Brownie badges were an impressive achievement: Her mother had been her troop leader and, in an effort not to show favoritism, had required Diane to work twice as hard as all the other scouts.

For me it had been the exact opposite. We didn’t have to pass the rigorous judgment of our leader but could have any scout’s mother sign off on our badges. Almost all of the 28 badges I’d earned were signed by either my best friend’s mother or my own, and, unlike Diane’s mother, they hadn’t held us to a very high standard. I can’t even remember actually performing very many of the tasks. Our approach was much more laissez faire – well, we thought about what we would do, so can you sign off? But now, I had the chance to do it over, and, under the guidance of an accomplished former Scout, I was determined to do it right this time. Diane and I finished regaling each other with our scouting stories and got down to the business at hand.

Because I was interested in the story side of the postcards, Diane had brought a book from her library, Had a Good Time, by the novelist and short story writer Robert Olen Butler. The book consists of 15 short stories based on the written messages from Butler's collection of early 20th century postcards. I hadn't known about the book and was pleased to discover that I had an impulse similar to that of the famous writer. Diane said the book was mine to borrow for as long as I needed it. Then she pointed out the postcard dealers she recommended I visit and sent me on my way.

The room was orderly and sedate, with a scholarly atmosphere generated mainly by the stamp collectors, a highly specialized species, also known by their scientific name, philatelists, who operate in an obscure world of watermarks, selvages, and perforations. Their business was serious. I heard one no-nonsense collector approach a table and say something along the lines of  “illegal usage of some such thing on the cover, pre-1940?” It was slightly intimidating, and I was much more comfortable in postcards, a “softer” branch of postal ephemera collecting. But even in this area, I lacked expertise and introduced myself as a beginner to explain my ignorance. I was directed to the inexpensive boxes, a catchall for the least desirable cards, but fine for my purposes.

I pulled up a chair and started in on my first long, shallow box, using a placeholder insert to pull out chunks at a time, working my way to the back of the box. The sheer number of postcards at the show was overwhelming. It takes patience and discipline (two virtues that are not my strong suit) to dig through the multitudes of possibilities. The more you can zero in on a specific category, the more manageable the search. Postcards are arranged by geographic location and by topic, such as holidays, animals, florals, children, war, sports, and so on. I limited myself to geographic locations and very quickly realized I didn’t like the modern photographic cards as much as the color illustrations that were prominent in the first half of the 20th century. But since I was more curious about the flip side of the card, I still had plenty of scrutinizing to do.

As I was sifting through a box of New York postcards, I was approached by a man who asked me what I was collecting. “Oh, I’m just a beginner,” I said, pulling out my introductory line. It turns out I was speaking to the president of the Ephemera Society of America, who was so pleased, and surprised, to see a young lady interested in the hobby (I was probably the youngest attendee by two decades) that he wanted to introduce himself and offer me any help. I explained my focus on the written messages on postcards and his face lit up. He knew of a book or two on this very topic, and asked if I’d been to Diane’s table. “She’ll know what they are,” he said. I explained that I had indeed been to see Diane and that she’d actually loaned me the very book, Robert Olen Butler’s Had a Good Time, that he was referring to. But there was another book, too, a graphic novel, although the author’s name escaped him. He dashed over to see Diane and returned to deliver the news: Jason Rodriguez was the name of the author. “He spoke at one of our meetings.”

I was impressed with the Ephemera Society’s expertise; they were well informed on every facet of their branch of collectibles. Unlike some of the other memorabilia shows (see my toy fair essay) that run on pure nostalgia, this one had more going on. “It's what you might call surrogate nostalgia,” Diane said. For instance, she explained, reading a 19th century letter can transport her to another time and place, where she might imagine herself alongside other women knitting socks in the wilds of California during the Gold Rush, say. In other words, we are drawn to the stories of other people's lives because of their place in history. And history becomes less abstract when can hear directly from the people who were actually there about their day to day concerns, struggles, and joys.

When I studied the Gold Rush in fourth grade I remember imagining one like unit of people all in pursuit of getting rich. It didn’t occur to me that there would have been different kinds of people, living in California for a variety of reasons and having individual experiences. If I’d been able to read actual letters from those who’d lived through the events, I may have understood better that real life was taking place during this momentous time. 

The documents that provide a window into the past are what fascinate many collectors. “It's an intellectual pursuit,” Diane said. She herself is an expert on postal history, and I got a taste of what she meant when I attended her slide show lecture on the Hudson River Steamboat Mails -- a topic that was surprisingly filled with conflict, deceit, and underhanded dealings between rival steamboat companies. Though most of the information went over my head, the rest of the audience appeared to be excessively knowledgeable in the arcane history of postal routes and were eager to raise their hands and augment the lecture with their own tidbits of information. 

If at first I’d thought postcard collecting to be a lightweight activity, I was beginning to see otherwise. I may never develop the kind of punctilious expertise I was witnessing here today, but certainly there would be a lot to learn as I worked on my new hobby.

By the end of the day, I had nine postcards with which to begin my collection. They ranged in date from 1908 to 1960. Three were published by Curt Teich, which I discovered had been the world's largest printer of view and advertising postcards, operating from 1898 to 1978. The company had been founded by a German immigrant, which makes sense since Germany was the major manufacturer of postcards prior to World War I. Among my nine, I also have two Made in Germany postcards.

But as compelling as the postcard history is, I'm still drawn to the stories, and my favorite find of the day is one sent from Niagara Falls in 1941:

There is still no mail. I’m not kidding, if I don’t get mail from home – I stop writing. Then you can see how you like the feeling. 

 So now I’ve been to the honeymooner’s paradise – but, damn it, not on a honeymoon.

I was surprised by the bare emotion on display in this short note. Not only does the writer have a grievance against her (or his; but I’m inclined to think female) family for not writing back, but she threatens them with similar unthoughtful treatment. Maybe her bitterness with her family was accentuated by her lack of a marriage proposal.

Another postcard, also sent in 1941, was intriguing:

Dear Charlie, 

 Do you miss me or didn’t you have time to yet. I certainly miss our afternoon “confabs.”

How’s the town boring without me?

If you have time in between “books,” how about writing a few lines.


I wonder what went on at their “confabs.” I found these fragments of real lives to be fascinating, and I was eager to share my finds with my mentor for her appraisal. Together, Diane and I marveled at the way we could hear these voices, some over one hundred years old, speaking to us across time.

With the start of my collection in hand, our next order of business was to consider the presentation of my artifacts. I could keep each in an individual sleeve or put them together in a book. While clear plastic pages would allow both sides of the postcards to be viewed, I wanted something more old fashioned -- scrapbook style. I could type up the letter and place it next to the picture postcard. That way it would be easier to read than having to decipher people's idiosyncratic penmanship. But beyond transcribing the written notes, I wasn't sure what else I could make of them.

After I returned home, I read the book Diane had loaned me, Robert Olen Butler's Had a Good Time, and while I liked the idea of creating a work of fiction out of the postcard notes, ultimately I didn't think it was successful. I don't like fiction that I know is fiction. I realize the nonsense of that statement -- of course I know that all novels and short stories I read are fiction; I purposely go to the fiction shelves in the library or bookstore to choose such literature. But in his book, Butler has somehow ruined the illusion by making it too obvious that he's written a fake story about a real person. I want to know what really happened.

In fact, I was curious about the real lives of the people in my own postcards. Who was Sarah who wrote to her folks in 1941 from Southern California about the “beautiful highways but plenty of traffic”? Why was she on a trip? How about the Coney Island bather from 1912 “still married--to this job”? What was his line of work? I started to poke around to see what I could unearth, and found one of my postcard recipients in the 1940 census.

That year Charles Homan -- he of the “afternoon confabs” -- was living at home with his parents and younger brother on Wyoming Street in Carbondale, Pennsylvania (same address where he was residing when Carolyn wrote to him in 1941). At the time, Charles was 23, had been unemployed for the duration of 40 weeks, and was seeking work. His profession was bookkeeper in the auto industry. I wonder if Carolyn’s mention of “books” refers to his work as a bookkeeper and, by the time he’d received the postcard in 1941, was he gainfully employed?

Playing history detective had been an exciting exercise, and I planned to do more of it. If I could find additional information – about Charles and others I meet through my collection – I could create my own history book of everyday people. What kind of neighborhood was Carbondale, Pennsylvania, in 1941? The Great Depression had ended, but had Carbondale taken longer to recover? Were others in the region struggling with finding work along with Charles? Now that I had a greater purpose for what to do with my collection, I felt more responsible to these people whose postcards I now owned. It was up to me to uncover their pasts. I was now their steward.

As I contemplated these lives from bygone days, I thought about my own personal ephemera and where it may end up. Will my letters land in the hands of a future collector? I’d like to think so. I’d like to imagine someone reading the letters I’ve saved from my closest friends and puzzling over the kind of people we must have been when we occupied our places in the world. It’s comforting to think of a future generation keeping alive our ephemeral existences. 13 August 2012