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Article Published September 11, 2019
Here Today, Here Tomorrow
Rita Christopher, Senior Correspondent

Got an old poster from the PTO rummage sale? A post card with a picture of Niagara Falls? A newspaper from your senior year in high school? Is it all just clutter? Think before you throw any of it away.

There is a collector out there who wants your discards. And that is what Al Malpa will talk about on Sunday, Sept. 15 at 5 p.m. at the Chester Meeting House: ephemera, the written material, postcards, photographs, advertisements, and assorted papers that are the records of our daily existence.

“Ephemera is primary source material of everyday life, generated at the moment,” Malpa explained. “It is like looking through a keyhole at history.”

The starting point for separating clutter from collectible is defining what kind of material a person wants to collect. The varieties of ephemera are endless: old prescriptions, menus, magazine covers, automobile advertisements. One of Malpa’s first ephemera collections was of school awards once given to children—certificates for perfect attendance, excellent spelling, even not whispering in class.

“One man’s ephemera is another man’s junk,” Malpa admitted.

Collections can focus, for instance, on a subject, a historical period, even a geographical area.

Malpa’s upcoming PowerPoint presentation will focus on Chester, specifically on the ephemera in the Chester Historical Society as a part of the society’s 50th anniversary celebration. In addition to the PowerPoint talk, there are examples of ephemera on display in the museum. Among them are a wall-size mural of a fife and drum corps with a majorette in shorts, a gold-bedecked jacket, and a high-top hat, posing in front of the Chester Meeting House in the 1950s; posters from It Happened to Jane, the l959 Doris Day movie entirely filmed in Chester; and a Robbie Collomore concert poster featuring the late Robert J. Lurtsema, whose deep voice was the hallmark of his classical music programs on public radio

Ephemera collecting is not a new phenomenon, but it is a changing one. According to Malpa, people have been collecting ephemera in this country since Colonial times.

“In the 18th- and 19th century, people had a penchant for keeping things, but not in the 20th,” he noted.

Today, computerized documents and photographs mean some items of ephemera never become tangible paper records. But now, Malpa said, there is a new category: digital ephemera.

Ironically, some of earlier items are better preserved than later material because until the 1870s, paper was made of rags and did not deteriorate like the wood pulp paper we use today.

“You could have a newspaper from 1800 and there would be no deterioration but wear and tear,” Malpa said, “but you could have a paper on the sinking of the Lusitania [in 1915] and it is falling apart.”

Popular ephemera categories at the moment include anything to do with women’s empowerment and material on the Vietnam war.

Malpa’s lifetime fascination with ephemera started as a teenager poking through file cabinets with old documents at an antique shop in North Scituate, Rhode Island, that he and his mother visited. He is a past president of the Ephemera Society of America,

Collectors are not always individuals but often museums, among them the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Huntington Museum in Pasadena California, to which Malpa has sold material, including his collection of educational ephemera.

Though he is also a newspaper photographer, Malpa now spends his professional time as a dealer in ephemera. Still, buying and selling ephemera is a challenge for him.

“The hardest thing for an ephemera collector is parting with the material,” he said.

Malpa is eager to share his expertise at the upcoming program.

“I hope attendees can see ephemera as a fascinating way of looking back at our own history,” he said.

Al Malpa will discuss Ephemera Discoveries in Chester’s Collection at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15 at the Chester Meeting House, 4 Liberty Street. Admission is free.