For those with a fetish for the past, the International Antiquarian Book Fair is a veritable orgy of delight.
Held within the creaking hall of the Park Avenue Armory in April, the fair teemed with objects that have somehow made it through the centuries: colored cosmografias and uncertain maps, giant tomes with brass fittings shaped like lace-cuffed hands, sepia-toned drawings of human anatomy — when human anatomy was a matter of humors and bile— and countless leather and gold-bound books. And amidst the mystically ancient, there are pieces of absurd modernity, from Red Scare-era pamphlets that blare “I Was Swindled by RED MOVIE MAKERS: Communist Attempts to Rule Filmland Told” topulp erotica titled “Virgin Planet: A world of beautiful women–and one man!”
But David Lilburne, a rare book seller dressed in a tweed suit unexpectedly waved it all off.
“Rare books are fine but what I really like is ephemera,” Lilburne told me in an Australian twang, by which he meant disposable paper goods, like postcards and train tickets.
“Don’t discount the train ticket!” Lilburne said, eager to defend these supposedly banal bits of paper. “It tells you where someone was, where they were going, when they were going, and…how much it cost.”
Lilburne himself has thousands of pieces in his collection, tucked away in his bookshop, Antipodean Books, Maps & Prints, in Garrison, New York. If I wanted to see it, he would be happy to show it to me, he said. Half a year later, I took him up on his offer.
The bookshop, which he runs with his wife Cathy, hangs right over the edge of the Hudson River along the Metro-North line. The shop is split in two. On one side is your usual overstuffed and cramped used-and-rare bookstore, while the other houses a spacious library. Inside, a table, a glass case filled with childrens books and trinkets, framed wall prints, and a filing cabinet jostle with boxes of paper goods for sale: old photos, stereoscopic views, and odd ends that defied easy categorization. As Lilburne toured me around, he talked about his fellow collectors.
“We are 800 strong!” he said proudly of the Ephemera Society, of which he is the president. What kind of collections did he and his fellow ephemerists have? “Oh I’ve met people who collect all kinds of things,” he said. “Some people collect coffee ephemera, valentines, sheet music, movable paper, some people collect death.”
Towards the back, Lilburne prepared a sampling of his over 4,000 piece collection.Now wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt advertising the Australia brewery where his son works, he began his show and tell: A dull gold leaf label that once encircled a tin of tea; an old comic depicting an ugly English nanny with her hands in a tea canister — “I has ten pounds a year and I find meself in tea,” she says, grinning to herself — an unfolded fan displaying a gold-curled, rosy-cheeked lady drinking a cup of tea; and a scrap of a Philadelphia newspaper from 1789 listing the prices of Jeff and Robert Warm’s Teas, Coffees, and Cocoas. Surrounding the advertisement were nickle-sized illustrations of ships and the rest of the classifieds: fishing tackle and indigo for sale, boats on charter, and notices flagging runaway slaves.
But most of the items in Lilburne’s collection were advertisements that seemingly covered every available surface in 19th century England, a time when color printing became widely available. There were ink blotters, menus, fans, packets of sewing needles bearing the flowery, bonnet-wearing girls that represented Victorian tea dealers, and later, the stark graphics of Lipton’s.
At the time, some businesses employed a form of advertisement that consisted of a charming illustration and, at the very bottom, a few lines of ad copy. Easily able to snip away the solicitation, girls, for the most part, would collect them as decorations for their scrapbooks.
“It was either that or read the bible,” quipped Lilburne, as he held one such scrapbook.
Scrawled on the marbled endpaper was a note dictating that the scrapbook had belonged to a Miss Margaret Shore in 1831. Shore had carefully cut up advertisements, catalogs, and magazines and then glued them on the dark pages of her scrapbook. Lilburne opened the book at random and there appeared a young woman wearing a straw hat, sporting two glistening pink ribbons.
“Isn’t she lovely?” Lilburne said, tracing the ribbon with his finger and informing me that the print was a mesoprint, hence the full darkness of the black ink. More pages revealed Shore’s plain, sweet tastes — puppies, crests, bows, and an embossed circle of paper that looked like a doily, among other items.
The scrapbook touched me and unsettled me. I had done such a similar thing when I was growing up, and so did most of my friends. But instead, we had done it on Tumblr. Sifting through the eternal wash of image, video, and text that we encountered online, we became unwilling to let the interesting and beautiful slip out of our hands completely. We lost it all anyway to the sheer scale of the scroll and the archive. By the time I stopped using my Tumblr page, I had reblogged over 100,000 pieces of content. I mentioned this to Lilburne, who sadly said that the ephemera of the world is disappearing in the digital age.
When Lilburne and I finished looking through his collection, I asked him why had he spent his time and money on all those things destined to be forgotten? He likened collecting to telling a story about history.
“There are two ways to study history. You can read the texts, all those books up there,” he said, gesturing to his leather-bound library. “But, as soon as you’ve got it in print, it’s biased. But if you’ve got the original piece of paper, you know what prices were, what things looked like, you can see it. It is an actual record of what was going on. If you put enough little pieces of paper together, you’ve got an unbiased history.”
Every archaeologist loves to unearth — more than palaces — the trash pile, for a similar reason. The texture of life is in the receipts, gum wrappers, and the post-it notes stuck in lunch boxes. But what ends up in the trash is more than the immediately and obviously disposable, like the train ticket. Think of all that gets carted out of grandma’s house, in those hard days of clean up following her death. What gets kept, donated, or put in garbage bags? What is winnowed out in bulk in the exhaustion of grief and labor? Documents and pictures of people no living person knows anymore, bent postcards in loopy, smudged script.
This is the grayness of ephemera: gum wrappers and love letters often end up in the same places, but the gum wrappers might be more historically relevant or might tickle someone’s fancy more in their bright color, retro design, and nostalgic, imaginative twinge.
For all the real historical value that Lilburne’s collection has — in fact, many ephemerists go on to donate their collections to libraries and museums — the moment Lilburne became a collector had little to do with history.
Back in the ‘70s, he put together a gift for a friend of his who worked at Lipton. Lilburne thought it would be funny and nice to gather a package of tea-related paper goods; he’d seen enough ephemera as a rare book dealer to know where to find it. He put what he’d collected into a little bundle and went off to the party. As he told me the story, he shook his head and smiled, making a clawing gesture.
“I started handing it to him and I realized, I don’t want to let go,” Lilburne said.