Guest Post: Time Travel Via Ephemera

Every-time I visit ‘Tattered and Lost’s blogs, there is something worth reading. She posts about Ephemera and old photos in such a way that they linger with you, visiting you periodically through out the day, giving you moments of pause to think outside of your life. I invited her to write a guest post for me, and luckily, she agreed!

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Ruth has been kind enough to ask me to guest blog. Thank you, Ruth, though I can’t imagine anyone asking me to be a guest. I tend to sleep late and stay up late. I promise to not overstay my welcome.

I go by the online name Tattered and Lost. I’m a very private person and prefer to share my ephemera and not myself. I’m not the focus of my posts, the items I share are what I want readers to pay attention to. Each person will bring their own reactions to the images and I love to hear what they think. All of that said, I will say that I’m a female in California who now gets senior discounts. Yeah!

I do a couple of blogs about ephemera. Sometimes the post is nothing more than an image and a few lines of whatever rattles my brain as I react to what I’m posting. Other times I do some research on the net to try and put the piece into some sort of context. The next day I might just post something snarky or stupid. There’s really no rhyme or reason to any of it.

The first blog, which is my favorite, is Tattered and Lost Vernacular Photography. It’s a collection of vintage snapshots, cabinet cards, portraits, etc. from my ever increasing collection. I try to focus on one image at a time and sometimes do what I call “deconstructing” where I show parts of an image over several days with a final revealing of the full image. It’s my way of dealing with the details that might otherwise be overlooked.

The second blog is called Tattered and Lost Ephemera which covers the items in my ephemera collection that aren’t photos. At this blog it’s a real casserole dish of items that I own. My favorite post is about an old magazine ad from 1934 for Camel cigarettes. It’s a lengthy post which only got lengthier when I was eventually contacted by relatives of the woman featured in the ad. The post is entitled “Maria Eugenia Martinez de Hoz, the Palmer family, and Camel cigarettes“ For me, this is a case where the net and ephemera really compliment each other.

Ruth asked a few questions which I will try to answer.

How do you go about finding items?

Happenstance; I never set out to find something in particular. I take it as it comes, and if something catches my eye and I can justify buying it, well, I cart it home and then worry about where to store it. Over the years I’ve focused on flea markets, antique stores, and estate sales. I’ve also made sure to get new glasses because the details can be easily overlooked in something like a small photo.

A few years ago at an estate sale I saw a tiny photo of a train. I hadn’t received my new glasses so I really couldn’t make out the details. I thought, “Hmmm, train...cool!” and put it in my “to buy” stack. It was quite thrilling when I got it home and scanned it. It turned out to be the Pennsylvania Railroad S1 engine at the 1939 World’s Fair . The photo has gotten a lot of views over the years. And to think I arrived at the estate sale late and the photos had already been picked over. How could someone with better eyesight have missed this one? Sometimes the key is to be observant and be willing to take a chance that there might be a story to tell about an old piece of paper.

Is there value to the items?
Heck if I know. I don’t collect with the idea of value. In fact, I try to pay as little as possible for what I get and never worry if they’ll go up in value. I used to do eBay, but eventually grew weary of having to bid on things that someone else had found. The passion of the search wasn’t as exciting. eBay is more about acquiring than searching.

My real love is buying old photos which can be bought very cheaply. The most I’ve ever spent for one photo was $7. I don’t care if they go up in value; making money is not my reason for collecting. I’m not that interested in cabinets cards or CDVs because they’re posed images in which the personality rarely shines through. They only interest me if I can research the photographer to put the image in the context of history.

I prefer the world that became real once Kodak introduced the Brownie camera. A whole world opened up for people, especially women. Women could be themselves without thinking about what was “correct” behavior. They could be silly and happy without needing approval. I love finding such images

As to when I’m able to do research about a photographer, my favorite example is a post called “The Lovely Young Girl at Baker’s Art Gallery“. I have no information about the subject of the photos, but I was able to do a little online sleuthing and came up with information about the actual photographic studio. The post has been viewed many times and I even got a comment and question from someone who is married to a descendant of the photographers. It’s always a thrill to actually have contact with someone directly related to something you’ve posted. A little piece of paper can have a huge history behind it.

For me, old photos are a chance to time travel. I can look at a photo, especially after I’ve scanned it and seen the entirety of the details, just as the person who took it saw it. I’m there, I’m the person looking through the lens. The people in front of me are reacting for me. I often wish I could spin around and take in all of what they saw. Feel the dusty road beneath my feet, hear the ambient sounds, feel the temperature of the day. Old photos are as close as I’ll ever get to time travel.

And speaking of time travel, I get a kick out of what I call time-traveling-celebrities. I’ve bought a few photos over the years where the person looks very much like a current celebrity. I like to imagine that actual time travel is a special bonus only available to celebrities; you become famous and they give you the key to the past. Perhaps they’re studying for a part, or just taking a vacation where nobody knows them, but the jig is up if someone gets a photo of them. I found Matt Damon in a sports jacket in the 1950s, Paris Hilton on a beach around 1915, and Will Ferrell in a dress in my grandmother’s photo album. Like I said, it’s all a matter of being observant.

As you can tell, I don’t take much of this serious. I’m not a historian or a collector with delusions of grandeur. I just collect stuff I like. If it doesn’t make me sigh, smile, or laugh I probably won’t buy it.

I will now give you a very recent example of putting an item into context and how having net access can fill in the pieces.

A week ago I was at an antique store “bin sorting,” looking for something that would strike me as worthy of space in my home. As I sorted through a large plastic bin full of mostly “pose for grandma” shots and “stand closer and say cheese” shots a husband and wife walked by. The husband said to his wife, “Look, old photos” to which she responded, “I think it’s creepy.” I didn’t look up until she’d moved to the other side of the table. I thought her reaction a little over the top, but I understand that some people are unnerved at the idea of strangers collecting photos of dead people. If she’d known what I had in my stack of “to buy” photos, would she have thought differently? The photo below turned out to have quite an interesting history. Usually when I buy a photo I have no idea if what I’m holding is one-of-a-kind or if there are dozens somewhere in people’s albums.

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Once home I scanned the image to make it very large so I could see the details. At first I was just attracted to the Old West scene and was happy to have it in my collection figuring I’d never be able to put it into context. Then I noticed that the photo did not show two horses, but one horse and one camel. I’ve read about the camels that were used in the West as pack animals, but never imagined I’d find a photo of one. So I did a Google search thinking I’d find a little information about the time period in which camels were used. I was stunned to find my photograph in a piece written by a fellow who belongs to a Civil War collector’s group. He had the data about the image I’d bought and information that it was believed that only two of the images existed; one image is in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, the other at a museum in Southern California. Well, we now know there are at least three copies of this image. To see the post visit “The Camel of San Pedro“. I think this will give you an idea of why I find ephemera so fascinating and why I like to share it in blogs.

Ruth, thanks for letting me expound about my little corner of the universe. Sometimes I’m lucky and can expand on the piece I feature, but more often it’s just a place to share something tattered and lost.

Both images courtesy of Tattered and Lost

So... what do you think? Please leave me a comment.

3 Comments:

  • jade: Basically, you are collecting stories. I like it.
  • J.B. Chicoine: I’ve always loved looking at your old photographs! Thanks so much for sharing some of your stories, too. I still particularly like your pictures of watermelon eaters. :)
  • Tattered and Lost: Oh yes, the watermelon eaters. I have a new one! Thanks for reminding me. I’ll post it this week.

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