Monday, 14 September 2015

Keeping the story going: a tale of protecting vintage papery treasure from the fire.

My English literature dissertation, [written a long time ago now], contained a chapter titled "Paper and skin both burn: the Textuality of the End".

Sounds cheery no?

I won't go into all the details [you'll be relieved to hear] but, in a wider exploration of apocalyptic fiction, this chapter in particular was an in-depth look at the interesting role of literature, books and story-telling in the event of an apocalypse/nuclear war.

So what's this got to do with anything? Well I suppose it proves that - long before I collected vintage books and ephemera - an interest in the preservation of narratives- and indeed even of paper itself - has been a running theme through my life ...
Click to learn more about this vintage school syllabus
And it's been because of my collecting in recent years, that I've realised that when it comes to books that haven't been professionally printed ... when it comes to things such as:
  •  blank books [notebooks, excercise books, diaries etc]
  • or blank sheets of paper / postcards etc, 
  • or else books which began their life as blanks which have since been written in by a regular, non-famous, owner ...
... we don't have to wait for an atom bomb to destroy those ... because we're already doing a good job of that in the here and now!

Who saves empty, unused, notebooks and albums?
Vintage stamp album [SOLD].
Who saves all the old ledgers and diaries and schoolbooks that the hands of everyday people have made their mark in?


Other than 'people like you and me' of course ...

It all started with a ledger, and a journal that wasn't mine ...

When I first started getting interested in art journals / creative notebooks I became aware of people working directly on to the pages of old ledger books; adding their own artistic layers on to an already intriguing background. They looked so - for want of a better word - cool that I decided there and then to keep a look out for one of my own.

And that's what got me started.

The first thing I found - upside down and poking out the top of an old tea-chest at a collectors' fair was not actually a ledger but this journal:
It's pages are part blank, part written in by 'Rosemary' and mostly stuffed with her personal ephemera such as Christmas cards, newspaper snippets and letters. I've had it for over 5 years now yet I've never shared it anywhere [although I did once submit an article about it somewhere, which didn't come to anything .. not that I'm still sore about that or anything ...].

From time to time I mull over big plans for it, I dip into researching the owner, I wonder about contacting her descendants, I think about writing another article about it ... and if any of it ever comes to anything, I promise I will share more!

It remains one of my favourite ever vintage treasures, and this sentimental attachment I've developed for it has prevented me from using it for the purpose I initially intended; I've never used it as an art journal.

Instead it remains as it did when its original owner closed the cover for the last time. Which is certainly part of the charm; the pull; the romance of collecting vintage personal books and ephemera. They've had a life already, before they reach your hands. They're already intriguing, full of life, full of silent stories, before and even 'if' you do anything with them.

Then it became a 'collection', and I a 'collector' [and 'dealer'!] ... 

Ever since that first thrill of discovery I've been scanning the shelves of the second hand books I regularly browse [and goodness knows there've been miles of those!!] for more.

I'm always on the look out for a glimpse of a spine or page that looks slightly different to those of the hoards of regular printed books that line the shelves. Hoping that there'll be another post-owner notebook, journal, diary etc just waiting to steal my heart.

But there hardly ever is. Ever.
Vintage, handwritten, recipe notebook. [SOLD]
And so, on the rare occasions I do manage to strike papery gold, I tend to buy it.

How can I not? How do I know I'll get the chance again?

In fact ... I see them so rarely I'm still ruing not buying an old, blank, reporter's notebook from the vintage market in Tynemouth about two winters ago ... [maybe sharing that fact will lead me to, finally, let it go ... ].

So where is it I'm looking?

  • I regularly browse charity shops, 
  • and occasionally car boot sales
  • and also vintage shops, collectors' fairs and junk shops. 
  • And then, for the last couple of years, I've visited the antiques haven that is the Hemswell Antiques centres plus several other large antiques/junk centres on the same site in Lincolnshire.
Regarding the latter centres they are huge buildings [it's an ex RAF base!] crammed to the rafters with antiques and collectibles [a great day out if you're a  rummager!] and you can find just about anything you're seeking in there.

But, the thing that sticks out for me is, that when most people would consider rarity in collectibles it's probably not paper goods that would spring to mind first. And yet ... while wandering around these wonderful, vast, buildings ...

... what you learn is that war medals, ceramics, paintings and spoons are ten a penny, a dime buys a dozen. But paper products? They're just not there.

After spending all day there I uncovered the grand total of four vintage items that were paper related.

And I bought three of them!

They included this 'aide memoire':
Click to learn more about this vintage palm-sized notebook
... plus ... a box of unused 1920s index cards [see image further down] and a gorgeous handwritten school syllabus book from the 1940s [shown in first image at the top of this post].

Meanwhile the fourth was a beautiful writing set from the first half of the 20th Century inside a fold-out desk pad, complete with its original gift box. It even had a pad of monthly 'to do' lists. And was divine. But also a bit beyond my budget.

So, I brought home those few I found and - as always - I bought them with the intention of either:

  • using them in my own projects, 
  • keeping them for my own collection, 
  • or passing them on to other, welcoming, hands via my Etsy shop

And I don't even mind selling them. I'm delighted  that - somewhere down the line - they'll end up being admired by another treasure seeker ... because as long as these items are out there in the world once again I'm happy!
Learn more about these vintage index cards
And I enjoy doing the necessary leg work to find them, it's part of the joy of collecting. All that browsing, bending and sifting. All that flipping through, eyeing-up and reaching over.

I revel in the serendipity of stumbling across a glittering single treasure in the midst of an ocean of predictability. 

I love spotting the nugget in the dirt, opening up its covers - in reverence - to flip through its pages with my dusty fingers. And then I take an additional pleasure in knowing that - right up until I handed my money over - the seller/shop assistant had probably been thinking: 'That'll never sell. Who's going to buy an old notebook / school book / index card etc?'.

Who indeed?
Click to learn more about these vintage menu cards
Not that it's hard to understand why some people throw old notebooks and paper goods away, or why some vendors don't realise what splendidness they've got in their hands; after all the vast majority of the population doesn't love old paper like we do!

I cringe at the thought of relatives or professional house clearance companies emptying a house and throwing away this kind of thing, the kind of thing they don't realise we'll happily pay for!! If they did see the value [a] they'd be pleasantly surprised and [b] there'd be more of it for us all to rummage through but ... [c] it might put the prices up!!

So ... I don't know ... maybe I'll just happily continue to mine shelves and boxes for this rare treasure.
Click to learn more about these blank vintage postcards
Maybe if I could find it everywhere it would no longer feel I was on a vital rescue mission!

A mission to salvage the notes, ephemera, and collections of everyday people over the last century and to take care of them, as they did.

A mission to to ensure its legacy, to be inspired by its back-story, to give it a new lease of life.

A mission to save it from the fire and keep the story going for a little while longer ...


Thanks for reading me today.

If you'd like to contribute to the story of preserving, enjoying and using vintage books and ephemera please do so:

  • you can leave me a comment;
  • you could blog your personal collection of ephemera and share the link in a comment or via my Facebook page and I'll come and visit. I'm sure you've got your favourites you'd love to share with us all.
  • you could share your favourite places to browse for treasure;
  • if you've purchased some of the collection from my shop I'd love to hear about its new life with you! 
  • OR ... you can just share any papery ponderings this post has stirred up in you! 
I'll await your notes ... 



  1. What a delicious, delightful post...! An ode to the delights of papery treasures, of jumbling, of the 'thrill of the find'....(which very few of us understand). Beautiful. Loved it all. [Thank you].

  2. I wish you lived nearer. I have all sorts of things that I would give you but they are too heavy to post.

    1. That's nice Bernice [maybe it's better for my groaning shelves / cupboards ...!!] ;-)

  3. For me it is old bills, ration books etc the sort of items that were personal to someone ... but I can't then bring myself to use them in any way. I love anything that has real social history, it feels like touching the past.
    I do like the title of your dissertation, beats "the feeding preferences of passerine birds" (or some similar title that I don't really remember because it was so long ago whole universes have been born and then died in that time.

    1. I know what you mean. I have things I will use / cut up etc and things that are safe!

      Strangely - in light of you saying whole universes have been born and died since you did yours - my overall title for my dissertation was 'It's not the end of the world'!

  4. Paper is awesome. but vintage ephemera is awesome-r. Thanks for sharing your great collection.

  5. I know just where you are coming from Julie, I love nothing more than finding old paper treasures myself, especially if there is handwriting in it. I recently bought a beautiful Victorian photo album complete with photos... the stories these could tell if only they could speak. Great post.

    1. I can't remember where I saw it now but I'm sure there's a whole niche of collecting where people create back-stories for the people in old photos!

  6. I don't know if I've already told you this, but last year, I helped my parents tidy the loft in the old part of their house. The new part is an extension we built; the old part was originally my grandparents' house, and the loft hadn't been emptied or sorted out in over 20 years. (Obviously helping out was a totally selfless and benevelot act on my part, and nothing AT ALL to do with the vintage fabric/wallpaper/other treasures I was hoping to lay claim to...). Among the things we found was an old shoebox stuffed full of old letters, cards, notes, family newspaper clippings, and basically just personal paper stuff my grandma had saved. It was so fascinating sifting through it - like a giant, slow-reveal of of a present - and, despite the fact I am famously dead inside, a real swirl of emotions. Hilariously old-fashioned things, a few wtf moments wondering what things were or why she'd saved them, some super-touching, surprising and restrained-but-still-lovely love letters from my (also emotionally stunted) grandad, and all sorts of other brain-sparking items. It was even better going through them with my mum and her older sister there, because obviously they were able to put lots of the pieces into context in a way I couldn't.

    Thanks for such a lovely post + reminding me of such a fun find. (Apparently, it inspired me to write half a dissertation of my own here...) You know I won't be able to resist keeping a beady eye out on your behalf now, right?


    1. I didn't know the shoe box part no. How exciting for you all, and lovely to have been gifted a little extra time with your Gran. xx

  7. They're just all a visual delight ... I want to reach in and touch each one :). Lovely to know there are people who value and rescue them. Have you tried book fairs? We have a few our way and every so often there is someone who turns up with lots of paper ephemera - old letters, bills, bits of legal documents etc. - selling them for a pound a bag ...

    1. No, not tried book fairs Alexa - I know there's a large one at York ... maybe worth a trip one year. But, you know me, I'm more of an 'as and when' kind of collector than a serious hunter. [My crammed workroom breathes a sigh of relief!]

  8. Me! Me! I save all forms of paper. If you asked I would never think of saying I got it from my Mum, who isn't in the least sentimental. And yet, not long ago she found the receipt for their honeymoon rental cottage and she offered it to me. So of course I took it. My FIL was an inveterate paper hoarder and has left me some treasures, including shop ledgers from the 1920's (heartbreaking: there are letters tucked inside from customers unable to pay. It was Depression time)

  9. Gosh I love old books!! I've got a small collection. I especially love the Ladybird books!

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  11. I cringe at the thought of my sister or niece cleaning out our place and just throwing things away - neither one of them is a "keeper" so much so that their houses look startk with nothing out of place like they're waiting for a magazine photographer.

  12. I loved this post. I didn't realize I also love the special treasure that is someone's handwriting inside a book until I read this! I love old books and that sort of thing always catches my eye. I've just realized I do it with my own things too! I can't bring myself to throw away old notebooks from my college days and I love coming across them every now and then and reading my notes...which mean almost nothing to me now. =) I was also in the habit of sticking papers inside my textbooks in random places and when I find them now I read them, smile, and put them right back to find another day!


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