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Trash or Treasure: Collector's Spotlight: Victorian trade cards offer glimpse of America's past


By Khristi Zimmeth  |  Special to The Detroit News

John Kemler has been collecting Victorian trade cards for more than 50 years and is still learning, he says. “They advertise just about everything imaginable—soap, sewing, farm, tobacco, baby food, medicine and etc.,” he explained in a recent email about his fascinating hobby. “Thousands were printed and the variety is almost endless. After many years of collecting I still find material I have never seen before.”

His reason for seeking them out is one most collectors can relate to. “I am a person who believes in reusing things and in some way I feel like I am helping to save and preserve this part of our past,” he explained. As part of our ongoing spotlight on Michigan collectors, we recently asked him about the “pieces of paper” – officially known as ephemera -- he has been collecting for more than a half century.

What do you collect and why?

I am a collector of Victorian trade cards.  These cards were printed and distributed mainly after the American Civil War until the late 1890s.  They became popular in many American homes as they usually were printed in color, often pictured images that were attractive or appealing, and were free.  Children (as well as adults) would collect them sometimes pasting them into scrapbooks.  Most of the cards were printed by a method of stone lithography and retain much of their brilliance even today, some 140 plus years later.

What appeals to you about them?

These cards appeal to me because they are windows into our past history.  They tell a story -- good or bad -- about America at this time.   They are often beautiful artwork and at times almost like tiny paintings or prints.  Many are very rare.  The variety seems endless and there always seems to be another one around the corner.    They are what a historian would call primary source material. 

How big is your collection?

Over 50 years I have collected thousands of cards.  Counting them has never been one of my priorities.

When did you start collecting?

I started collecting these cards in 1969.   I started collecting farm-related cards because I grew up on a farm but soon found that all types of these cards just appealed to me.  I have always loved history and did graduate work in that area.  These cards seem to really fit my interests.

What are the highlights of your collection? Your favorite examples?

I have too many cards that would fit into a "highlights" category.     It is always a highlight when I find a card I have not seen or complete a set.  Several categories of cards appeal to me:  those by Currier and Ives, clipper ships, farm-related, those with strong historical references or messages… but I really like them all.

How do you display them? Do you ever share with museums or historical societies?

Most of my cards are in archival albums. I share with museums, libraries, specialized interest groups, schools, etc. It is fun to share these cards with fellow collectors as well as making them available to museums. Our local history museum, the Gratiot County Historical and Genealogical Society, is usually able to incorporate some of them in their exhibits highlighting our county’s story.

How do you care for it? 

I care for the collection by storing them in archival albums.

What are your still searching for?

I am searching for any card I do not have.

Tips for others interested in starting a collection? Online resources/where to learn more?

Collecting these cards often leads in many different directions and along the way one meets wonderful people and many new friends are made.  The cards may be found at local antique flea markets, antique shows, yard sales, auctions, postcard shows or at larger planned events, such as the book and paper shows or national shows like those annually presented by the Ephemera Society of America.  Sites like eBay or other internet auctions offer a wealth of material as well.  Two places to start for information on the internet might be: www.tradecards.com, operated by Ben Crane, a longtime collector, which includes many informative articles and images, and www.ephemerasociety.org, the site for the Ephemera Society of America, which publishes a journal sharing information about many forms of ephemera collecting.

Interested in seeing your collection in our pages? If so, send a paragraph about your collection and what appeals to you about it along with a few photos of you with items in your collection to trashortreas@aol.com.  If chosen, we will be in touch.