While booksellers at the Michigan Antiquarian Book and Paper Show are grunting and groaning, hauling heavy boxes filled with books into the Lansing Center, John Kemler of Alma Michigan has a lighter load to move.
Kemler (Booth 28, Paper Americana), who sells ephemera, primarily Victorian era trade cards, has his stock organized in 60 notebooks.
The former fifth grade teacher said he got involved in selling ephemera the way most collectors do: to support his habit.
“I started collecting in 1969,” he said. Kemler, who grew up on a farm near Alma, began by collecting farm implement advertising trade cards. He said he doesn’t keep track of how many are in his personal collection.
Trade cards were a common form of advertising from right after the Civil War to the Columbian Exposition in 1893, Kemler said. National companies and local retailers wanting to advertise their products turned to the cards since magazines and newspapers at the time were without color advertising.
Kemler, who retired from teaching this year after 40 years, said the collecting of trade cards is still a relatively unknown niche. He said categories that are the most collectible
include tobacco, cruise ship-related, mechanical banks, circuses and Santa cards. Cards tend to be sentimental or humorous and often contained racial or ethnic stereotyping.
“You never know where you will find them" (trade cards) he said.
"But generally you will not find them displayed in museums.
"Not very many museums have knowledge of them and if they have them they are stuck in metal file cabinets.”
As an exception, he points to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City which holds the massive Jefferson Burdick Trade Card collection. That makes sense since trade cards showcase the pre “Mad Men” history of advertising, mass produced products and consumerism.
Kemler said when he began collecting cards were 10 cents, 25 cents and 50 cents.
“An expensive card would be $2.00.” He got his start from an acquaintance who gave him a scrapbook filled with trade cards.
“Children collected them and pasted them in scrapbooks,” he said.
Today, those prices have jumped. Common cards are 50 cents to $10 and rarer cards might draw $10 or $20.
Like with a lot of collectibles, he said the internet was a game changer for trade cards.
“Buying and selling on line changed the whole playing field entirely. You learned what you thought was scarce is not and is surprisingly available. On the other hand, there are still a lot of cards out there I’ve never seen.”
Kemler said the internet is bringing out a lot of collectors. “And we need young collectors.”
He said the internet also led to the demise of a lot of shows and that’s one reason he likes the Antiquarian Book and Paper Show.
“I’ve been at it from the beginning.” At shows collectors can see the actual quality and the intensity of the color. Kemler said he’s also noticed post card collectors gravitating to trade cards that have the city they collect printed on the card.
Kemler said a preponderance of the trade cards were produced in the East and Midwest. “They are much easier to find. The South you don’t find as much. Paper didn’t survive the humidity. Cards from Western states were unusual since by the time they were settled, color advertising had become more common.”
Kemler also brings a large selection of Victorian era greeting cards, especially Christmas cards. He said artists such as Frances Brundage, Maud Humphrey and Kate Greenaway were among famous illustrators who contributed art to trade cards, along with major printing companies such as Currier and Ives.
Collectors can expect that Kemler’s material at the show will include items not previously seen.
“I’m constantly adding new material.”