Introduction to Movie Collectibles
Immortal Ephemera talks about and deals in Movie Collectibles, not so much Movie Memorabilia.
What's the difference?
Movie Memorabilia are those items which are directly related to production of a movie. Will you be bidding on Bela Lugosi's cape from Dracula? Judy Garland's Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz? Looking for wardrobe from Gone With the Wind? That's Movie Memorabilia.
Movie Collectibles, as the name implies, are very often made of of items that can be collected towards the greater goal of completing a collection themed and/or ordered by the manufacturer of the goods.
Rather than one of a kind items, think mass produced.
And thus, more affordable than Bela's cape. Vintage Movie Collectibles from the Silent Period through Golden Age of Movies are an affordable hobby for anyone on any budget today.
Movie Collectibles are sometimes numbered, though there are plenty of standalone Movie Collectibles as well.
Immortal Ephemera talks about and deals in Movie Collectibles. Following is a greater breakdown of just what types of items those are.
Where appropriate I've added some Amazon Affiliate links to helpful and respected books that will give some further information in a section titled On the Bookshelf below each main entry. I don't own all of these, but many of them and add a brief comment by a few. I get a small percentage of sales through Amazon, so thank you very much if ordering through my links. Like my card and collectible sales it all helps pay the bills, so I truly appreciate it!
Trading & Tobacco Cards
Usually issued in sets, often numbered, similar to baseball cards except that instead of stats on back often there is a summary of a movie star's recent activities. Many cards will be issued only with logos on back (tobacco companies for example) or with blank backs, which can make identifying certain issues a tough proposition. Early movie cards were most commonly issued in tobacco packs though cards also commonly came with candy and gum as well as other items such as bread, cookies and other food products; magazine supplements; even sewing needles in one case!
On the Bookshelf:
- American Tobacco Cards: A Price Guide and Checklist - Must have!
- The American Card Catalog by Jefferson Burdick - The classic, be sure to note which edition you're buying
- The Sport Americana Price Guide to the Non-Sports Cards/Number Four
- Sport Americana Price Guide to the Non Sports Cards 1930-1960
- Books by the Cartophilic Society of Great Britain
Some Examples of Movie Cards:
Postcards & Arcade Cards
Postcard collecting is a huge hobby in and of itself. Needless to say along with the hundreds of different types of images on postcards ranging from city monuments to historical figures to wild animals, movie stars were a popular choice for postcard images. I group Arcade Cards with Postcards here only because of the similarity in size (3-1/2” X 5”), but they are an altogether different subject. Arcade cards were issued in machines made expressly for the purpose of vending them and while collecting movie stars is a popular subdivision of Arcade Card collecting there were other types of sets issued including Sports, Aviation, Fortunes and more.
On the Bookshelf:
- Collector's Guide to Cowboy Hero Arcade Cards and Other Collectable Cards - Prices way off, but a great gallery of different types
- The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcards/Price Guide
- The Postcard Century
- The Golden Age of Postcards Early 1900s Identification & Values
- Real Photo Postcard Guide: The People's Photography
Some Examples of Movie Postcards:
Supplements & Paper Premiums
Extending upon the idea of the supplement cards mentioned above, early film magazines would sometimes offer Paper Premium pieces inside issues. By premium I am referring to any item given away as a bonus with a purchased item.
The British film magazine, Picturegoer, often issued premiums with issues. Another type of premium would be the popular Dixie Cup Lid where a movie star (or other) image would be on the reverse-side of an ice cream cup lid, a free bonus collectible for buying their product.
Other types of premiums one would have to mail money or box tops to a company in order to receive. A perfect example of this would be the Dixie Premium Photos which one could acquire by sending in twelve Dixie cup lids in exchange for a beautiful 8x10 or 9x12 portrait of their favorite star. Lux Soap issued a beautiful black-bordered premium set in 1934.
This is the area of movie collectibles that I am most interested in for it seems to hold the most mystery as to origin and issue.
Some Examples of Movie Premiums & Supplements:
Fan PhotosThese were issued in sizes as small as 3-1/2” X 5” up to 8” X 10” and even 9" X 12", but the most common and most popular are 5” x 7”.
These are the photos a fan would receive in response when writing to their favorite star in care of the studio. They were mass-produced, but high quality photos printed on heavy double-weight stock. They usually carry a facsimile signature, sometimes printed into the negative, other times stamped. Sometimes you'll see a mark identifying the original photographer or studio responsible for the photo, again this information is sometimes seen in the photo negative or sometimes stamped right on back.
Although a much rarer find, sometimes you can acquire these photos with their original mailers, which contain a studio return address, sometimes an ad promoting the star’s latest film, and are postmarked giving an exact date of origin as well.
The 5x7’s seem to be the standard from the late-1910’s through the early-1940’s and then there seems to be a switch over to the smaller sizes (perhaps due to World War II?).
The larger photos were available at a premium to collectors—often the 5x7’s would have a redemption stamp on back offering an 8x10 in exchange for 25 cents.
More on Immortal Ephemera:
- Dear Mr. Valentino - Fan Photos and Form Letters
- No More Freebies - Hollywood Stars Forced to Charge Fans for Photos Beginning 1929
Movie Stills including Publicity Photos, Portrait Photos, Fashion Stills, Wire Photos & Press Photos, Keybook Photos
These are all members of the same family, real photographs issued directly by the studio to promote the latest stars and their movies. They were included in press kits, sent to movie theaters to help them promote the latest offerings, and sent to newspapers and magazines for the same reason.
Like movie posters and lobby cards this is an area of great specialization with a huge number of collectors and dealers alike. With a huge market specializing in both standard re-issues and later printings, as well as sometimes shadier later printings of lesser quality, it can sometimes be very difficult to identify original, collectible material.
What follows is a quick primer, but David Cycleback has an incredible online guide loaded with many additional details which is available here.
The safest bet is to purchase Keybook photos, but they are the rarest of the bunch and often carry a heavy premium in price.
These stills were used as the studio’s masters, and are found with holes punched at the top of vertical poses or the left side of horizontal poses where they were inserted into the book. They often have an A.A.C. (Advertising Advisory Council) stamp on reverse along with descriptive text in type printed directly onto the reverse of the photo.
You will sometimes see photos without any keybook holes but with an A.A.C. stamp—this is a smart buy as well, these photos are originals. These photos are also often double-weight photos (referring to the heavier stock on which they are printed).
Other very desirable and authentically vintage photos include: Photos with photographer stamps; studio stamps; news agency stamps on reverse (often even including the exact date of production or use by the press); or Press tags, which were often paper attachments glued either directly onto the reverse side of the photo or glued at the bottom of the edge on reverse and being folded over the top of the photo surface. Sometimes descriptive text in typeface was imprinted directly onto the back of the photo as well.
Press photos have become more common in recent years as several old-time newspapers have cleared their archives and added a lot of new material to the market.
Next method of reliability is the text at the bottom of the photo. This area can certainly help you spot a photo from a film shown during a later re-release. For example, the image might show a scene from a film released in 1935 which was re-released to theaters in the late 1950's, say 1957. The numbering on the still identifying the photo in this case will then have a prefix of R57, meaning that the photo was created in conjunction with the 1957 re-release of the movie.Often stills, portraits, and fashion photos will have text naming the star, the film title, the studio or even copyright dates available in the bottom border area on front. Recently when I acquired a large batch of photos I was only able to identify some of them through the studio numbers on the photo—these numbers often begin with a lettered abbreviation of the film title for stills or the star’s name for publicity shots, followed by a number which is a label for that particular set.
An example: Twentieth Century Fox used numbering instead of lettering to identify the films as well, so a recent batch of stills I dealt with contained a number of Jane Withers photos, many from the film Golden Hoofs and others from A Very Young Lady—both 1941 releases. A few were marked in some way with the film title, others had no markings except for the studio numbering. I was able to identify publicity photos from A Very Young Lady because one photo with the film title typed on back had studio number 491/84 while another, with no other form of identification, was marked 491/20. 491 represents Twentieth Century Fox’s coding for the film A Very Young Lady, so I was able to identify a photo that would have otherwise been nearly impossible for me to ID.
Some deep searches on eBay can sometimes help identify the film a still photo is from if you've got good eyes and some common sense to go along with a photo whose only identifiable trait is the still code number.
Identifying vintage photos without any tell-tale marks to date them (stamps, tags, etc.) can be extremely difficult, especially when purchasing in a two-dimensional online venue. Once more I want to recommend Cycleback's Guide as it points out some other specific hints to look for in later printings versus original prints (photo clarity, imperfections, silvering, etc.).
On the Bookshelf:
- Hollywood Movie Stills: The Golden Age - A favorite with more text than many Hollywood photography books, but plenty of beautiful photos as well!
- Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography - Same comment as above, perhaps a bit more focus on the photos than the words in this one
- Paper Dreams, Hollywood Still Lifes - This looks interesting with few but very mixed reviews. I'm putting a copy in my own Amazon cart and will report back later
- Anything by John Kobal is certainly packed with eye candy!
- Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits is by Mark A. Vieira, co-author of the more recent and wildly popular Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937
Some Examples of Reverse Markings on Movie Photos:
I purposely do my best to stay away from autograph material because I’ve been burnt before and so personally do not trust the market. Yes, there are a number of reliable and professional certified autograph dealers out there and if this is your interest you should pick out a couple of those you trust and work from there. I like bargains myself and I found out early on when collecting baseball memorabilia, with autographs you often get what you pay for.
I wrote that exact paragraph above in the original version of this page published 2002, and here in 2011 as I tighten the page up I'm going to leave that paragraph alone. Remember, anyone can issue a certificate of authenticity, so make sure you trust who you're buying from.
That being said, many of the movie collectibles that I sell are issued with “autographs.” By this I am referring to the cards, premiums and fan photos that were issued with facsimile signatures. These are not real signatures but are either imprinted within the photo image or even stamped on the photo surface. I usually describe these in my listings as with “facsimile signature (not a real autograph)” or a similar qualifier to take away any confusion.
I buy items in quantity, so sometimes there is some material that I feel may actually be signed. Again, I advertise these items as autographed with reservations. But I will make mention of the signature when there is an obvious hint such as ink/marker chipping away at the surface, signature extending into the border of an item, or most definitely a personalization.
Even so, please keep in mind that many celebrities had ghost signers take care of their fan mail. Probably the best-known example is Mama Jean Harlow signing most of her famous daughter’s fan mail. If I’m selling an item as “signed” I will always add this reservation referring to the possibility of a ghost signer.
On the Bookshelf:
- Autograph Hell - The Truth About Collecting - I don't have this one, but boy, after reading what I'd written above the title sure caught my eye! 5-star reviews on Amazon
- The Sanders Autograph Price Guide - A standard, link to most recent 2009 edition
- Signatures of the Stars: An Insider's Guide to Celebrity Autographs - As one Amazon reviewer complains, "most of the stars listed in this book are DEAD!" Sounds good for us!
This is a general remark about the dates I’ll place on items that I personally offer for sale. Often there is no “catalogue” or “price guide” for the types of items I am dealing with, so I’ll have to use my judgment to hypothesize a reasonable date of origin for an item. If I include a date the item does then at least date vintage to that period. Any later re-issues or reprint type items will be clearly marked as such.
In dating items I have no come across I have two things working for me: quantity and the IMDb. If I have a bulk amount of items I can go to the Internet Movie Database and begin looking up the names of the stars. Using that as a resource I receive what is generally a very reliable source of dates such as dates of birth, death, first movie, last movie. If you have enough different names to choose from you can narrow down a date pretty closely. A child star helps, or an aging star in with a batch of younger stars. This is the method used when there are no hints as to date whatsoever on an item as it is issued, all you have is a name. If there is mention of a movie it is a much simpler process of just looking up the movie and finding a release date.
Even this method can be unreliable as some of the cheaper issues out of Europe and South America would sometimes use old images in their sets. Still, if I say 1935 I'm reasonably sure the item was issued within a year or two of 1935. If I say 1930's, well, that presents a wider spread.
I hope the above list helps you out some in terms of collecting and more specifically shopping my store as much of this could serve as a key to any terminology you might find in one of my sales listings which sounds foreign to you.
The list above doesn't touch upon several movie collectibles which I do not regularly deal in including movie posters, lobby cards, and pinback buttons among others. There are other specialty niche sites and sources for each of these type items.