By Richard Davies, AbeBooks
The biggest growth area in the rare book world is vintage photo albums. Collectors and institutions want unique items, and personal photo albums fill the bill. Albums filled with wartime and travel-related pictures are particularly in demand. An album from 1909 documenting the construction of the Madeira-Mamore Railroad through the Brazilian rainforest sold for $6,000 via AbeBooks. Prices increase with the historical and cultural importance of the images, overall condition and age. Albums depicting WWI are prized as soldiers were not allowed to use cameras. If you have an old photo album showing a way of life that is no longer around then it could be valuable.
There are numerous antique menus worth three-figure sums and a handful worth thousands. The challenge for all menu collectors is finding surviving copies in good condition – by their nature, menus are stained, torn, and thrown away once the dishes and prices change. Menus may have originated in the stately homes of British aristocrats who provided handwritten instructions for what to serve. During the 19th century, banquets and events also saw the use of menus to help guests understand what was being served. The expansion of America’s road network generated numerous roadside restaurants, which sometimes produced quirky low-cost menus. There are also cruise ship menus, railway dining car menus, airline menus, and banquet menus.
Luggage labels used to be a small but eye-catching part of the “golden age” of travel from approximately 1900 to the mid-1960s. The so-called “Grand Hotels” led the development of these small labels. Luggage labels were a form of advertising that hotel staff would apply, using a sticky gum, to the suitcases and trunks of travelers arriving at their establishment. Back in those days, suitcases were rigid affairs, which made it easy for bellhops or concierges to stick on their label. For the hotel, they were free advertising. For the traveler, they were a badge of honor. Once a label had been applied to a suitcase, it was not coming off. Therefore the vintage luggage labels that exist today were never stuck on a trunk or a case.
You may think old telephone directories rank as the dullest and most unwanted books in the history of publishing. Thanks to genealogists and collectors looking for detailed pieces of history, AbeBooks has sold hundreds of used phone books. The first rather slim telephone directories began appearing around 1878. Prior to the emergence of the phone directory, books called city directories listed residents and businesses in US towns. Old telephone directories, packed with lists of businesses and residents, are a useful tool for genealogists but they also appeal to collectors. For instance, telephone directories for San Francisco prior to the 1906 earthquake and fire are scarce and prized. Prices increase with age.
Collectors are interested in cards sent by people of note, and cards of exceptional artistic beauty. Cards sent by royalty, film stars, and authors can be priced in four figures thanks to the signatures. Cards designed by notable artists and illustrators, as well as handmade cards, can also command high prices. Victorian era Christmas cards are understandably scarce but prized for their visual appeal.
Very few paper bags survive for months, let alone years. The biggest area for collectors is promotional paper bags produced for high profile events like art exhibitions, book signings (Harry Potter for example) or a World’s Fair. They often crop up at art events, such as a Richard Prince or Andy Warhol show, and are still regularly produced for corporate events. Older paper bags carrying simple advertising for a vendor are also sought after but much harder to find. Printed paper bags began to appear in the 1840s and 1850s but you’ll be lucky to find one from that era.
Scrapbooking has been around since the 19th century. Today, collectors and institutions such as university libraries are buying up antique scrapbooks that provide a historical record of significant events. Photos, letters, printed ephemera such as brochures and newspaper articles, tickets, memorabilia, and notes can tell fascinating stories when the owner is involved in a war, traveling, or simply behind the scenes somewhere interesting. If your great grandparents worked in entertainment or sailed the seven seas then you might be in luck.
They may not sound terribly exciting but timetables, particularly for trains, are treasured by people who collect objects about transport history. They offer a glimpse into how we used to travel. In the UK, Bradshaw’s Railway Guides, which contain timetables and travel guidance, were published from 1839 until 1961. An 1839 Bradshaw’s Railway Guide sold for $2,600 via AbeBooks. These books were indispensable to train travelers. It’s also possible to find timetables for steamboats, cruise lines, American railways, and early commercial airline routes. Prices are often dictated by condition as timetables were often carried around, causing much wear and tear.
Collecting handkerchiefs is a legitimate hobby. Books are published about them. Commemorative souvenir printed handkerchiefs were regularly produced in the early decades of the 20th century to mark royal weddings or even something like a cricket tour. There are also highly decorative embroidered handkerchiefs, such as Alice in Wonderland-themed hankies, which are sought for their beauty. A signed monogrammed handkerchief that once belonged to Jazz legend Louis Armstrong is a four-figure object.
Fabric sample books
Textile and fabric sample books, so called swatches, from the late Victorian era and the first three decades of the 20th century are very desirable. They can be wonderful illustrations of Art Nouveau and Art Deco fashion. Japanese fabric books, for materials used in kimonos, can be exceptionally attractive. Often, these books are salesman’s samples, used to tempt retailers to stock the fabrics of particular manufacturers. These swatches come in all shapes and sizes, and are not always for clothing – they can include coverings for furniture. Prices vary from several hundred to thousands of dollars.
Author Richard Davies has worked for AbeBooks.com since 2005 as manager of content and PR. Founded in 1996, AbeBooks is an online marketplace that made its name in used, rare and out-of-print books. Today, the website also offers fine art, photography, maps and many other paper collectibles.
By Richard Davies, AbeBooks