Printed matter that has escaped trash is treasured

March 06, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Who hasn't cleaned out an old storage carton and discovered a crumbling newspaper folded in the bottom?

Forget the news stories contained on the browning pulp pages. It's the ads for the $12 topcoats at Brager-Eisenberg's that claim attention.

In this light, about 2,000 persons with a similar passion for ancient advertisements, old roadside signs, posters and penny post cards filed through an exhibition hall at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium this past weekend for the Baltimore Paper Show.

"About 90 percent of this matter should have found its way into a landfill," said George Theofiles as he surveyed rows of tables piled with printed matter. But that remaining 10 percent somebody wants and will pay good money for.

He bought his first poster at an American Legion rummage sale in Seaford, Del., more than 30 years ago. Today he's a nationally ranked dealer in vintage posters and other examples of printing press art. On Saturday, he was just one of the people poking through the boxes of wares.

"It's fascinating. For the price of a Big Mac, it is possible to find something interesting," he said.

Collectors lined up at stands featuring vintage postcards. Most were priced at $1 to $5, but a small postcard showing William Jennings Bryan at the 1912 Democratic Convention at the Fifth Regiment Armory was marked $200. A set of four sepia-toned cards of the Baltimore Country Club about 1900 went for $110.

Though none was available, a rare view of 29th Street's Terrapin Park, later Oriole Park, can fetch $150. A postcard of the St. Mary's Industrial School band, printed with a tag line mentioning Babe Ruth, was marked at $20.

Mr. Theofiles, who paid for his tuition at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in the 1960s by finding and selling posters, recalls what the collectibles market was like at that time:

"I went to New York and located a pile of posters from the movie "Stagecoach." I sold them for $19 apiece. Today they bring $12,000 each," he said of the 1939 classic.

He walked through the aisles and stopped at the various tables to sift through piles of what a lot of people might consider rubbish and unsorted old papers.

"The best things are always hidden, buried in this stuff," he said.

Baltimore is considered a good memorabilia town because of the industries once here. Collectors ferret out items associated with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, breweries and distilleries, the Emerson Drug Co. (Bromo Seltzer), McCormick & Co., as well as the seafood trade.

This often means beautifully designed cans, labels, show cards and posters. Some may have been designed to fit into a merchant's window. Others were designed for the area above the windows inside a streetcar. Savvy promoters at Bromo Seltzer gave away sheets of music designed to work their way into the parlor via the music stand on an upright piano.

Often times collectors possess a specialized knowledge of one subject. They will spend hours torturing the staffs of local libraries and historical societies to glean every available shred of information on an arcane topic.

"Baltimore was nationally ranked because of its printers. A. Hoen was among the earliest American color printers. Its stuff is highly sought after today," Mr. Theofiles said of the old Hoen firm, once located at Chester, Biddle and Chase streets in East Baltimore.

"Collectors will buy something like a piece of sheet music if it has a crab or a horse on it," said Johanna Thomas, a Parkville resident who organized the paper show with her husband Bill.

"There's a pretty strong club here in Baltimore for circus stuff. I don't know the reason. They all fight over Jumbo or Barnum or Ringling Brothers," said Don Kay, a Springfield, Va., dealer who carts boxes of magazine ads, sheet music covers and small colorful cards to the show.

Mr. Theofiles walked the aisles and commented, "The one area of Baltimore that is not collected is from the bat guano trade that was so much a part of harbor activity at the turn of the century."

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