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Monday, March 7, 2011

Looking For Beauty In Unexpected Places

Contributed by Valerie Battle Kienzle

I love colorful graphics. I collect paper ephemera that few people want -- things like cancelled stamps and matchbook covers. Most people would call it junk. I call it "treasured trash."

The stamp collection began when as a child I was given a basic stamp-collecting book. Then a stamp-collecting aunt passed away and I inherited the stamps no dealers wanted. Some dated to the 1930s. Very cool graphics.

I grew up and the stamp book moved to the back of the closet, but I maintained an interest in stamps. Jobs at a state tourism office, a daily newspaper and a soft drink company meant that I encountered stacks of mail from all over the world. Unique and colorful stamps always caught my eye.
"That one's just to unusual to throw away, " I often thought.

One by one, cancelled stamps filled envelopes in my desk. Then they took over a drawer. Finally I purchased a large plastic box for the thousands of pieces of colorful paper.

"Are you a pack rat?" someone asked.


"Will you ever organize those things?" another questioned.

Probably not.

Do you enjoy that trash?


Spain. Canada. Mexico. England. Africa. The Netherlands. My free-form collection includes stamps from these and many other places -- places I'll probably never visit, but I DO enjoy their stamps.

Walt Disney. Rural America. Famous inventors. Wild flowers. These are just a few of the stamp series issued by the U.S. Postal Service during recent decades. I have examples from many series. They chronicle social trends, style and current events. The stamps didn't cost me a cent, but to me they're priceless.

The same with matchbook covers. I began picking up these tiny advertising treasures in the 1960s. In those days, smoking was cool. The U.S. Surgeon General had yet to issue warnings about the health risks associated with smoking. In homes, at parties and restaurants, on airplanes -- if someone wanted to smoke, they lit up.

And matches were found everywhere. Businesses, products, restaurants, services -- most had custom matchbook covers. They could be found on tables, in baskets, in hotel room ashtrays and at auto dealership waiting rooms. I didn't smoke, but the cover graphics caught my eye. Soon I was picking them up wherever I went.

I tossed them in drawers and displayed them in souvenir glasses. I raided the kitchen junk drawer and found a stash used by Dad to light the barbeque grill.

Family members and college friends started picking them up for me. The Midwest. The East Coast. Canada. Spain. The collection grew. An old metal popcorn tin made a safe place to store the ever-increasing collection. Co-workers brought back matchbook souvenirs from their world travels. The collection continued to grow, eventually filling four large tins.

I enjoyed rummaging through the color-filled tins, amazed at the variety of businesses and locations represented.

Years passed and the tobacco industry became more regulated. Health concerns related to smoking and second-hand smoke were top news. Smoking was banned on airplanes and in public places. Municipalities passed no-smoking ordinances. Today, the supply of custom-printed matchbook covers has virtually disappeared.

I recently had dinner at a private club. Three decades ago making a dinner reservation at this club meant that matchbook covers with the member's name embossed on them would be found beside each place setting. Currently, the club allows smoking only in a secluded cigar bar -- far removed from the vicinity of the main dining rooms. I spotted a basket of matches on the bar there. It contained a few matches in blank white covers. Very generic.

So my matchbook collection is no longer a growing collection. Like full-service gas stations, it seems that custom-printed matchbook covers are a thing of the past.

Several winters ago I decided to organize (sort of) my collection. I divided them by regions and lost count after several hundred. I removed the matches, laid the covers flat and secured them to a poster-sized frame from Target. I continued this process until five poster frames were filled. They now line our basement walls. It's fun to look at them and remember places and people's faces from years gone by.

A search of the Internet reveals that there are matchbook collectors and match cover societies worldwide. And serious stamp collectors spend big bucks to obtain rare old stamps in pristine condition. But not me. I'm not interested in buying, selling or trading matchbook covers. And who would want my used stamps?

So these collections are my treasured trash. Amazing and beautiful graphics. Great memories. And they didn't cost a cent!

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