Friday, February 6, 2009

My Secret Weapon: eBay

I do all the photo research for my books, and there’s nothing I love more than visiting the Library of Congress or a museum or historical society to plumb the depths of their photo files. But when I start a project and again when I’m nearing the end, I often find that my most valuable photo research tool is eBay. If I’m lucky, I can locate artifacts and photographs on eBay that add an extra air of authenticity to my books, usually at a price that’s hard to beat. These items also help me touch the past by literally holding it in my hand.

For example, last fall we were working on the final pages for Bylines, my photobiography of Nellie Bly (due out from National Geographic in Fall 2009). The section about Nellie’s years in business, as president and owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company and the American Steel Barrel Company, needed an additional visual element. On a whim, at midnight on a Saturday night, I searched eBay and found an original ad from 1906 for the American Steel Barrel Company’s "Iron Clad" barrels. Before you could say “Live From New York,” I’d engaged the “Buy It Now” option and paid for it with PayPal. It arrived within a week.

Similarly, when I was writing Freeze Frame, my history of the Winter Olympics, I was having trouble finding any visual from the Olympics That Never Were, the 1976 Denver Games. The city of Denver had won the bid to host the 12th Winter Olympics, but had to withdraw in 1972 due to a referendum by local citizens who were afraid of the effect the crowds and traffic would have on the environment. Although there were a few photos available of citizens voting against the Games, they weren’t very interesting. So I checked eBay—and found one of the few souvenirs minted before the withdrawal, a commemorative pin.

Using eBay is as close as one can get to searching the collective attics of everyone in the world. While it’s not an “iron clad” way of doing photo research, more often than not the results are useful and even inspiring. Over the years I’ve found dozens of items that ended up in my books, including:
• A German postage stamp from the 1936 Winter Games.
• A book and a comic book featuring TV’s Annie Oakley, actress Gail Davis (for Bull's-Eye, my book on Annie).
• A complete Round the World With Nellie Bly boardgame, manufactured in 1890 by McLoughlin Bros. (with spinners and other pieces).
• Tickets to various past editions of the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.
• First day covers of the 2002 Nellie Bly “Women in Journalism” U.S. postage stamp.

Thanks to eBay, I've got my own growing collection of ephemera related to the topics of my books. Besides being fun to own, those items come in handy when I do school visits and other presentations about the books.

Has anyone successfully used any of the other auction sites in Cyberspace to find similar items of interest? I'm always open to new sources!


teacherninja said...

Cool idea! Thanks

Gretchen Woelfle said...

It wasn't an auction site, but a huge library book sale yielded a 1915 issue of Ladies' Home Journal for $2 which I used as an illustration in my Jeannette Rankin biography.

Sue Macy said...

I used to go to ephemera shows and postcards shows and used book shows. eBay has made me lazy! Thanks for reminding me about them.

Unknown said...

Great idea to use eBay to obtain authentic items. I bought an old Sears catalog at a postcard show... love it!

Anonymous said...

Great idea. Off to search for stuff that I might need. Er, want.

Mary said...

Yes, I've done this! I was trying to find out about a park in Guthrie Oklahoma in 1910 for a novel I'm writing. On Ebay I found a postcard of the park with a lot of detail. It was a drawing, not a photograph, but gave me what I needed.

Susan E. Goodman said...

I've used ebay too for my election book. We needed a compact illustration of Nixon and Spiro Agnew together to put in a and rather than trying to find a photo, I just bought a campaign button for $8--which was great because it being a button added another dimension to the picture.

Linda Salzman said...

I can't resist linking to Weird Al's parody "ebay":

Catchy, no?

Anonymous said...





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