Collecting Life Events

This elaborate Pennsylvania Dutch-style birth certificate of Sarah Stauffer, born in 1813, sold for $1,872 in 2007.

Wedding licenses, birth announcements, military commendations, and diplomas are celebrated moments of our lives. We all have some of them, but can they be collectible?

Birth and Baptism:

Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said of a birth certificate “…it’s a small paper but it actually establishes who you are…” It is a document so important that it is emphasized in Articles 7 and 8 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child of which, apparently, some nations needed reminding. So, we all have one.

Yet, the birth or baptism doesn’t have to be ours to be collectible. Many of the 19th century birth and baptism certificates are highly coveted by collectors for their ornate folk art-style embellishments. A combination birth and baptismal certificate for Sarah Stauffer of Dauphin, Pennsylvania in 1813, for example, features watercolor and ink Pennsylvania Dutch-style script and images and sold for $1,872 in 2007.

This more utilitarian set of baptism (1944) and birth certificate (1938) from sold for $19.99 in 2014.

In comparison a simple, more utilitarian issue set of baptism and birth certificates for Joseph Schatt of Houston, Texas born in 1938 (see photo at top), sold for about $20, complete with ink stamped feet. These types of birth and baptism certificates are the ones prized by genealogists as they are unique personal identifiers that help establish family trees and expand local histories.

High School Diploma:

Graduating Junior High School as Norma Jean Baker may have been more of a family affair in 1941. But as Marilyn Monroe years later, the junior high graduation diploma from the Los Angeles City School District took on a more historical – and collectible – meaning when it sold for $33,280 in 2017.

The 1941 ninth grade graduation diploma of Norma Jeane Baker sold for over $33,000 in 2012.

Hardly any of us can reach that level of collectible with our own high school diplomas, but we can be assured that each of ours is just as one of a kind as well.  The high school diploma for Mary Geraldine Minnick of Risingsun High School (not sure where) of 1912, for example, sold for about $60, mostly for its rather ornate decoration.

Mabel Beatrice Harris graduated from the Colored High School of Baltimore of 1923 (renamed Frederick Douglass High School later that year), and her diploma sold for about $45 mainly for its important association to early African-American history.

Certificates of Marriage:

It comes down to two short ceremonial words, “I do.” Elaborate or simple, the wedding ceremony is really more of a personal statement for those who celebrate the event. However, it’s the “Certificate of Marriage” that conveys the legal obligations for the union, any children, and the family in general. And like the ceremony, the certificate of marriage can be just as elaborate or simple in design.

What I’m finding, though, are certificates of marriage mostly from the late 19th century and early 20th century. An 1894 ‘United in Marriage’ certificate, for example, is relatively plain with little embellishments and sold for $42.50, while a much more elaborate 1899 marriage certificate sold for $99. While the former is quite useful for genealogy, the latter makes for a very impressive colorful artistic display.

An 1870 wedding license for two ex-slaves sold for $149.99 in 2014.

And then there is a clerk issued certified copy of a marriage license issued to Joseph Di Maggio and Norma Jean Mortenson, otherwise known as Joe Di Maggio and Marilyn Monroe, dated 1993. The original license was issued in 1954, but this certified copy still sold for $350 in 2016. A more historical wedding license was issued to Edward Taliaferro and Harriet McGuiness, both ex-slaves, who married in 1870  sold for $150 in 2014.

Whether historical, personal, or decorative vintage marriage licenses are collectible precisely because they are all a piece of history, even if it is one family at a time.

Military Service:

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, estimates that 372 veterans of that war die each day, and only 550,000 of the 16 million Americans who served are still with us as of 2017, most in their 80s and 90s. As in any military conflict of any country of the world, everyone subject to military discipline was inducted, commissioned, awarded, promoted, discharged, or memorialized with ceremony and certificates.

A US Army Jump School certificate of 1945, for example, recognized the completion of parachute training by Robert Dye, one of the first in a new military concept of the time that sold for $204 (Note: I graduated Jump School in 1977, but they had it harder).

Napoleonic-era military discharge certificate of 1813 sold for $125 in 2013.

Discharge papers are what most soldiers look forward to, no matter the era. A discharge certificate for a soldier during the Napoleonic era of 1813 sold for $125 with its wonderful calligraphy, official stamps and crowned eagle crest adding to its visual collectibility.

When memorialized for the extreme sacrifice, the family is awarded a certificate signed by the president on behalf “…of a grateful nation.” An example with a printed signature of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 for the memory of John Michel sold for $177. A similar sentiment with the printed signature of President Harry Truman in 1945 made for William Ziefle sold for $169.

Because of the continued loss of veterans of all conflicts, military museums, historians, genealogists and even local veteran groups value each of the certificates of service to keep the memory of the conflict and sacrifice for future generations.


Keeping the memory alive from generation to generation sometimes presents in the form of wonderfully engraved certificates of passing. Pearl Puckett, only four years old in 1899 when she died, for example, was memorialized with an over-large engraved certificate that sold for about $175 in 2015. A handwritten death certificate dated 1712 on vellum with paper and wax seal sold for $23.50 recently.

There are death certificates from those who were well known in life, such as the one of former Civil War Union General and US President Ulysses S. Grant that sold for $1,310, and the official death certificate of actress Mae West when she died in 1980 that sold for about $183.

While the end of life is not always contemplated as a collectible, it was Cicero, the Roman philosopher and statesman, who said “The life of the dead is in the memory of the living.” Perhaps we are saving the memories of those that have gone before us to tell the story for those who come after us.

Known as ephemera, these handwritten, typed, engraved, printed, or copied recognitions of birth to final passing recognize a life and a time that, once collected, becomes a history all their own – one individual at a time.

Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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