I often start with a definition, so my readers and I are on the same page. In this instance, a collection is related things acquired on purpose. Collecting is not a new activity. Evidence of collections date back to 500-400 BCE. Mesopotamia?

Mesopotamian cat collector

Some claim that everyone collects something, be it athletic trophies, family photographs, antique farm implements, theater programs, or anything else that catches the collector’s fancy. Some claim that a true collection has no essential or practical use.

Which begs the question, what about a cookbook collection? In my opinion, a collection is like pornography: you know it when you see it.

In better knowing your character, there are two relevant aspects of collections: what is collected and why it is collected. These are often intertwined.


Investment often means collecting things that a museum might be interested in. The bottom line is that the thing collected has been shown over the years, potentially, to provide some degree of financial return to the collector. 

  • Art
  • Ancient artifacts
  • Coins
  • Stamps
  • Gems

Set Completion

A complete set of something finite, e.g., all 13 editions of the Fannie Farmer Cookbooks, would be worth more than the individual items, but financial reasons are often irrelevant. There is satisfaction in simply having all of them.  As a collecting motive, set completion may well be related to OCD tendencies.

I’ll bet many of these sets where broken up when the lure of the vending machine grew too strong.

Note: Most set completions do not preclude others completing the same set.

  • Putting together full service for eight or twelve in Colonial Knife and Fork depression glass
  • Getting signatures of all of the U.S. Presidents

No Potential for Financial Gain 

How does one rationally explain the collecting of matchbook covers, Cracker Jacks toys, belt buckles, salt cellars, shot glasses, door knobs, etc.? 

  • Creating and Projecting an Image
    • For example, a woman collecting Black Sabbath concert shirts gives very different vibes than one collecting fancy china cups and saucers.
  • Enhancing Social Status
    • This motive varies by reference group. What might be the reference for someone who collects copper food molds—or someone who collects first editions?
Imelda Marcos could probably have done without a few of those pairs of shoes.
  • Conspicuous Consumption
    • The only requirement is that the collectible be expensive AND others know it. 
Some people collect languages when they get bored.
  • Stave Off Boredom
    • The collection allows the collector to spend time learning about the item, acquiring it, and caring for it.
    • I met a man who has over 500 sets of salt and pepper shakers, knows where and how he got each, and built hardwood display cases to house them.
  • Continue a Family Tradition
    • I know one man whose mother collected elephants and mushrooms (various sizes, materials, styles). He inherited her collections and continued from there.
  • Childhood Connection
    • As a tangible connection to one’s childhood pleasures—such as Barbie dolls or Tonka trucks
Belgian hot cocoa sets
  • Compensating for Childhood Deprivation
    • To feel secure in having “plenty”—especially among people who grew up deprived of something.
    • A person who grew up in poverty might collect one thing after another as a financially secure adult : antique cars, napkin rings, mah jong sets, maps, buttons, marbles, artificial Christmas trees.





  • Other Ego Defense or Coping Mechanism
    • For example, William D. McIntosh & Brandon Schmeichel suggest that collectors are drawn to collecting as a means of bolstering the self by setting up goals that are tangible and attainable and provide the collector with concrete feedback of progress.  

Questions for Writers

Collecting… shamrocks?
  • What surrounds your character? Are those things random or chosen?
  • What does your character collect?
  • What does collecting do for your character?

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