COLLECTING: A FINE OLD THING

According to Wikipedia, “Collecting is a practice with a very old cultural history. In Mesopotamia, collecting practices have been noted among royalty and elites as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. … Collecting engravings and other prints by those whose means did not allow them to buy original works of art also goes back many centuries.” 

Carl Jung—to drop a familiar name—suggested that the appeal of collecting is connected to hunting and gathering for early human survival.

Collections of art and antiquities often form the basis for museums or galleries/wings within museums. Donating such a collection is often an intentional or unintentional path to prestige, usually a wealth marker. Just look at James Smithson, who would have been just another wealthy Englishman if he hadn’t founded the Smithsonian Institution.

Sometimes these museum collections are the result of are generational family collections. The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures in Arizona began with a dollhouse passed down to founder Pat Arnell from her mother. The museum is now a series of exhibits arranged to transport the visitor to various times and places all over the world, like a time machine.

N.B. the difference between an antique and a collectible is age.

  • In general, antiques are at least 100 years old.
    • The DMV classifies vehicles as antique when they are 25 years old.
  • Collectibles are “vintage,” meaning old but not that old.
  • Of course, everything old was once new, so…

A collection must be valued at least… ?

A lot of Depression Glass collections started with free pieces of glassware in bags of flour.

Neither age nor monetary value define collections for ordinary people. Virtually anything can be collected—and probably has been! 

My mother collected salt and pepper shakers. My sister collected dolls. One aunt collected Swanky Swigs Kraft Pimento Cheese Jars, free when she bought the cheese for her son’s favorite lunch sandwich.

Aunt Lena took pride in collecting them all and decades later used them as juice glasses.

I’m probably the most varied collector I know. I started as a preschooler collecting “pretty” pebbles—and collecting them again after my mother dumped them back into the driveway. Then it was paper dolls.

As an adult I have several collections.

Perhaps my jewelry collection could be measures by the branch.
  • Carved wood Santas (>450)
  • Hundreds of cookbooks ranging from newly published to one from 1840
  • Depression Glass table service and flower vases
  • Mahjong sets approaching antiquity 
  • Gold and cloisonné napkin rings
  • Mineral skulls as both shelf art and jewelry
  • Jewelry that can be measured only by the pound.

The general consensus among those who know me is that having grown up poor, as an adult objectively enough is never psychologically enough.

Why do people start collecting?

Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection probably provides enough material for a dozen psychological studies.

Collecting can reflect a fear of scarcity, or of discarding something and then later regretting it. No doubt many collections are connected to deep-seated personality or psychological issues.

This form of collecting can very easily cross the line into hoarding, a mental disorder connected with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Psychologists differentiate between collecting and hoarding in several ways.

Pet hoarding is one of the most tragic forms of hoarding, both for the keeper and for the animals. The ASPCA has information and resources on how to help.
  • Collectors tend to organize and display their collections.
    • Hoarders are more likely to have so much that everything is piled together, often becoming crushed or ruined beneath other piles.
  • Collectors are specific about the items they collect and know the monetary value of items in their collections (if there is any monetary value).
    • Hoarders may collect categories of items, but these categories are more likely to be vague, regardless of monetary value.
  • Collectors have a sense of pride in the uniqueness or size of their collections, creating displays to share with visitors and to preserve everything in the collection.
    • Hoarding is often a source of shame, leading hoarders to attempt to downplay or hide their hoarded possessions from visitors.
This photo of a collection of BDSM and fetish gear is one of the very few that is not X-rated!

One might wonder about sex collections, those who own dildos in various sizes, shapes, and materials; fetishists who collect shoes, handcuffs, or leather. Collections of marble, glass, clay, and leather sex toys have been found in Roman ruins and Viking burials. This is certainly not a modern phenomenon. (There are actually books out there that talk about sex collectors, fyi.)

But surely many—most?—are not related to deep-seated needs or issues.

What explains collecting belly button fluff?  At 22.1 grams, Graham Barker has the largest collection of belly button fluff. It’s his own fluff. He started the collection in 1984, and keeps a daily log of color, amount, and what towel he was using or clothes he was wearing that yielded the sample.

The fact that Mr. Barker has the largest collection implies that there are other people out there who collect belly button lint.

And what about the guy who keeps his ABC (already been chewed) nicotine gum balls to make one giant one?

Personally, I think a lot of collections begin by happenstance. 

Becky Martz shows off her collection with help from the Chiquita Banana Lady.
(Image from Chiquita.com)

For example, that seems to be what happened for Becky Martz: in 1991 she noticed that label on the newly purchased Dole bananas (from Honduras) was different from the one already in her fruit bowl (from Guatemala),  and voila, a collection of >21,000 banana stickers from around the world was begun. 

What else would explain collections of

  • 730 umbrella covers/sleeves
    • There is a museum of umbrella covers in Maine.
  • Rubber door stoppers
  • Bars of soap

And some collections start as free-bees. Many people keep mementos of their travels in the form of free items with the location printed on them. These sometimes depend on quantity rather than variety:

In case you’re curious, collecting matchbooks is technically known as “phillumeny.”
  • Water bottle labels
  • “Do Not Disturb” hotel tags
  • Airline barf bags
  • Sugar packets
  • Drink coasters
  • Matchbook covers
  • Bottle caps
  • Seashells
  • Cigar bands 

Pure whim?

  • Artificial Christmas trees
  • Pink hats
  • Coke memorabilia
  • Old cast iron cookware and utensils
  • Pens or pencils
  • Chicken/pig/cow memorabilia
  • Barbed wire
  • Bells

Examples I know of circumstances leading to collections:

  • A home brewer who collect beer glasses and steins
  • A woman who bought an historic home on a railroad track and started collecting train memorabilia
  • A firefighter who inherited her father’s and grandfather’s firefighting badges and helmets
  • A collection of 30,000 toenail clippings for medical research

Collecting socially

Znachki are all over eBay these days.

In Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and many Eastern European countries, there is a tradition of znachki – trading pins. During the end of the Imperial Era and throughout the time of the Soviet Union, people were given pins in commemoration, in celebration, as congratulations, to note achievements, and pretty much any other occasions. When meeting in public, people could ask about pins and medals worn as a way of breaking the ice. Pins were often traded and collected.

A meeting of antique doll collectors hosted by DOLLS magazine.

Disney parks and Olympic Games have similar customs of issuing commemorative pins to be collected and traded by strangers and friends.

Many hard-core collectors can also find societies and organizations of like-minded individuals. Dollhouse furniture, Star Wars memorabilia, and Pokemon cards all bring people together online or in swap meets to buy, sell, and trade to perfect their collections.

Collecting Christmas cards is one of the most social collections imaginable.

Bottom line: Whatever the source or start point, what might a collection add to your plot or character? You can go online to find about about these and innumerable other collectables and their collectors, associations, meetings, swaps, and collecting venues.

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