Why We Collect

It’s easier than ever to accumulate a collection—be it a bevy of Barbies

or pages of postage stamps. But even in our “you-are-what-you-own”

society, sometimes why we collect says more about us then what we


By Danielle Arnet


Reprinted with the kind permission of the author, and courtesy of

Hemispheres—the magazine of United Airlines.



Years ago, Gail Sheehy was asked why she wrote Passages, her hugely popular book describing the stages of adult life. She replied that writing, for her was a way of understanding life. A sorting out, if you will.

In the same manner, I arrived at the need to write this piece. The trigger was an ever-growing accumulation of stuff. Somehow; the impulses that drive collectors had taken hold of my life. I joked that the garage reached critical mass three years ago, but the reality wasn’t funny. How was it that my life had become crowded “with things when, on a conscious level, what I really crave is order and space? At some point, I had succumbed to objects and allowed them to possess me.

But I am hardly unique. In the last three years, since the advent of the PBS hit Antiques Roadshow and the proliferation of its clones, hidden collectors have tripped all over themselves stampeding out of the collecting closet. After Ann Landers addressed the accumulation problem in her column, I knew the syndrome had gone mainstream.

Once a quiet almost idiosyncratic and solitary pursuit, collecting has become an admired activity. Much of the new status has to do with market values quoted on collecting shows, but there’s more going on.

The bug bites some worse than others. For example, when the lifetime collection of more than 15,000 items owned by the late Harold Carson a collector in Terre Haute, Indiana, was readied for sale, it took more than a year—and 18 truckloads -just to empty his small house. Four auction rings operated simultaneously throughout the three-day event.

To date, the most thoughtful analysis of why we collect is Collecting, An Unruly Passion, a deeply thorough 1994 book by New York psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger. He argues that the need to collect, as with so many urges, is rooted in childhood. It starts with a child who derives comfort from objects as a relief from the frustrations of early childhood. Did your mother leave you alone in the dark? For comfort you had the toy she gave you before she left. Possessing that toy gave you feelings of security and control. Call it a feel-good function. And if one toy was good, two were better. According to Muensterberger, a young collector has emerged who will soon be gathering marbles, rocks, cards., you name it.

He maintains that all collecting is characterized by the fact that the objects in possession are defenses—often subconscious—designed to bring assurance against despair and loneliness. The child who lacks a reassuring touch asserts self-hood by controlling objects, he adds. What’s more, the desire to find relief from anxiety through things can lead to favoring objects over people. We all know collectors like that.

“Collecting is always a personal experience,” said Ruben Arminana, president of California’s Sonoma State University speaking at a recent convention of the National Cufflink Association (really!).

Although what we collect reflects our personalities, it can also mirror what’s fashionable. The impressionable may collect on the advice of a decorator or what’s recommended by Martha Stewart.

A collector since his childhood in Cuba (“I started with cowboys and Indians and Howdy Doodv”), Arminana now has multiple collections, including well over 250 Latin American masks and collections of wrist and pocket watches. The owner of more than 500 pairs of cufflinks, he stuck with double-sided cufflinks through decades as they passed out of and back into fashion.

What Arminana does with those links is what many collectors do. He studies. He classifies. He views, reviews, and handles them. He wears them every day. Most of all, he is emotionally involved with them. And that, more than any thing, characterizes the true collector.

There is the anticipation and eternal optimism of the hunt. The exhilaration of capture when a must-have is attained. The joy of possession. And what is that fleeting expression on the faces of partic ipants on TV appraisal programs when they hear a whopping estimate? Triumph.

Collectors also feel disappointment, frustration, or anger at losing a prize or learning that the object is a ringer. There is rivalry and jealousy when someone else has outbid or outspent them. We beat ourselves up endlessly over “1 shouldda bought” scenarios. In fact, the physical rush and passion of capturing a coveted baseball card or another prized collectible has even been compared to sex. For some, attaining closure becomes an escalating pursuit that never ends. Enough is never enough.

As head of the Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University in Ohio Alison Scott wrote 30 to 40 thank-you notes a month to individuals who had donated collections to the library. The library taking up an entire floor and specializing in recreational popular culture, houses special collections including games, catalogs, political buttons, pulp magazines, trading cads, greeting cads, action figures, and periodicals, even a complete set of TV Guide maga zines, The library is growing so fast that soon it will rate its own building.

In the seven years she was in charge. Scott accepted hundreds of substantial collections, including one with 10,000 science fiction fanzines. Similarly, the donor of more than 1,500 Star Trek items wanted others to share her youth ful passion. But there are limits. “We did not do National Geographic, - says Scott, “and the library is letting Poke’mon go right over its head.”

University and president of the Popular Culture Association, “In our consumer-oriented democratic, mobile, and rootless society; we are what stuff we have.”

Unlike Europeans, people in the United States have few ties to their past. So perhaps it becomes more interesting and important to have things that create a past for us.

According to Robert Thompson, a Ph.D. in the field of film and television at Syracuse University and president of the Popular Culture Association, “In our consumer-oriented democratic, mobile, and rootless society; we are what stuff we have.”

Unlike Europeans, people in the United States have few ties to their past. So perhaps it becomes more interesting and important to have things that create a past for us.

“I turned 41 recently’ Thompson says. If I want to create my own past, I can go to eBay or to a collectibles shop, find the things that were part of my past, and build up a museum of my personal life. There’s something very satisfying about a personal, individual museum.

That museum will be doubly satisfying now that its dollar value is easily quantifiable. With price guides and prices flashed on the Internet, everything has a known value. You know it, and the observer knows it or can look it up

By centralizing the process, the Internet has created a user-friendly col lecting environment, “It lets you find something you didn’t know you wanted.” adds Thompson. “Because eBay and the online auctions have made everything accessible, they’ve extended the realm of what collecting can be.”

Many aspects of collecting have parameters. “I remember the unbelievable satisfaction of finishing a stamp album,” Thompson says. “To finish a collection, you know what you need to do. With enough money, you can control the out come and achieve that goal. Our personal lives and work are messier than that. Any 8-year-old with a complete set of trading cards knows the sense of power and status you get from having them.”

Collecting also offers generational bonding. “I can gauge your age by the music you like and by the toys you’re buying now,” Thompson says. “Maybe you can’t have the same house and live in the same place as when you were a kid, but you call re-create the halcyon times.”

The current growth cycle in collecting has an interesting consequence, reports Thompson. “Look at the explosion of the storage-space industry. People used to put things in closets, basements, or attics. Or they threw them out. Now we don’t have to part with things. We can rent a place to put them.”’

George McWhorter won’t be renting storage. In 1976, the former opera singer and Radio City Music Hall master of ceremonies donated his collection of 6,000 items related to Edgar Rice Burroughs to the University of Louisville. Today the Burroughs Memorial Collection totals 100,000 pieces.

When he was 5 years old, McWhorter became enthralled by Burroughs and his Tarzan stories. “Our imaginations got us through the Depression.’ he says. “For kids at the time, Burroughs was all incredible rage: Star Wan’ pales by comparison.”

By the time he ‘went to college at 16, McWhorter had copies of 54 Burroughs titles. ‘It was a rudder to me. Tarzan was inquisitive, so I would be too.” During a 35-year professional career, including a stint as a Fulbright Scholar when he studied in Paris with famed music teacher Nadia Boulanger, he continued to pick up anything with the Tarzan or Burroughs name.

“It hit it me 20 years ago. I said to myself, ‘George, this is your life’s work.’ I have no savings. It’s all guile into the Burroughs collection. I could be living in a villa in France on what I’ve spent. It’s been $2 million over the last 25 years alone.

However, being appointed curator of that collection helped McWhorter. “This is a major research institution. It’s a salve to all my wounds. “ Meanwhile, he’s looking for the only book that got away, a first edition with the dust jacked of The Return of Tarzan from 1915.

It’s got to be out there. It’s my Holy Grail. I can do it,” he says wistfully.

Asked if his quest might be a tad compulsive, McWhorter laughs, “I refuse to think bout that. Burroughs helped me frame my philosophy.’

Niki Moyer, a clinical specialist at the Hazelden Foundation, says that collecting can be like an addiction if the behavior continues despite harmful consequences. There may he medical problems or a financial loss, perhaps neglect of a relationship. In any case, the lifestyle could get out of balance.

When a collector keeps a sense of balance and finds a happy ending, such as McWhorter’s, the pursuit can he a very healthy part of life. But a compul sive collector ultimately falls into what Thompson labels “pathos.”

“It says something about our society that we are trying to achieve some sense of immortality to fill a gap that can not be filled.” he says. It’s all about fending off the inevitable.

“At some point we have an epiphany, and then we shed,” McWhorter adds. “It’s when the honeymoon is over, and a little voice says. ‘What am I going to do with all this stuff?’”

It’s important, he says, to “assess why you’re collecting. In McWhorter’s case, it happened when he finally managed to buy a beloved Golden Book from his childhood, “When I found it, I realized that the issue was not the book; it was the happy days of childhood. Then I realized I couldn’t go back

Danielle Arnet’s weekly column “The Smart Collector” is syndicated nationally by Tribune Media. She has heard the little voice, loud and clear.