views updated May 14 2018


It has been estimated that one of every three Americans collects something (Schiffer, Downing, and McCarthy). Just how common collecting is depends on how it is defined. If the definition encompasses acquiring and possessing a clothing wardrobe, family photographs, and music, then few people in the more affluent world are not collectors. are not collectors. However, that definition is not widely held and can generally be ignored. Rather, collecting is the process of actively, selectively, and passionately acquiring and possessing things removed from ordinary use and perceived as part of a set of nonidentical objects or experiences (Belk 1995b, p. 67).

By this definition, individuals who seek, acquire, and keep different music CDs, records, or tapes and who listen to these recordings (ordinary use) would not be collectors, even if they are passionate in their music consumption experiences. But those who acquire and keep music in order to treasure it as part of a set of music would be collectors. The same is true of clothing. Individuals who collect and treasure hats but do not normally wear them are collectors, while those with closets full of shoes that they wear are not collectors. Individuals who take photos of family and vacations in order to recall these people and events are not collectors, even if they maintain photo albums or digital archives with thousands of such photos. But those who ardently build sets of photos of particular types (e.g., photos of old barns, daguerreotypes, photos by Robert Mapplethorpe) because of their rarity, beauty, or interest are collectors.

This definition also distinguishes collecting from curating, hoarding, and accumulating. People who have collections can be curators without being collectors if they do not actively add to or modify their collections. Although they may have once been collectors while they assembled the objects, if they no longer make new acquisitions, they are no longer collectors. Hoarders fail to be collectors on two counts: They quite likely have multiple identical objects (e.g., rolls of toilet paper), and they plan to put these objects to their ordinary use. Likewise, packrats who cannot bear to part with objects are not collectors because they are neither selective nor passionate about the objects they retain. They also may envision a possible future use for these objects.

Each year auction houses like Sotheby's sell billions of dollars of collectibles. At the lower end of the market, baseball cards alone have sales of over $500 million in the U.S. market (Rogoli). The $250 million in annual sales by the Bradford Exchange suggests the size of the collectible plate market (Berman and Sullivan). While until recently the vast majority of collectors could not hope to recoup their investments in their collections, much less profit from their collections, the Internet and online auctions like eBay are rapidly changing the potential to find ready buyers and establish market prices for virtually any collectible object. But these observations falsely suggest that collecting is an investment activity. This is seldom the case, and investing may be the antithesis of collecting.

Collecting as Consuming

A collection is a special set of objects pursued and cherished by the collector for reasons other than the use value of these objects. A collection of interesting pebbles in an 80,000-year-old cave habitat in France suggests that collecting is not a new human passion. Nevertheless, it appears that the incidence and magnitude of collecting increases with the growth of societal affluence and during periods when contact between cultures introduces new and novel objects into circulation.

In the United States, the earliest collections were likely of Indian arrowheads and hunting trophies. Except for a small number of the elite, few early Americans had the time or money to devote to collecting purchased objects such as books or art. Among the less elite, some of the earliest U.S. collectors were artists and clergymen. Charles Wilson Peale was a prominent collector-artist who collected and eventually exhibited portraits, fossils, insects, minerals, stuffed birds, and busts of heroes of the American Revolution. Ministers with noted collections included Cotton Mather and his son Samuel, who collected books; William Sprague, who collected autographs; and William Bentley, who collected portraits, prints, books, manuscripts, furniture, coins, and various specimens of natural history, ethnology, and archaeology. By the late nineteenth century collecting had become more of a mass phenomenon in the United States; popular areas of collecting included postage stamps, cigarette cards and other chromolithographs, pressed flowers, cigar bands, coins, and antiques.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the increase in collecting in the United States has been aided by decreasing work hours, increased affluence, and greater alienation in the workplace. Organizations like the Campfire Girls, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, and Boy Scouts have also played a part in legitimizing collecting as an activity among children. As collecting became more popular, advertisers like cigarette companies provided collectible objects to win loyal patrons, and other companies began to market products specifically intended to be purchased and collected, like model airplanes or Christmas plates.

Inasmuch as collecting can be thought of as a perpetual quest for inessential luxury objects, it is easy to infer that collecting is an exaggerated expression of consumer culture. Certain aspects of collecting do seem to be related to consumerism, especially in an era like the new millennium, when the majority of collectible objects are purchased (rather than found or made by the collector) and when many objects are produced and marketed with the express intent of inspiring people to collect them. For most collectors desire is born and reborn as they hunt or save for the objects of their dreams. Evidence from the early 2000s suggests that such object desires may be prompted by an underlying desire for the state of unfulfilled but hopeful desire itself.

But to summarize collector motives as an expression of materialism and consumerism and to conclude that the phenomenon of collecting is simply a socially sanctioned manifestation of living in a consumer society is to overlook other factors that help to account for our fascination with this particular leisure activity. At an individual psychological level, explanations of collecting emphasize possible benefits of this activity to the collector: being able to control a small world of collectible objects, feeling accomplishment, achieving success in competition with other collectors, gaining status within a narrow avocational realm, deriving interpersonal pleasures from interacting with other collectors, seeking economic gain, enjoying the "thrill of the hunt" in seeking rare objects and bargain-priced treasures, developing expertise and connoisseurship, pursuing self-definition and self-extension in the collection, kindling nostalgia and recapturing childhood joys, feeling a sense of contribution to society by "rescuing" treasures overlooked by others, and even gaining immortality through the postmortem preservation of a collection. At a more psychoanalytic level, collecting has been characterized as a striving to earn parental love denied or frustrated in childhood. With so many people collecting such a wide array of objects, no single motive can fully account for all of this activity.

Collecting and Society

A more sociological set of factors also needs to be taken into consideration in trying to understand why we collect. Collecting requires that the collector perceive value in the set of objects collected, and this valuation depends on the judgments of others. Whether these others are fellow collectors competing for the same objects or those who learn of the collector's activities and collection, social appraisal of collecting activity is hard to avoid. This appraisal likely starts in childhood when parents sanction collecting and subtly or overtly suggest rules of order, pattern, and selectivity that distinguish a "good" collection from a "bad" one. In a broader sense the activity or hobby of collecting has been characterized as "serious leisure" (Stebbins; Gelber, 1999). That is, collecting can be approached as a purposeful and productive activity that is more worklike than playlike. This orientation likely appeals to those steeped in puritanical guilt that their leisure activity might otherwise be characterized as frivolous, playful, self-indulgent, or childlike. As Steven Gelber explains, because the objects of most collections are luxury products from a consumer society, social approval is more likely to be forthcoming if collecting can be framed as an act of production (of a meaningful, purposeful collection) rather than an act of consumption (of the baubles of a consumer society).

That a worklike orientation and justification for collecting is adopted by some collectors is not surprising considering the opprobrium often directed toward collecting. In most fiction about collectors, including John Fowles's The Collector, Honoré de Balzac's Cousin Pons, Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet, and Bruce Chatwin's Utz, collecting is portrayed as a strange obsession and collectors are characterized as silly, asocial, and narrowly focused isolates who have chosen the world of things over the world of people. While such views of collectors are most prevalent in fiction, they are found in behavioral analyses as well. For example, Jean Baudrillard describes collectors as infantile and deficient personalities; Werner Muensterberger suggests that there is a parallel between the activities of collectors and the "fetishes of preliterate human kind" (p. 9).

Besides taking a worklike approach, a further escape from social critiques of collecting can be found in the romantic notion of the collectors' passion. Passionate collectors yearn to add adored objects to their collections and can be carried away by these emotions. Collecting transcends the here and now and transports collectors to a special realm filled with myth, ritual, and sacred objects that are revered and seen as sublime. Within this discourse collectors are saviors who risk all to rescue treasures that are inadequately appreciated by noncollectors. Unlike those who see empty beer cans or used postage stamps as trash, collectors find these objects to be sources of intense desire for the blissful delight their possession is imagined to bring.

Passionate collectors also potentially escape the critique that collecting is the epitome of materialism. Rather than striving for status or economic gain, romantic collectors place the collection above nearly everything else, including the money and labor that are sacrificed in the noble pursuit of these objects. Dealers in collectible objects are accordingly seen as noncollectors who instead pursue the base motives of profit and gain. By elevating the collection and its objects to the extreme where passion overwhelms reason, collectors behave in a way that can be seen as antithetical to the charge of materialism. At the same time, others have charged that this is merely a sublimation of sexual desire and that, like romantic love, collectors overesteem and idolize the beloved, which in this case is a collectible object.

While collecting passion is a romantic ethos to which many may aspire, for many collectors collecting is not an all-embracing enterprise. One example includes collectors who would not be collecting were it not for the frequent receipt of collectible gifts in a certain category (e.g., nutcrackers, souvenir spoons, representations of frogs, owls, elephants, or pigs). Others may simply stop collecting and become curators of "dead" collections or dispose of former collections. Collecting is common in childhood, but often as children approach puberty they abandon their collections. Increased sexual interests and the association of former collections with an earlier period of childhood are likely responsible for this decline in interest. Thus, Beanie Babies, Pokéman characters, stickers, baseball cards, Barbies, and other once-revered objects may find themselves unceremoniously dispatched to a box, closet, or drawer.

Occasionally, marketer-inspired fads make temporary collectors of those who normally express little or no interest in collecting. For instance, in 1998, McDonald's introduced in its 147 Hong Kong restaurants three-inchtall plastic Snoopy dolls. The restaurants featured Snoopy dressed in a different national costume each day. People began queuing up early to buy the dolls; when fights broke out over queue jumping, police had to be called in to restore order. Although the dolls cost less than U.S.$1 with the purchase of an Extra Value Meal, some people paid more than U.S.$100 per doll to complete their collections. While most commercial promotions are not as successful as this one, the mania found among these temporary Hong Kong collectors demonstrates how collecting something can become fashionable and intensely competitive, simply because others are doing it.

At a political and institutional level, it is easy to see the links between collecting and the capitalist system of commodity relations. Indeed, Gelber characterizes stamp collecting as a metaphor for the free market system; it teaches competition, accumulation, buying, trading, and profit making. Daniel Cook characterizes 1990s fads of collecting sports "chase" cards, Beanie Babies, and Pokémon trading cards as teaching children to value acquisition for acquisition's sake. Brenda Danet and Tamar Katriel report that not even religion is exempt from collecting commodification, as children in Israel collect rabbi trading cards. Stamp collecting was prevalent in the former Soviet Union and contemporary China. A similar phenomenon was observed in Romania from 1991 to 1992. Romanians, who were barred from leaving the country during the years of communism, collected stamps and maps that allowed them to travel vicariously.

The Collector

Not all childhood collections are abandoned; adults, especially middle-age men, also start new collections. Sigmund Freud, for example, began collecting antiquities upon the death of his father. Women also collect, but men dominate most areas of collecting. This dominance may be a reflection of economic power, competitiveness, or desire for mastery, but collecting also involves stereotypically feminine traits such as creating, preserving, and nurturing the collection. However, the gender bias in collecting may be diminishing or disappearing. Susan Pearce finds that in the United Kingdom at least as many women as men are collectors.

There are, nevertheless, gender differences in the types of objects collected. Gender role stereotypes help account for the predominance of men as collectors of military objects, weapons, machines (including cars, model trains, and tractors), sports memorabilia, and beer cans, and the predominance of women as collectors of dolls, jewelry, housewares, and animal replicas. In analyzing a pair of husband and wife collectors in which he collected antique fire engines and African hunting trophies and she collected mouse replicas, Belk, Wallendorf, Sherry, and Holbrook detected the following Female to Male differences in symbolism:


Pearce expands upon this list in a similar vein. As these contrasts suggest, the woman's collection not only exhibits stereotypical female traits, but also is likely to be esteemed as less important than the man's. There are exceptions to such patterns, however, and there are women who have been prominent in many areas of collecting.

The collector can be disparaged on two opposing grounds. One criticism, especially likely to be directed at women, is that collecting is a trivial and wasteful consumption activity. The gendered and class-related nature of this criticism is evident in Rémy Saisselin's observation that in nineteenth-century France women who collected were seen as "mere buyers of bibelots," while male collectors were seen to be seriously enacting purposeful and meaningful vision.

A historical grain of truth that may underlie this characterization of female collectors is that women have historically commanded fewer economic resources, and therefore, like poorer classes, have found it more difficult to assemble the "best" collections in the highest status areas of collecting such as fine art.

The other criticism of collectors is that they are obsessive-compulsive personalities who are addicted to an unhealthy acquisitive and possessive habit. As Thatcher Freund observes of one antique collector:

His love for objects consumed him in a way that it consumes many collectors and dealers. Those who called him "obsessive". . . generally admitted . . . that "We're all neurotic. We're bugged. People involved with objects are compulsive. They care more about objects than they do about people sometimes. Their relationships with people are difficult" (pp. 183–184).

While a small portion of collectors may be clinically obsessive-compulsive (including historical examples of those who steal, kill, and impoverish themselves for the sake of their collections), this characterization does not apply to the vast majority of collectors. Nevertheless, a number of collectors themselves describe their collecting activity as an addiction, refer to their "habit," and speak of needing to get their "fix." This self-characterization is partly a humorous tongue-in-cheek effort to justify their unusual dedication to the pursuit of their collecting hobbies through hyperbole, and partly a semiserious attempt to excuse their behavior by invoking a recognizable medical model. Furthermore, by invoking the label of obsession, collectors may attempt to participate in the romantic model of passionate artists giving everything to their creations, which in this case are their collections.

But the romantic notion of passionate collectors differs from the romantic notion of passionate artists in that collectors are more consumers than they are artists. The notion of a perpetual desire to desire brings to mind Colin Campbell's contention that the essence of contemporary consumer culture is Romanticism and an endless cycle of desire and purchase. So too with collectors who simultaneously long for completion of the collection and fear this final end to collecting. When collectors see the end in sight with completion of a collection, they often either increase the standard they had previously set for their collections or switch to other collecting areas entirely. Thus, desire is renewed, and collecting continues.

The idea of completing a collection is applicable to the sort of collection exemplified by stamp collecting, where any given category contains a fixed set of stamps. This type of taxonomic box-filling collecting is called Type A collecting by Danet and Katriel. By contrast, Type B collectors follow aesthetic criteria and thus can never definitively complete a collection. Here art collectors are exemplary, although Type A approaches might also be possible with art if, for instance, someone sought to have an example of every artist in a given genre. Thus, when Gelber says, "Completing a set is so closely identified with collecting that it stands as a virtual definition of the hobby" (1999, p. 74), he is describing only Type A collectors. It seems reasonable to assume that Type A collectors are more prone to the excesses of obsessiveness, while Type B collectors are more prone to the excesses of Romanticism.

Conclusion: Collecting as a Response to Existential Angst

What then should we make of collecting as an individual practice and a societal institution? Besides the composite of individual collectors and the sanctions for or criticisms of their behavior, society jointly collects in its museums, galleries, zoos, libraries, and other "legitimate" collecting institutions that are less commonly subject to criticism than are individual collections of matchbooks, baseball cards, comic books, or salt and pepper shakers. It is likely that collecting at both personal and institutional levels is an attempt to make a statement to ourselves and others about who we are. Often the collection signifies roots, stability, golden days of the past, and pathways to the future.

As Ernest Becker has suggested, we do not fear death as much as we fear a life without meaning. If so, one effort to create meaning is to make a collection that can stand as a "monument to the self" (Belk et al., 1991, p. 180). In reflecting on his book collection, Walter Benjamin was prompted by his treasures into a Proustian reverie, not about his life as perhaps the last of the great intellectuals, but about his life as a book collector. In an increasingly commodified world, collecting offers a way to singularize objects by taking them out of their functional circulation and ritually enshrining them within the collection. Collecting fights against the sterility of appraising objects according to their use value and in so doing offers an approach to the sacred. Just as a gift from a loved one is a singular treasure not readily exchangeable for its marketplace equivalent, so too is an object within a collection set apart and revered for its extraordinary contextual meaning. Thus, while collecting may superficially appear to be the most materialistic manifestation of consumer culture, to the collector it is just the opposite. It is the antidote to the impersonal marketplace, the disposable society, and the alienation of fungible commodities.

See also: Antiques; Books and Manuscripts; Clocks and Watches; Coin Collecting; Comic Magazines; Crafts and Hobbies; Record, CD, Tape Collecting and Listening; Stamp Collecting


Abraham, Karl. Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth, 1927.

Ackerman, Paul H. "On Collecting: A Psychoanalytic View." Maine Antique Digest (May 1990): 22A–24A.

Appadurai, Arjun. "Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value." In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Edited by Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Baekeland, Frederick. "Psychological Aspects of Art Collecting." Psychiatry 44 (February 1981): 45–49.

Balzac, Honoré de. Cousin Pons. Translated by Herman J. Hunt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1968 (original 1847).

Barker, Stephen, ed. Excavations and Their Objects: Freud's Collection of Antiquity, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Baudrillard, Jean. "The System of Collecting." In The Cultures of Collecting. Edited by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Bazin, Germain. The Museum Age. Translated by Jane van Nuis Cahil. New York: Universe Books, 1967.

Becker, Ernest. Escape from Evil. New York: Free Press, 1975.

Belk, Russell W. "Collecting as Luxury Consumption: Effects on Individuals and Households." Journal of Economic Society 16 (February 1995a): 477–490.

——. Collecting in a Consumer Society. London: Routledge, 1995b.

——. "The Double Nature of Collecting: Materialism and Antimaterialism." Etnofoor 11, no. 1 (1998): 7–20.

Belk, Russell W., Güliz Ger, and Søren Askegaard. "The Fire of Desire: A Multi-Sited Inquiry into Consumer Passion." Journal of Consumer Research 30 (December 2003).

Belk, Russell W., and Melanie Wallendorf. "Of Mice and Men: Gender, Identity, and Collecting." In The Material Culture of Gender; the Gender of Material Culture. Edited by Kenneth Ames and Katherine Martinez. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf, John F. Sherry, Jr., and Morris B. Holbrook. "Collecting in a Consumer Culture." In Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey. Edited by Russell W. Belk. Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research, 1991.

Berman, Phyllis, and R. Lee Sullivan. "Limousine Liberal." Forbes 150 (October 26, 1992): 168+.

Bosco, Joseph. "The McDonald's Snoopy Craze in Hong Kong." In Consuming Hong Kong. Edited by Gordon Mathews and Tai-lok Lui. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2001.

Campbell, Colin. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1987.

Chatwin, Bruce. Utz. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

Clifford, James. "Objects and Selves—An Afterword." In Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture, Edited by George W. Stocking, Jr. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Cook, Daniel Thomas. "Exchange Value as Pedagogy in Children's Leisure: Moral Panics in Children's Culture at Century's End." Leisure Sciences 23 (2000): 81–98.

Danet, Brenda, and Tamar Katriel. "Stamps, Erasers, Table Napkins, 'Rebbe Cards': Childhood Collecting in Israel." Paper presented at the Eighteenth Annual Meeting of the Popular Culture Association. New Orleans, La., March 1988.

——. "No Two Alike: The Aesthetics of Collecting." Play and Culture 2, no. 3 (1989): 253–277.

——. "Glorious Obsessions, Passionate Lovers, and Hidden Treasures: Collecting, Metaphor, and the Romantic Ethic." In The Socialness of Things. Edited by Stephen H. Riggen. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994.

Dutton, Michael, ed. Streetlife China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Flaubert, Gustave. Bouvard et Pécuchet. Translated by T. W. Earp and G. W. Stonier. New York: New Directions, 1954 (original 1881).

Fowles, John. The Collector. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.

Freund, Thatcher. Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Gamwell, Lynn, and Richard Wells, eds. Sigmund Freud and Art: His Personal Collection of Antiquities. Binghamton: State University of New York, 1989.

Gelber, Steven M. "A Job You Can't Lose: Work and Hobbies in the Great Depression." Journal of Social History 24 (Summer 1993): 741–766.

——. Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Gere, Charlotte, and Marina Vaizey. Great Women Collectors. London: Philip Wilson, 1999.

Grant, Jonathan. "The Socialist Construction of Philately in the Early Soviet Era." Comparative Studies in Society and History 37 (1995): 476–493.

Mechling, Jay. "The Collecting Self and American Youth Movements." In Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America, 1880–1920. Edited by Simon J. Bronner. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1989.

Muensterberger, Werner. Collecting: An Unruly Passion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Neal, Arminta. "Collecting for History Museums: Remembering Our Splintered Existence." Museum News 58 (May/June 1980): 24–29.

Pearce, Susan M. On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition. London: Routledge, 1995.

——. Collecting in Contemporary Practice. London: Sage Publications, 1998.

Rigby, Douglas, and Elizabeth Rigby. Lock, Stock, and Barrel: The Story of Collecting. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1944.

Rogoli, Bob. "Racism in Baseball Card Collecting: Fact or Fiction?" Human Relations 44 (March 1991): 255–264.

Saisselin, Rémy G. Bricobracomania: The Bourgeois and the Bebelot, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984.

Schiffer, Michael, Theodore Downing, and Michael McCarthy. "Waste Not, Want Not: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Refuse in Tucson." In Modern Material Culture: The Archaeology of Us. Edited by Michael Gould and Michael Schiffer. New York: Academic Press, 1981.

Stebbins, Robert A. Amateurs: On the Margins Between Work and Leisure. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1979.

Stewart, Susan. "Death and Life, in That Order, in the Works of Charles Wilson Peale." In Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances. Edited by Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen. Seattle, Wash.: Bay Press, 1995.

Stillinger, Elizabeth. The Antiquers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Russell Belk

Collections and Hobbies

views updated May 14 2018

Collections and Hobbies

In almost all cultures and societies, children have collected a broad spectrum of items. Although the activity seems to be universal, very little has been written on this subject. And even though collecting has played an important part in many individuals' lives, it is seldom described in memoirs or autobiographies. This may be because many collections are suddenly abandoned when the collector grows up. Many of these collections are split up and disappear unless parents understand the fascinating world of the small collector and pay special attention to saving them. Some collections, however, continue into adult life, becoming lifelong passionate occupations; this is especially likely with collections that have some kind of economic value or present the adult with challenges or opportunities for further study.

The pleasure of founding and creating collections may lead children, as they grow, to collect a new category of items that are more acceptable to their age. The spirit of the collector once established never leaves the individual but is turned in new directions. Grand collections may end up in professional institutions, such as museums, which seems to be the dream of collectors, who do not want their passionate investments to disappear with them. But most collections are scattered by the years and do not survive their owners.

The Functions of Collections

Collecting serves a wide range of purposes and functions. Collecting trains the eye, creates a sense of order, and develops aesthetic appreciation. But collectors can primarily be characterized by their joyful dedication to their project. The world of collectors may be lonely, but can also be social when collectors share their pleasure with each other. The collector often participates in a community, whose connections may range from informal gatherings to organized networks. These give collectors the pride of showing and the pleasure of seeing others' collections, as well as an opportunity to exchange experience, advice, and actual items. Many collectors know that individuals outside the collectors' world consider them members of a special subculture that pays too much attention to an eccentric and limited sphere of interest.

Children's collections tend to be looked at with more tolerance, however strange or fantastical they may seem to the adult world. They form a space where childhood fantasy and imagination can be indulged. Contemporary tendencies reveal a change in the differences between the collections of children and adults. Many children start collections of valuable items that are marketed directly to them by the mass media and commercial powers. At the same time, adults show an increasing interest in collecting items that once belonged only to childhood or that possess a significance that may be regarded as infantile. Male and female toy collectors all over the Western world collect valuable antique matchbox cars, tin soldiersdolls, and dollhouses, as well as more recent miscellaneous objects that were once strictly children's toys. They seem to represent a dream of never-ending childhood, which never requires giving up the fascination with toys but supplies it with the new, playful ambition of the economically independent adult collector.

Sheer entertainment may be the purpose of one of the contemporary world's greatest collectors, Michael Jackson. His collections consist of amusement park attractions, a zoo, and numerous kinds of toys, although he has a special devotion to toy animals. To some people he may represent the disappearance of well-defined borders between the ages in postmodern life: the boy who never grew up and the grownup who never adapted to his new role and responsibility. Jackson may exemplify the collector's true identity, which confuses work with play, leisure with learning, childhood with adulthood, and creating new openings for possible and impossible identities.

Subsistence Economies

In subsistence economies, nature is a never-ending source of objects for infant collectors. Stones, shells, bones, twigs, leaves, flowers, feathers, teeth, and hair have been collected and appreciated by adults and children in most tribal cultures, although anthropologists have seldom described this activity within the specific context of childhood studies. They tend to study it in the context of the magical, religious, or festive. The basic instinct to behave like the parental group or other care givers may have been the origin of these childhood collections, whose durability and existence depended on the mobility and social stratification of the population.

Gender and division of labor may have been decisive factors shaping and structuring children's collections. Depending on the integration of children's work in subsistence economies, time for play and leisure varied. Hunter, nomad, and pre-agricultural societies generally offered less domestic space and thus less place for objects and collections that were not mobile.

Peasant Societies

Children in peasant societies worked, but they lived a much more settled, domestic life than did children in subsistence economies. This allowed for the possibility of more consistent collecting. Even though toys were seldom bought, they could be made, and depending on how much time was available for play, collections could be started. Sticks could be made into bows or used as throwing instruments. They could be carved in patterns or exchanged for other objects. In American immigrant milieus, it was easy to turn corn husks into dolls, and many girls had lots of them. No clear line exists between the possession of homemade toys and collecting.

In peasant cultures, children often reused objects from the adult world. It was common to collect pieces of glass or colored pieces of broken pottery. Yarn from worn-out knitwear could be sewn into balls in many patterns. The loose winter hair from cattle could be shaped and rolled with spit to make balls that bounced well. Braiding straw and flowers was often popular among girls. Paper could be folded or cut into more or less spontaneous patterns. Paper pierced with needles could provide children a great deal of joy. Children often collected beach stones with holes so they could put a string through the holes and pull them like cows. Exchanging such objects or using them for a lottery was common. Turnips, beets, and pumpkins could be hollowed and turned into lanterns, as is still done for Halloween. Clay could be shaped into small figurines or made into beads and then into bracelets or necklaces. Leaves, straw, shells, and many other objects could be fixed on the surface of any kind of box to create a home for one's treasures. Collecting in peasant cultures was generally a moneyless, outdoor activity, which appealed to both fantasy and social play. In the 1800s and 1900s, these collections were far more ephemeral than collections in the bourgeois culture and industrial society that developed alongside peasant culture.

Industrial Society

The bourgeois culture that began to develop at the end of the 1700s stressed consumption and domestic life. Even family life changed radically. Bourgeois children were given more physical space; training and education became more focused; and new intellectual borders between ages were established. More and more, the ideal domestic life excluded production and favored intimacy, reproductive activities, and leisure. Children began to have their own rooms in the home and were looked after by a differentiated staff, made up mostly of female servants. Education and schools played a still more important part in the child's life. Care and control developed side by side. Children's collections changed and were directed toward new aims.

The economic subordination of women and children in the reproductive and consumer spheres created new conditions for the small collector. Items became far more prearranged, dependent on money and the booming practice of giving gifts. During the 1800s, Christmas changed, becoming less of a social, religious feast and embracing the private, emotional, cocooning elements typical of the modern celebration. Parental love was increasingly connected with giving children gifts at Christmas and birthdays and in other specific situations. The new collections often started and developed via such gifts. Children began making lists of items they wanted, which could be bought in shops and markets. However, homemade gifts were still usual and were often regarded as more personal. In the 1800s, Germany took a leading position in the production of toys. But the German paper industry developed innovations for children, including printed games, paper dolls, cards, sheets, and colored paper scraps.

Fascinating collections, however, could still be started without special expense. The birth of a consumer society meant large-scale production of luxury paper for packaging. Products were marketed in attractive paper wrappings, which children often saved. Food, sweets, cosmetics, tobacco, and many other goods were presented in new ways to the customers and their children. Mail-service companies started the printing of stamps, which initiated many young philatelists. Railway tickets and other items from the expanding world of transport and communication represented new collectors' items, enlarging the world of childhood.

Twentieth-Century Collections

The growth and democratization of consumption may be the outstanding feature of the recent period, and it changed children's collections decisively. After World War I, it became common to celebrate children's birthdays. Invitation cards became a new collector's item in the 1920s, functioning as social souvenirs. Girls started collections of exquisitely printed paper napkins, often brought home from birthday parties. Marketers introduced a new strategy, adding collector's items for children to products for adults. Cigarettes, soap, coffee substitute, chewing gum, and many other products contained collectibles for children. The expanding film industry, sports, and mass media sent children hunting for autographs, photos, or other memorabilia from the stars. Beautiful packaging was still popular, including matchboxes, tin boxes, fancy bottles, and shopping bags from fashion shops. Before World War II the Walt Disney Company launched a strategy of integrated consumption of trademarked goods, which appealed to young consumers and collectors. Film, magazines, cards, posters, soap figurines, bubble gum, printed napkins, and toys built up a total universe of desirable objects and experiences. This strategy was so successful that it turned into the contemporary business of merchandising, which puts trademarked characters on wallpaper, videos, computer games, towels, schoolbags, pencils, erasers, and clothes, and in fast food. Even though such collecting may worry some adults because of its prearranged character and the way it commercializes childhood, it mirrors the conditions of modern culture that also affect the adult world.


Merrick, J., ed. 1988. Merete Staack: Bo § rns samlinger. Fra vaettelys til coca-cola-kultur. Copenhagen, Denmark: Barndom.

Bjarne Kildegaard


views updated May 08 2018


COLLECTING. Americans are voracious collectors. They collect anything and everything. While probably not as popular as stamps, American collections include coins, baseball cards, comic books, and Beanie Babies.

The First American Collectors

Rev. William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts, may have become the first documented American collector when he purchased a William and Mary period settee in 1819 for the sole purpose of owning a piece of furniture of an earlier American time. More than a score of years earlier, in 1793, the Massachusetts Historical Society became the first public institution to receive a decorative arts bequest, a chair "of antique fashion" by a resident of Salem. Within a decade several historical and colonial societies had been founded in New England. These were the beginnings of what would become a national interest in squirreling away its past in public and private collections.

Because of the great interest in historical events and individuals, various objects such as furniture, silver, pewter, clothing were preserved and kept in public view as reminders. The librarian of the American Antiquarian Society, Samuel F. Haven, reported in 1842 that "old pictures, old furniture, old plate, and even old books, which have here to fore suffered neglect, and enjoyed but a musty reputation, as uncongenial to the go-ahead habits of our people, are now sought with eagerness as necessary adjuncts of style and the most cherished ornaments of the drawing room." At the time, collecting was an enlightened amateur affair. There were no antique dealers or guidebooks to identifying antiques.

During much the same time, cultured Americans could read freshly written accounts about the newest science and archaeology, learn to discern between Greek and Roman sculpture, develop a profound interest in Gothic architecture and the medieval life it represented, or study the roots of the Renaissance as they were being uncovered in Florence, Rome, and elsewhere. Americans even went to England or Europe to live and to collect. Collections helped determine aesthetic preferences and influenced the direction deemed proper for contemporary art production. In the 1850s, they also influenced preservationists, such as Cummings E. Davis of Concord, Massachusetts, who gathered what he could find of local colonial relics. His accumulation eventually formed key components of the Concord Antiquarian Society collection. By

the 1850s, a broad public awareness of national history led to the preservation of such relics as "Old Ironsides," or Mount Vernon.

The Influence of Collectors

As the nation began to anticipate its centennial celebration in 1876, a few furniture dealers began to sell antiques in Boston and New York, and public interest in antiques began to grow with exhibitions focused on American decorative arts. In Boston, The Bunker Hill Centennial Exhibition featured furniture, pewter, and ceramics from the collection of Maj. Ben Perley Poore of Newburyport, Massachusetts, one of the nation's most prominent collectors of colonial objects. Books published in 1877, such as The House Beautiful by Clarence Cook and Pottery and Porcelain by William C. Prime, helped feed public interest in antiques. When Irving Lyon began collecting furniture in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1877, his focus sparked several of his Hartford friends to do the same, and eventually led to his publishing The Colonial Furniture of New England in 1891, the first book devoted to the subject. The expanding number of collectors led to more books and articles on American decorative arts. In 1892, Alice Morse Earle's China Collecting in America became the first scholarly work on ceramics in America. In 1896, Theodore S.

Woolsey, a Yale professor and silver collector, wrote the first article on the collecting of American silver for the popular Harper's New Monthly Magazine.

The Chicago World's Columbian Exposition (1893) devoted much space and ink to collecting. The Fine Arts Building was devoted almost exclusively to paintings and sculpture from American and Europe, while Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York exhibited their colonial furniture tradition.

When William H. Crim auctioned his important decorative arts collection in 1903, he set a new trend in dispersing collections. The following year, Charles L. Pendleton began another tradition when he bequeathed his collection of furniture, silver, ceramics, and paintings to the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1909, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibition in conjunction with the Hudson-Fulton Celebration. Several collectors participated, and after the show, Eugene Bolles sold his extensive furniture collection to the Museum. The exhibition had also provided an opportunity to establish the Walpole Society, the first American organization devoted to collecting.

Starting just after 1900, Henry Francis Du Pont of Winterthur, Delaware, began to amass an extensive collection of American decorative arts. In 1951, it became the Winterthur Museum. About the same time, Ima Hogg's American collection, second only to Du Pont's, went public in her house museum, Bayou Bend, in Houston.

As if birthing twins, the same cities that saw the genesis of colonial arts collecting also saw the gathering of oriental art objects, as a result of growing trade with the Far East. As early as 1800, the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, had materials brought from India, China, and Japan to the East India Marine Society and the Essex Institute. An early leader of Japanese art collecting in America was Ernest Fenellosa, a great scholar of oriental art at Harvard and the Fine Arts Academy of Tokyo. His collection, dating from the 1880s and 1890s, is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1923, Charles Lang Freer's outstanding oriental collection moved into its own museum, the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In addition to an astounding array of oriental art, Freer had bought some one hundred paintings and a thousand prints from James Abbot McNeill Whistler. But it was Freer's acquisition of the whole Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room that focused that aspect of his collecting.

In 1804, Thomas Jefferson owned several works of questionable authority; the painter John Trumbull exhibited his small collection at the Park Theater in New York; and the Gallery of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened. Nevertheless, Americans did not enter the world of seriously collecting paintings until the second half of the nineteenth century. A rarity among collectors, the pioneer collector J. J. Jarves (1818–1888) lived in Florence for about thirty years after 1851. His collection of 119 works was deposited at Yale Art School in New Haven in 1867. Isabella Stewart Gardner commuted between America and Europe, acquiring works on the advice of Charles Eliot Norton, a Harvard professor of fine art. Her collection—arranged the way she had lived with it at Fenway Court in Boston—was opened to the public after she died in 1924. Norton also influenced Bernard Berenson, who, after his graduation from Harvard in 1887, moved to Florence and, from there, asserted an enormous influence as a connoisseur and collector in his villa "I Tatti."

In general, it was only after 1900 that the magnates of American industry and finance—Henry Walter, Andrew Mellon, Samuel H. Kress, J. Pierpont Morgan, Benjamin Altman, Henry Clay Frick, and Joseph E. Widener—began to accumulate extraordinary collections that became available to the public from the 1920s to 1950s. The great dealer, Sir Joseph Duveen, who began his activities in 1886, aided several of these collectors.

Aiming at the serious collector, in 1846, Michael Knoedler set up business in New York as a representative of the French gallery Goupil. Since 1857, the firm has been known as Knoedler's. In 1879, Mary Cassatt and Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer met and their friendship helped influence several collectors. Two Paris dealers, Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard, also helped. In 1886, Durand-Ruel organized an exhibition of over three hundred impressionists in New York, where he opened a branch of his Paris gallery three years later. In Chicago, another friend of Mary Cassatt, Mrs. Potter Palmer, showed impressionist paintings in her home during the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. At about the same time, Martin A. Ryerson, a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago, exhibited his taste with sixteen paintings by Monet, five by Renoir, and five by Redon.

In 1898, Miss Etta Cone bought several paintings by Theodore Robinson. This led her and her sister Claribel into the still exotic and generally unaccepted world of contemporary art. In their Baltimore home, they eventually gathered some three thousand objects from around the world. At about the same time Dr. Albert C. Barnes was beginning his pursuit of contemporary works, particularly paintings by Cézanne and Renoir.

Twentieth-Century Collectors

From 1911 to his death in 1924, John Quinn, a New York lawyer, acquired a hoard of some two thousand paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures, representing more than 150 contemporary artists. Duncan Phillips in Washington, D.C., opened his collection to the public in 1921, becoming the first permanent museum of modern art in America.

The early 1950s saw a flowering of art collecting across the United States. In Chicago, Edward and Lindy Bergman, Joseph and Jory Shapiro, Ruth and Leonard Horwich, and Morton and Rose Neumann created complete artistic environments to live in, focusing on Surrealism, outsider art, and Chicago contemporary. They were followed in the 1960s by Dennis Adrian, Lolli Thurm, Roger Brown, and Larry and Evelyn Aronson, who focused almost exclusively on Chicago's own artists, including the Harry Who and the Chicago Imagists.

By the early 1960s, America became the world's center of collecting through the emergence of many American collectors of international significance, such as Dominique de Menil, whose sweeping collection is in Houston, Texas.


Richardson, Brenda. Dr. Claribel & Miss Etta: The Cone Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Baltimore, Md.: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1985.

Taylor, Joshua. The Fine Arts in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Zilczer, Judith. "The Noble Buyer": John Quinn, Patron of the Avant-Garde. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978.


Collections and Collecting

views updated Jun 11 2018

91. Collections and Collecting

the collecting of airmail stamps.
a collection of memoirs, anecdotes, etc.; a miscellany.
a collection of writings by various authors. anthologist , n.
a collector of teddy bears.
the collecting of money boxes, as those found in churches or on dispensing machines.
a collection of fables, intended to teach a moral lesson, in which the characters are real or imaginary animals.
bibliophilism, bibliophily
zeal for collecting books.
the collecting of cigar bands. Also called cigrinophily .
the collecting of keys.
the collecting of cigarette or chewing gum cards depicting famous people, baseball players, etc.
1. a collection of literary selections, especially in a foreign language, as an aid to learning.
2. a collection of literary selections from one author. chrestomathie , adj.
1. the collecting of shells.
2. the branch of zoology that studies shells. conchologist , n.
the collecting of key rings containing advertising. copoclephile , n.
the collecting of matchboxes.
a collection of oddities and rarities, especially books, often pornographic.
the collecting of picture postcards.
the collecting of phonograph records.
the collection and compiling of extracts from ancient Greek philosophers, to which editorial comments are added. doxographer , n. doxographic , adj.
the collecting of stamps other than postage stamps, as revenue or tax stamps.
a collection of items of special, rare, or unusual interest, often pornographic.
1. an anthology or collection of brief extracts or writings.
2. an anthology of good writing from the best writers for imitation.
a collection of Hebrew materials, usually literary or historical.
1. the science or art of collecting and dispensing herbs, chiefly medicinal.
2. Obsolete, botany. herbalist , n.
homologumena, homologoumena
the collection of books from the New Testament recognized from the earlier period of the Christian church as authoritative and canonical.
Brit. the collecting of outdoor signs from inns.
a person who collects pictures, as prints, engravings, lithographs, etc.
a collection of literary or historical materials relating to Judaism or the Jews.
the collecting of beer-bottle labels. labeorphilist , n. labeorphile , n.
the collecting of cheese labels.
Obsolete, a collection of materials that may be or are to be read, usually for spiritual or moral edification.
1. a compilation of legends.
2. a collection of the lives of the saints.
objects, books, letters, sayings, etc. connected with Abraham Lincoln.
a formal collection of written accounts about matters or events worthy to be remembered.
an informal collection of data to be remembered or preserved.
a collection of objects or materials illustrating military history.
a varied collection, particularly a collection of literary works, extracts, fragments, etc., in book form. miscellaneous , adj.
the science of collecting and arranging objects for museums. museologist , n.
the collecting of bank notes.
the collecting and study of coins or medals. Also called numismatology . numismatist , n.
the part of numismatics concerned with the description of coins. numismatographer , n. numismatographic , adj.
a miscellany or medley.
the collecting of postage stamps. philatelist , n.
the collecting of matchbox labels and matchbook covers. phillumenist , n.
a specialty within philately involving the collecting of flrst-day covers.
the collecting of phonograph records. phonophile , n.
the collecting of dolls. planganologist , n.
the collecting of cardboard beer coasters. tegestologist , n.
Archaic. philately.
a mania for collecting postage stamps.
the collecting of Camembert cheese labels.
a collector of tokens used in buses and subways.
the collecting of flags or banners. vexillologist , n.