Why Do We Collect Things?

vinyl

A nineteenth-century man tried to collect every book ever written. No joke.

He came closer than you might think. His name was Sir Thomas Phillipps and I’ll tell you about his quest in a bit.

Possible reasons behind his mission are interesting. Evolutionary psychology suggests early humans — “hunter-gatherers” — “collected” food and eventually those substances required to make and use fire. This increased their chance of survival and the opportunity to create the next generation. Primitive weapons* to fight off animal or human attacks also improved the odds of passing on one’s genes, whether those implements were found or fashioned.

Tools became less crude as some men learned more sophisticated uses of fire, beyond its ability to keep the small community warm at night. It would have been important to safeguard any useful object from loss, theft, or breakage. Those who invented or possessed these items might even have benefited by a boost to status, making them more desirable mates.

Yes, today is very different, but perhaps some of us are still left with the “collecting bug” inherited from distant ancestors.

Our long-deceased relatives were doubtless uncomfortable or anxious without storing food or weapons, nervous about a bare cupboard or the next attack. Thus, perhaps they passed on an unconscious desire to “collect oneself” — to deal with the anxiety over life’s uncertainties by hunting for things to be saved for the inevitable “rainy day.”

Life comes with no guarantees of its length or quality. You and I, therefore, develop ways of dealing with our fears about its impermanence and unpredictability. Often this is the job of instinct, the unconscious, and maybe a genetic predisposition developed long ago — not a careful review of a menu of possible maneuvers to quell our disquiet.

Stashing stockpiles of money might be thought of as a kind of substitute for early human activities aimed at ensuring future survival and relieving worry. Belief in an afterlife serves the purpose, too, whether the result of faith or the psychological need I’ve just described. Creating a book or painting for the ages has a transcendent quality, as well, to the extent that it looks past our lives to something more lasting. So does producing children.

For some, however, the act of collecting objects of no survival benefit appears to be only a pleasant and innocent distraction from routine. Unless, that is, you read a book by the late Dr. Werner Muensterberger.

The author, a psychiatrist, aptly titled his tome, Collecting: An Unruly Passion.

The type of collecting he is talking about is akin to a child’s use of a security blanket — holding a “transitional object” to sooth oneself.

In the course of writing the book, Muensterberger investigated some major collectors. Take the previously mentioned bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) who set himself the goal of obtaining “one copy of every book in the world.”

Phillipps fell short, but did amass about 40,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts (as many as 40 or 50 per week), requiring over 100 years to disperse after his death.

Of course, this obsession took lots of money.

Left a fortune by his father, he managed to reduce himself to a debtor in order to keep buying. Sir Thomas even cut a portion of his mother’s living stipend to pursue additional purchases. Phillipps’ craze drove his wife and daughters crazy, and put some of his creditors out of business, as well.

When his wife died he sought a wealthy replacement — any wealthy replacement — the better to fund his book hunts. He asked an acquaintance, “Do you know of any Lady with 50,000£ (British currency) who wants a husband? I am for sale at that price.”

Sir Thomas went off the rails, but are there advantages to a less consuming hobby of acquisition?

Sure.

Franciscus_Gysbrechts_-_Vanitas_-_WGA11012

Collectors functioned to safeguard precious objects, especially before the widespread existence of museums and public libraries, ensuring the survival of masterpieces of the visual and literary arts. Moreover, those collectors who enjoy a work of art or a beautiful book for its own sake (not just its rarity), take pleasure in admiring it. For the collector of recorded music, there is the delight obtained in listening.

One can achieve a pleasant sense of “living in the moment” while pursuing the desired objects — quite “alive” and focused. Collectors and non-collectors alike appreciate the fun of a “treasure hunt,” even if rare baseball cards might not be your idea of treasure. Since men are more often hunters due to the historical differentiation of sex roles, they seem more likely than women to take part.

What’s more, collectors learn a good deal while enjoying their hobby: about the time and manner of creation of objects (like stamps or coins) or the history surrounding them. In other words, a collector can satisfy his curiosity and become better educated.

For some of these individuals, the material articles (properly arranged) display a kind of personal style or taste — a distinctiveness achieved for most of the rest of humanity by the cut of their hair or the decoration of their residence, the cars they drive or the clothes they wear.

Then there are investors who only resemble collectors. Unlike Sir Thomas Phillipps, they sell or trade their acquisitions for profit.

Of course, there can be a downside to collecting without limits, as Phillipps’ mother, wife, kids, and creditors could report, if only they were around to do so.

The potentially addictive quality of acquisition should be apparent, with the desired object being like a drug, providing a temporary elation which subsides rather quickly after the “loot” is obtained. The chronic restlessness of a Phillipps-like personality needs to speed back to the hunt.

The covetousness of this sort of person — for whom too much is never enough — cannot be calmed for long. The objects are not valued as works of art to be enjoyed (even if you call the beer can in the hobbyist’s beer can trove a thing of beauty); rather, they are pursued in order to “have them.”

Psychologically, Muensterberger might say, the “thing” functions like a cell phone carried by an anxious person for the purpose of providing reassurance or control in case of an acute anxiety attack; or like an amulet or rabbit’s foot thought to guarantee magical protection from injury.

Often, he believes, the collection becomes a substitute for relationships, at least the potentially intimate kind. For Muensterberger, the pathological collector finds relationships too unreliable, unpredictable, and precarious.

In stark contrast, material items are more controllable and permanent. They will never let him down, move away, reject him, or die. In an uncertain world, the collector achieves a sense of mastery by his success in accumulating objects, even if the domain of his mastery may be trivial (as in match books or bottle caps).

I’m reminded of an old acquaintance, a fellow phonograph record collector who focused on a limited number of classical instrumental artists. But unlike the other hobbyists I have known, this man continued to buy LPs (long-playing records) in spite of staggering family medical bills, his wife’s distress over the expense of his avocation, and their mounting debt.

She rationalized this by saying, “Well, I suppose it is better than if he had a mistress or was alcoholic.” The spouse did not know, however, that her husband craftily arranged new purchases to be mailed to the homes of some of his friends, and paid in cash or untraceable money orders to prevent his wife from finding out. Later the discs were smuggled into their abode when his mate was away.

Those of you who are fans of Harrison Ford might remember the beautiful German archeologist pursuing the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The wooden cup of Christ falls into a crevasse during an earthquake, triggering the damsel’s attempt to retrieve it. Indiana Jones warns her that she is about to lose her life by reaching for the cup, frustrating his ability to hold on to her.

Sometimes, I suppose, the saying, “I can’t live without it,” is true. And live she did not. The gorgeous blond stretched for the Holy Grail until she slipped from the hero’s grasp.

The next time you find yourself at a garage sale, an estate sale, or an antique shop, stop for a moment. Where did these things come from? The same thought might occur to you as you visit the vanishing world of used book and CD stores, or their virtual replacements on Amazon and eBay. There are only two answers:

  1. People bought them and the same people have decided they want to sell them. Some might be collectors whose interests have changed, others simply in the business of making a living or clearing space.
  2. The children or heirs of the collectors are doing their best to get rid of the burden of “stuff” left to them.

With regard to the second answer, unless we are talking about fine art, those objects probably aren’t the inheritance the kids were hoping for.

*If you are old enough, you might remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Parents of my folk’s generation encouraged their children to say this in response to name calling.

The top image is a photo of vinyl phonograph records by Burn the Asylum.

The second image is the Vanitas painting by Franciscus Gysbrechts (1672-1676). Such paintings were particularly common among artists doing “still life” in the Netherlands and Flanders in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were symbolic, in that the items depicted generally were reminders of the brevity of life. Musical instruments, for example, signaled that the sound was made and quickly left “not a trace behind.” The globe was also a reminder of the human condition and the skull of one’s mortality. Watches, smoke, hour glasses, and the like served the same symbolic purpose, suggesting the passage of time. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

8 thoughts on “Why Do We Collect Things?

  1. Dr. S, thank goodness I dodged the collecting bug. On a more serious note, I died a little inside when you had to define LP. 😉

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    • Thanks, Harry. I assume your second sentence meant you felt a bit older. I discovered in my first year teaching at Rutgers when I mentioned a famous American who died only seven years before that no one had any idea who I was taking about. The same sort of thing has happened numerous times since. I hope all is otherwise good for you.

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  2. I have a relative whose collection of dolls has taken over her bedroom. Perhaps Muensterberger belief applies in her case: “[T]he collection becomes a substitute for relationships, at least the potentially intimate kind… [M]aterial items are more controllable and permanent.”

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    • One of the interesting things about evolutionary psychology is that the qualities that were once helpful to survival are still present in our genes, even though they aren’t always helpful any more. That said, collecting is usually innocent enough and certainly is not identical to hoarding, a condition that seems to discriminate less about what is kept and what is thrown away, if anything. Still, as the example of Sir Thomas illustrates, the consequences are not always pretty. I hope your relative gets a grip on this. Thanks, Rosaliene.

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  3. “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.”
    Author Unknown

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  4. […] Read Dr Stein’s illuminating essay here. […]

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