The psychology of collecting things

Humans seem hard-wired to accumulate 'stuff'

by Leigh Elmore

The rich and famous line the walls of their homes with great works of art, or fill their garages with expensive cars; think Jay Leno, former 'Tonight Show' host whose collection of vintage automobiles is worth millions, or Henry Bloch, the H of H&R Block, who has been collecting fine art for many years. Much of that collection was recently donated to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

These weird looking fishing lures made from a variety of used beverage cans make a fine collection and might even catch some fish. (photo courtesy

Meanwhile, those of us who don't travel in such rarified company are content with more humble collections of objects that stir something that might be of less value in a material sense but give just as much pleasure, such as beer bottles, salt shakers or buttons for garments.

Why do we like to collect things? Why should inanimate objects be able to satisfy us on an emotional level, eventually becoming so important to us that we begin to think about the possibility of our collections enduring after we have gone?

According to psychologist Dr. Rebecca Spelman, in an interview first published in The Telegraph, our fascination with collecting objects starts early in childhood. So a comfort blanket or cuddly toy teaches us that it is possible to have an emotional bond with something lifeless and inert. And so a positive relationship with the idea of holding on to and amassing material things is formed.

As we get older this might then progress to collecting shells from the beach, figurines of a particular kind of animal or TV character, or objects that share a color. "We take ownership of things that no longer just provide comfort – collecting them becomes pleasurable in itself. 
"The value of these objects is irrelevant," Spelman said.

Of course, there are people who collect things that they know will increase in value, and see every new addition to their collection as part of a financial investment. They're doing this almost professionally. 

"But for most of us, being a collector has nothing to do with financial gain – it is an emotionally driven action, often with people collecting objects they connect positively and emotionally with at particular times in their lives. 

"By amassing similar items with the same theme, to which there is a pleasurable association, can bring an emotion from the past very much into the present." 

A collection is also something of ourselves that we can leave behind: a legacy that will feel precious not because of its material value, but because these objects become an extension of who we are. 

But for others, collecting is all about the thrill of the chase. The hours spent searching for another elusive item to add to their collection becomes a hugely enjoyable experience. 

Spelman says: "They get great enjoyment from applying their thoughts and energies into tracking items down and then, when they are successful, it gives them a thrill. The pleasure-seeking sensors in the brain light up and then they want to experience that again, and so a new search begins." 

Confessions of a collector

Author Hunter Davies made a name for himself writing about the Beatles. But in 2009 he came out with a book titled Confessions of a Collector. Here are a few of his observations about the human passion for collecting things:

"You don't really start collections; collections start you. The first stage is accumulating – or not throwing anything away. Stuff comes into your possession that looks good or interesting, or is amusing or historic, and you put it in a folder, or shove it in a drawer. For instance, I have kept all my (vehicle) tax discs since I passed my driver's test in 1960. I thought, why would I throw away these pretty little serrated circles in different colors? Think about the things you already accumulate – they could become a collection.

"The second stage is acquiring – when you go out deliberately to look for objects to add to your collection. I started buying tax discs that I found in (flea market) sales.
"The final stage is when you start buying the things you already have again, because you want a better copy.

"Never collect as an investment. I collected stamps as a boy, and came back to it as an adult. I broke all my rules, and began buying stamps not out of love, but because people said they would go up in value. They didn't. When I came to sell them, I only got a quarter of what I paid. Once you buy for financial reasons, you're not a collector any more.

"Collect things you love. The value to you is simply pleasure. I have around 20 different collections at any one time. I've got collections of prime ministers' signatures, Beatrix Potter first editions and memorabilia, suffragette material, Alfred Wainwright letters and drawings and Lake District guide books. One of my biggest collections is Beatles memorabilia. Anything that you can read. I've got around 2,000 items including lyrics, letters, posters and magazines. The second big collection is football stuff – again, around 2,000 things ranging from postcards to programs.

"Buy in person. I much prefer going to a dealer or antique mall. I like holding stuff, turning it over and deciding if it is genuine. eBay can be a disappointment. I've bought half a dozen things on there, and they never turn out as good as you think they will, or they're not even what they say they are. Also, half the fun is getting the price down. The condition doesn't matter, and a lot of the stuff I already have at home. If I see something and think I can get a really good price, I'll buy it. I have lots and lots of doubles and triples. I don't know why I want them – it's a sickness, a madness, and an obsession.

"Don't sell your collection – give it away. The great thing about buying duplicates is giving them out as presents. When I go on holiday, I'll take Manchester United programs or Beatles postcards. I'll give it to a waiter: it's something they would never be able to get hold of in Botswana or the Caribbean, and it's the best tip you can give. If I hear that someone is a Chelsea fan, or if you were born in 1939 and your birthday is coming up, I'll go through my collection and find something for you as a present.

"Put as much as you can on display. I have the biggest room in the house and it's crammed – there is stuff on all the shelves, and things all over the walls. The hallway upstairs is covered in my stuff, and the cupboards are full of it. Then there is the loft. My wife says the minute I die, it's all going straight to the (trash). But I love having it out. Your house can become a mini-museum. Invite people over, and show them your treasure. The stuff might not be worth much but it still feels like treasure."

Some things people collect

Fishing lures

Rummaging through grandfather's attic, you find a box of old fishing lures. You examine each one

One of the most rare antique lures in existence today has a price tag of $30,000. This lure was hand-carved in 1897 by James Heddon of Dowagiac, MI. Heddon was one of the world's largest producers of honey. He gave this lure to honey distributors as an incentive for them to buy his honey. The Heddon Frog is a hand- carved wooden frog with a single hook on each leg and a treble hook dangling from its belly. It has protruding black eyes and a line tie at its mouth.

and wonder what it's worth. In most cases, the answer is, "Not much." But occasionally,
someone uncovers a lure worth thousands of dollars. That possibility fuels a nationwide obsession with collecting antique lures and other tackle.

Karl White is Bassmaster Magazine's consultant on antique tackle and has been collecting and studying antique lures for more than half a century. White recently donated his entire collection – worth $4 million – to the Oklahoma Aquarium for public viewing. He also has released a three-volume set of books evaluating and identifying various types of fishing tackle.

White says an antique lure's value depends on a variety of factors, including the rarity, demand, age, beauty and condition of the lure. As long as you can prove the lure is an original, says White, finding a buyer shouldn't be too hard. In addition, a lure's box is often valuable, sometimes worth more than the lure.

The National Fishing Lure Collector's Club can be accessed at the website

Barbed Wire

This barbed wire section is the only known example of the Thomas J. Barnes patent of 1907 (photo courtesy Collector's Weekly)

Why would anyone pay $500 for a rusty piece of barbed wire? Well, if the 18-inch long specimen, or cut, is the only known example of the Thomas J. Barnes patent of 1907 some folks might pay even more than that. In fact, for collectors of barbed wire or barbwire as it's also called, the past few years have been a veritable rust rush, as choice examples of rare wire that have been squirreled away for decades are entering the market.

This isn't the stuff you see today by the side of the road, although the design of barbed wire has not changed that much in more than 100 years. What gets barbed-wire collectors excited are scarce examples of wire manufactured from 1874 through the first decade of the 20th century, when barbed wire was a multi-million-dollar business and everyone wanted a piece of the action.

The Antique Barbed Wire Society can be accessed at the website Also, the barbed wire story is told at the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in La Crosse. Its webpage is on the site



This "self-framed" tin advertising sign is currently for sale on eBay for $20. It advertised ABC Bohemian Beer from the American Brewing Co. of St. Louis, MO., which was not connected with Anheuser Busch. It is billed as a great example of pre-prohibition advertising dating from 1903. (photo from eBay)

Beer is one of the most widely consumed beverages in human history - the Chinese have been brewing it for over 5,000 years, and the Greeks and Romans revered it as a healthy beverage. But it was in the middle ages in Europe that beer achieved widespread consumption, because it was often cleaner than the water.

So, its not surprising that articles related to beer and brewing are some of the most popular collectibles in the world. Collectors focus on the containers, cans and bottles, as well as beer steins, trays, signs, labels, openers and related items.

Some collectors are generalists with examples of a many beers as possible in their collection, while others collect items from a single brewery or company.
The American Breweriana Association maintains its website at

Firefighter memorabilia

A firefighter's helmet from Houston, currently on sale in eBay. Latest bid: $341.

Ever since 9-11, the image of firefighters has been burnished for the great majority of Americans,

A Civil War era firefighters badge from Jersey City, NJ.

often achieving heroic status. Not surprisingly articles associated with firefighting have a very important niche in the universe of collecting. And held firefighting "grenades" are some of the most collectible items, according to Collector's Weekly.

Badges are another class of firefighter memorabilia. The New York legislature essentially invented the badge in 1855 as a way of solving a common difficulty that firefighters faced – non-firefighters attempting to join the fire lines, often with chaotic results. The legislature asked the Common Council to design a badge in order to identify firefighters conspicuously. Other cities adopted the practice once it proved successful.


Two silver spoons that commemorate the bi-centennial of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787.

As the oldest type of flatware, spoons have existed in some form or another since ancient Rome,

Sterling silver marks on the back of spoons indicate good quality. (photos courtesy eBay)

at least. In medieval times, spoons were given as baptism presents in wealthy circles. Because
inns did not have anything as luxurious as spoons for their guests, innkeepers expected their well-heeled customers to supply their own.

Indeed, the phrase "born with a silver spoon in
his mouth" actually reveals quite a bit about the time – whether or not one had a spoon, not to mention its quality and value, spoke volumes
about an individual's socio-economic status.

Spoons were often created for commemorative purposes or to promote specific celebrations and/or events and tourist locations.

More information on the hobby can be found at American Spoon Collectors at

Christmas ornaments

Some antique German glass ornaments and a paper "scrap" ornament. Prices on Ebay for glass ornaments similar to these range from $10 apiece to $30 for a set of five. (photo by Leigh Elmore)

Whether your tastes run to the annual Christmas ornament issued by Hallmark Cards, Inc. or to antique blown-glass ornaments from Europe or even to the American Shiny Brite line of ornaments that were popular in the mid-20th century, the hobby of collecting Christmas ornaments leaves a lot of room improvise your own unique collection.

These days the king of Christmas ornaments is the glass ornament, which has enjoyed ascendancy for the last 75 years or so, according to Jim Morrison, founder of the National Christmas Center in Paradise, PA.

"Until the start of World War II, the glass ornament capital of the world was a little German town called Lauscha. In the early 1800s Lauschan glassmakers blew kugel – a German word meaning sphere – to sell as window decorations, but they soon caught on as tree ornaments," he said.

They were hand-blown and made of thick glass, colored or clear, and sometimes decorated with paint. The painted kugels are hard to find because the paint has often worn off with time.
The not-for-profit Golden Glow of Christmas Past maintains a website that explains much about the various Christmas collectible genres, especially ornaments:


This colorful bowlful of buttons was recently offered for sale on Ebay. It's still possible to get a good deal on a bunch of buttons. (photo courtesy eBay)

The unassuming button that holds your shirt together or your pants up is so common, most of us don't give a button much thought unless it needs to be sewn back on. Buttons can be made out of just about anything, from antlers and bone to glass and ceramics to metals and stone.

But whatever their material, size, age, or lineage, buttons are fascinating little objects, items that are so utilitarian yet so varied, they just about beg to be collected.

Avid collectors can specialize in a variety of button genres – 19th century brass buttons that are imprinted with images, black glass buttons, painted buttons, wooden buttons, ivory buttons, mother of pearl buttons, the list is virtually endless.

The National Button Society is the clearinghouse for information on buttons and their history. It has an active membership and an interesting annual convention. Find out more at

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

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