Why Collect Stuff?

Small Hoarder

At dinner with some of my colleagues the other night, Mary and Marti, we considered the question: why do people collect stuff? We came up with a number of reasons, besides the usual ones like to invest in things that will hold or appreciate in value, to preserve family legacies or a piece of history, or for the sheer enjoyment of owning interesting items or decorating our abodes with them.

We figured that some people collect things in order to relate to an era that captures the imagination. Some collections are an expression of an individual’s sense of reverence for significant people or events that possess a certain meaning for the person, that illustrate the person’s sense of connection and continuity with history. In sum, the collection is a symbol of the person’s sense of place in the vast scheme of life.

Others may collect things in order to fill up a void — to infuse meaning into his or her life by importing concrete representations of historical value into their existence; so that the person perceives himself as a link in the long chain of humanity, rather than as a meaningless speck in an impersonal universe. In a sense, the collection is an armament in the all-too-human war against loneliness.

Still others collect things for the pleasure of imagining later generations discovering wonderful surprises about their forebear’s aesthetic sensibility.

Certainly, there are some people who collect and preserve things for reasons that include a combination of some of the above, and more.

The motives for collecting may be determined by many factors — unique as any individual. Or, the reasons may be far less complicated.

What do you think?

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  1. Chris Hughes says:

    This is a very interesting topic. I often think about why people collect as well. Before I explain why I collect, I would like to throw out my opinion that “collecting” fits into a spectrum of gathering behavior. The extreme in gathering behavior is what I call “hoarding”. Hoarding resembles the behavior of a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter. Hoarders have a one-track mind and focus on quantity over quality. A squirrel’s survival and a hoarders comfort depend on this behavior. The hoarder feels agitation and incompleteness when he or she is not finding items for their collection. Hoarding in humans is a security mechanism, not far removed from a squirrel’s survival instinct to hoard nuts.

    A hoarder’s comfort and security is satiated by the accumulation of objects. However, hoarders never seem to be content or satisfied. Their accumulations encroach their living space as they continue to hunt for more.

    Collectors have the potential to exhibit hoarding tendencies if they are not careful. As a collector, there are things that keep me in check and prevent me from hoarding. Some of them are:

    1. I dislike clutter. I feel more comfortable in rooms that have a balance of stuff vs. space. I love museums and try to emulate them with my collections.
    2. I do not have the money to constantly buy stuff.
    3. I feel a sense of responsibility to provide the best care possible in preserving the antiques and collectibles I own. The more items I own, the more responsibility there is to care for them.
    4. Law of diminishing return prevents me from enjoying a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th example as much as the first one. Therefore, I focus on upgrading items, then selling or trading duplicates.

    As I mentioned, collecting and hoarding fit along a spectrum. I’ve met complete hoarders that relish the fact they have stacks and stacks of a particular collectible, yet they find no time to read about the history of the item, or care to understand its significance beyond a surface level. I’ve also met people that have a collection containing a few items, but the items were breath taking.

    I’ll try and explain why I collect. I have always been a tactile person. When I was a small child I would grab something then say, “may I see this?” It drove my father crazy. He would ask, “Do you have eyes on the ends of your fingers?” I still cannot resist the impulse to touch things.

    I enjoy the weight, feel, look, and smell of an antique. Antiques are not impersonal. They are different from every item on a Target or Wal-Mart shelf. Antiques have survived the landfill and that makes them special. When I handle an antique, I think about the hands who have handled that object before me. Are they dead now? Who were they? Did they enjoy this object as much as I do?

  2. bernie.daina says:

    – I recently spent a few days with my good friend, Ken Lynn, a biotech executive and attorney. Ken has some interesting collectibles, including a restored late-1940s Chevy pickup truck, and vintage editions of various masterpieces of literature. When asked why he collects, Ken waxed philosophical about the temporary nature of individual human existence. Ultimately, he posited that some people’s urge to collect is fueled by a hoarding impulse, but it is not one that emphasizes quantity over quality, as Chris (above) observes is a derivative of mindless animalistic greed or the survival instinct. Ken says we hoard collectibles in order to defend against our sense of mortality. So, the way I understand Ken’s suggestion: we may carefully select a limited quantity of high-quality artifacts that have a special meaning for us, binding our identities across the generations.