Photo by Craig Cutler
William James Sidis was perhaps the most famous child prodigy in American history. He spelled out words by the time he was a year old, read The New York Times at 18 months, spoke Latin and Greek by age 3. At 11, he enrolled at Harvard; at 16, he was hired as a professor of mathematics at what was then Rice Institute, in Houston. As an adult, though, he became fanatical about his privacy and would work only menial jobs. He died in 1944, at age 46.
I remember, as a child of 7 or 8, reading about Sidis and feeling awed—and perhaps a bit threatened—by his accomplishments. (The only personal accomplishment I could cite at that point was the parachute I’d made using brown grocery-store bags. It looked nice but didn’t work very well.) As amazing as Sidis’s entire tale was, though, there was one detail that sparked my imagination most of all: in his later years he devoted most of his free time and energy to one overwhelming passion—his collection of streetcar transfers.
Aha! I thought. This great child prodigy and I are, in fact, very much alike. After all, I was a collector, too—of both coins (a passion of mine that has, sadly, faded into oblivion in the decades since then) and antique radios (a passion that has, sadly, only intensified over the same decades). And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder: streetcar transfers? Why on earth would anyone bother collecting those?
Welcome to the world of collecting, where irrationality reigns supreme.
Not the most rational of opinions for a young collector to conjure, but then: welcome to the world of collecting, where irrationality reigns supreme. It could even be said that collecting is, itself, an irrational act. Why would any rational person want to have a bunch of stamps sitting around that he or she is never going to use? Coins that will never be spent? Radios that take up much more space than, and don’t work nearly as well as, something you could buy almost anywhere for a few dollars? Old seltzer bottles that will never again hold seltzer? Faded maps that are hopelessly out of date? Phonographs that won’t play 45s or LPs, much less CDs? Books so old you would never dare open and read them, lest they crumble to dust in your hands? Confederate paper money—do you have any idea how few stores still accept that?
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I came up with all these examples just by looking around the living room of my small New York City apartment.
Still, I will not attempt to defend collecting. It needs no defense. Collecting is not embattled or beleaguered. Some believe the era of the collector may be passing (I’ll get to that shortly), but for now, at least, the hobby—or habit, or lifestyle, or compulsion, or pathology, or sacred mission—of collecting something, anything, is very much alive.
But why? Why do people collect things, things that they don’t actually need but that command much more than their fair share of space, time, and treasure? That is a question that has both no answer and too many answers to count. Scientists have posited the existence of a “collecting gene”; as someone who grew up in a family where everyone collects, I can see the merit in this theory, although it doesn’t explain why such a gene would have evolved in the first place.
Some collectors and armchair anthropologists speculate that collecting is a modern expression of our ancient instinct, as hunter-gatherers, to hunt and gather. It’s an interesting theory, and it certainly has appeal; for some reason, modern, evolved people like to trace certain traits of ours back to primitive forebears, perhaps because that must mean we come by them honestly, or at the very least can’t help ourselves. Yet in the case of collecting, this theory has two major flaws: first, ancient people hunted for and gathered things such as meat and berries and firewood, things they then immediately consumed, as opposed to setting them up on a shelf (or perhaps a low tree branch) and admiring them for a while. And second, not everyone collects.
That’s right: Strange as it may seem in this world ofeBayandAntiques Roadshowand entire publishing houses that put out nothing but price guides, there are still plenty of people who will assert with pride that they do not collect anything at all. I was astonished to learn recently that a fellow I know—a professional folklorist, no less—considers himself, as he told me, to be “the opposite of a collector. If I had an old family heirloom and I brought it in toAntiques Roadshowand they told me it was worth $30,000, hey, I’d sell it on the spot!” In fact, he says, “I can’t even watch that show without thinking, ‘Sell it!’ ” He is confounded, he says, by a friend’s hobby. “What are you going to do with this collection of 400 pocketknives?” he muses (his point being, I suppose, that even the most accomplished whittlers make do with far fewer). “And then, what are you going to do with it when you die?”
If you've ever been outbid on eBay, you know collectors have plenty of money to throw around.
That, it turns out, may become more and more of an issue in the future. According to a 2006Wall Street Journalarticle titled “Who’s Going to Want Grandma’s Hoard of Antique Gnomes?”—the headline says it all, really—collectors may be an aging breed. The article indicates that young folks these days are too preoccupied with technology to chase after low-tech, noninteractive things like baseball cards or marbles or toy trains. A study by a marketing firm discovered that “of the estimated 37 million Americans who identified themselves as collectors in 2000, just 11% were under the age of 36,” and “most were over 50.” In other words, it seems that what will eventually happen to Grandma’s gnomes and those 400 pocketknives and my old radios and Victrolas and everything else people collect is less likely to be that they will be preserved and cherished by future generations than that they will end up being dumped on an ever-shrinking market.
This prospect alarms many collectors, naturally, but there are those who take a much more Zen approach to the issue. When their time comes, they say, their collection will simply be sold off and dispersed to other collectors; that is, it will not be destroyed but rather recycled, in a fashion. And not everyone is ready to say that collecting is a dwindling pastime. Wilson Hulme was in perhaps as good a position as anyone to forecast the future of collecting. The chief curator at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, he was also a dedicated philatelist, and stamps are, depending upon whom you ask, either the most popular collectible in the world today or the second-most popular (the other contender being coins). Hulme, who, sadly, died a few months after I spoke with him, told me not only that collecting is as popular as ever—even if certain items sometimes go in or out of vogue—but that there are a great many more people out there who, as he put it, “may not call themselves collectors, but they are.” How could he tell? “When I ask people if they collect something, they’ll say no, but then I ask a few more questions, and it’ll come out that there’s something they have a lot of,” he explained. “Everything from thimbles to dolls, glassware.… I know people who have a lot of pewter picture frames around the house—not just a dozen or two. They don’t think they’re collecting them; they’ll say they just like the way they look.”
No one knows how many people there may be dwelling unknowingly in collecting’s penumbra, though their more visible counterparts—those who have set aside denial and embraced their passion fully—are absolutely everywhere. And, as you know if you’ve ever been outbid on eBay, they’ve got plenty of money to throw around, and they go after what they want without even a milligram of reserve or, in some cases, shame. I witnessed this firsthand when I recently made a pilgrimage to Brimfield, Massachusetts, which hosts, thrice annually, what the organizers claim to be the largest antiques show/flea market/swap meet in the country, if not on the globe. Thousands of dealers converge upon the fields that line a one-mile stretch of road in this small New England town, and they don’t go for the fresh air. The place is teeming with collectors, hunters, gatherers, accumulators, acquisitors, scavengers, fanatics, pack rats, obsessives, and, of course, the people who love (and tolerate) them. Some, seeking a small margin of advantage, go so far as to print up signs, buttons, and even T-shirts advertising the objects of their desire: “Wanted: Gas-Powered Racecars.” “I buy postcards.” “Wanted: Old Police Badges.” “I buy old musical instruments.” “Wanted: Nancy-Ann Storybook Dolls.” “I buy post office items.” “Wanted: 1934 Caddy Stuff.” A pair of balding 40-something men who looked very much alike sported T-shirts that were as similar as they were. “Wanted: Vintage Christmas,” read one, while the other simply stated “Vintage Christmas Collector.” Impressive as these people all were, none could compare with the older gentleman who hobbled along swiftly from stall to stall on crutches—he had only one leg—calling out to each as he passed: “Cast-iron cookware? Any cast-iron cookware?” Nowthat’sdedication.
Not that you would expect any less from a true collector, no matter how esoteric the object of desire. And there’s an awful lot of esoteric going on out there. If you can think of it, someone, somewhere, has a lot of it and is always looking for more. I used to think people who collected those glass insulators usually found at the tops of telephone poles were strange; then I heard about Barry Levenson. He collects mustard.
Now that might not seem so strange at first thought; enophiles, after all, collect bottles of wine. But enophiles, like those hunter-gatherers of yore, collect with the intention of consuming, eventually. Barry Levenson (who should not be confused with Barry Levinson, the director, whose feelings about the condiment in question are unknown, at least to me) has thousands of crocks, jars, tins, and tubes of mustard that he never intends to open, much less apply to a hot pastrami on rye. He is not hoarding them in a climate-controlled cellar, though; instead, he shares them with the public at a little storefront museum he has created on Main Street in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. He calls it—what else?—the Mustard Museum. Laugh if you must, but it draws some 30,000 visitors a year.
They come for the mustard, of course—nearly 5,000 unique examples, representing all 50 states and 60 foreign countries, are packed onto shelves and into display cases—and to watch videos about mustard, buy exotic mustards from the gift shop, and gawk at Levenson’s line of “Poupon U.” merchandise, everything from sweatshirts and surgical scrubs to book bags and baby bibs, to diplomas and a toilet seat, all emblazoned with the institution’s crest and motto, “E Pluribus Mustard.” They can even commission their own vanity brand of the condiment. Judging by the number who have, there are quite a few mustard mavens in our midst. None, however, are likely to ever surpass Levenson in terms of hot, spicy zeal. A former assistant attorney general for the state of Wisconsin, Levenson once argued a case before the United States Supreme Court—and won it—with a tiny jar of mustard in his pocket. Today that jar is, as you might expect, a highlight of the museum. “It’s known as the Supreme Court Mustard,” Levenson says, “and people travel from far and wide to see it.”
Chances are pretty good that right about now you’re thinking something along the lines of: “Why on earth would anyone collect mustard?” And, indeed, the greater question that most often comes up on the matter of collecting is not “Why do people collect?”—I think most people accept, on some level, that they may never be able to answer that one satisfactorily—but rather “Why do people collectthat?”
It’s a question that bridges the chasm between collectors and noncollectors; this is because collectors, people who pursue certain objects with a single-minded fervor, are often, in fact, so single-minded in their pursuit that they can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in collecting anything else. I mentioned earlier that I come from a family where everyone collects. What I did not mention is that we all collect different things, with absolutely no overlap, and no one in my family has even the slightest interest in collecting any of the things any other family member collects. This may seem counterintuitive—you would think the shared experience and passion of collecting something, anything, would create a bond that would enable us to appreciate one another’s pursuits. But it doesn’t work that way, either within families or among strangers. In my experience, collectors just don’t “get” other collectors. We may think it’s interesting that they collect something we can’t imagine collecting. We might, conceivably, admire their collection, in an abstract sense. We probably appreciate the fact that they won’t be bidding against us at auctions. Still, we can’t help but wonder “What are they thinking?”
Odds are, they won’t be able to tell you, either. Sure, they can tell you what they like about the objects of their desire, just as they can tell you what they appreciate about their spouse. But just as they can’t tell you how they chose their spouse from among a virtually unlimited pool of qualified applicants, a great many of whom no doubt possess the very same list of qualities, they can’t really explain why, exactly, they chose to collect little souvenir spoons instead of vintage decorative corncob holders.
Yet it’s fun to ask. You just might hear a good story.
Barry Levenson’s got one. Unlike most collectors, who seem to pick up the habit in childhood, Levenson didn’t collect a thing until, in his mid-30s, he became fascinated with the tale of Elm Farm Ollie, a dairy denizen who in 1930 became the first cow to both fly in an airplane and be milked in midair. At some point Levenson started collecting anything he could find relating to this bovine pioneer, going so far as to turn his living room into a shrine to Elm Farm Ollie, about whom he also composed an opera,Madame Butterfat.Levenson can’t really explain what inspired him to start collecting Elm Farm Ollie ephemera, but that’s okay, because there was never all that much of it floating around to begin with, and in any event that passion has since been upstaged by another, born out of a personal tragedy.
On October 27, 1986, Levenson, a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, watched his beloved Red Sox lose the World Series to the New York Mets in a spectacularly humiliating fashion. Stunned and deeply depressed, he left his house at 2:30 the following morning and went to Woodman’s Markets on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin, looking for something to dull the pain. Perhaps he’d expected to come home with a case of Twinkies, but as he turned into the condiment aisle and found himself face-to-face with a shelf full of mustard—and, as it happened, destiny—he had an epiphany: “I thought that if I would collect mustard,” he recalls, “that would somehow lead to the Red Sox winning the World Series.” (Interpret this as you will: since then, the Red Sox have won twice.) Looking back on it, he ruminates: “I had no idea what I was doing—I was so depressed. Life was tenuous. I just knew I needed to collect some mustard. I didn’t know where it was going to lead.” Now, of course, he knows, and he couldn’t be happier with the way it all turned out. “Mustard is something that happened to me,” he proclaims. “I saw it as my salvation.”
When I heard that story, I marveled at how different it was from my own collecting genesis tale, which ends on a distinctly different note. It begins on a spring afternoon in 1975, when I walked past an appliance-repair shop in my suburban New York hometown and saw, sitting in the picture window, an old radio—really, really old, the kind with vacuum tubes and grille cloth, older than television, older even than my parents.
Immediately the old set caught my eye. But my curiosity—my attraction—had nothing to do with technology or design. You see, I was only eight years old at the time and hadn’t quite mastered electron theory yet; I figured that old-time radios received old-time radio programs. And I had a keen interest in hearing these programs, because my father, who was not ordinarily a sentimental man, recalled them with great fondness. He never tired of telling me about Gangbusters and Fibber McGee and The Goldbergs and Amos ’n’ Andy—or of asserting, with perfect confidence, that television was just garbage in comparison. Now, I perceived a chance to see (or hear) for myself.
I told my mother about my desire to own an old radio, leaving out the part about listening to old-time radio programs. My mother, ever supportive, took me down to Queens to see her father, who descended into his cellar and emerged carrying a large wooden box: a 1936 RCA Model 5-T, the old family table radio from my mother’s childhood. Its tall wooden case looked a bit scratched up but still very dignified.
We got home late that night, and I was sent straight to bed. But I was too excited to sleep; all I could think about was the possibility of catching Orson Welles’s “The War of the Worlds” broadcast. Maybe I would hear Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world” homer. Maybe even…the crash of the Hindenburg. Oh, the humanity!
Finally, it was morning. I raced downstairs to plug in the radio. The switch crackled when I turned it on; the dial lit up and glowed softly, as if it were shyly introducing itself to me. After a few seconds the tubes started glowing and humming in a comforting way. The pleasantly mild burning smell they emitted was, I imagined, the smell of history. I was filled with childish glee.
But as I turned the dial and closed in on the sound of words, the resonant male voice I heard was not that of The Shadow or The Green Hornet or Henry Higgins or Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.
It was…Don Imus.
Years would pass before I found the right metaphor to explain what I felt at that moment. That happened in college, when I allowed myself to be set up on a blind date with a woman who was pitched to me as some kind of Aphrodite but who turned out to be more like Medusa. At some point during the evening, I found myself thinking back to that morning, a decade or so earlier, when I had been expecting the arrival of The Shadow and the original shock jock showed up instead. Sometimes I think that moment marked the end of my childhood.
And yet…and yet, disillusioned as I was, I didn’t throw out that RCA Model 5-T or ask my mother to give it back to my grandfather. I kept it. I still have it, in fact; it sits today atop a bookshelf in my living room, surrounded by other such sets, part of a collection that continues to grow some 30 years later. In the end, it seems, it didn’t matter what voice came out of that old radio. I loved it anyway.
That, you see, is the real reason that people collect things: because they love them. It doesn’t matter why, if they even know why; it doesn’t matter if these things are obsolete or ungainly or ugly, that they cost far too much and take up a ridiculous amount of space and serve absolutely no practical purpose whatsoever. In love, as in collecting, irrationality reigns supreme. Sometimes you end up happily married to that blind date who was not all that you’d expected or hoped for, the one who didn’t possess a single trait on that long list you were always carrying around, of qualities your potential mate absolutely had to have, and when the two of you walk down the street with your arms around each other, people just stare open-mouthed and scratch their heads in wonder. Good for you.
New York City writer Richard Rubin is the author of Confederacy of Silence (Simon and Schuster, 2003).