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The bowerbird, which lives on the east coast of Australia, has an abiding eye for anything blue. Solitary males travel great distances to bring back all manner of blue objects to decorate their nests. Shells, flowers, plastic bottles, and feathers are all fair game, and bowerbirds have even been known to grind up blue pigments with their beaks and paint their homes accordingly. This chromatic fealty is less a matter of design sense than of courtship; the behavior is just one of the bowerbird’s mating tactics. And he has a spiritual brother in ostentatious accumulation: humans.

Collecting as a human practice dates back to at least the third millennium BCE, when the upper circles of Sumerian society gathered extensive hoards of luxury items. Later, the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt (350 – 30 BCE) sought out books from across the known world and housed them in the ill-fated Library of Alexandria. This is all a long way from beer cans, dolls, and genitalia — just some of the obsessions featured below — but the link isn’t too hard to discern. For Tom Hanks it’s typewriters; for Rod Stewart, it’s model trains. 

Although little research has been undertaken when it comes to humans, anecdotal evidence suggests that collectors of the homo sapiens variety also tend to be male. As a broad psychological explanation, a large collection indicates wealth, knowledge, and industry — all traits appealing to a potential partner. But while that explains amassing watches or antique furniture, it doesn’t do the same for those who seek out toenail clippings or soap bars. The collector’s drive, it seems, can suggest as many questions as answers. 

Indeed, reading through these illuminating pieces reveals the many deeper purposes to collecting. Bonding, fellowship, greed, and even education can play a role. There may even be something more mysterious, more primordial, at play: Unearthing a new “treasure” can release serotonin directly into our brains. This mood-boosting reward could well hearken back to our distant past. Some psychologists highlight a link between collecting and our in-built drive to create a safe, orderly environment. As Randy Frost muses in his book on the subject, Stuff, some scholars “suggest that collecting is a way of managing fears about death by creating a form of immortality.” There may be no simple answer, but the art of collecting can certainly provide a simple joy — and reading about it can provide that joy in some small measure as well.

The Men Who Meet Up in Motels Across America…to Trade Old Beer Cans (Deborah Ager, Narratively, July 2018)

In France, it’s wine; in Russia, vodka. China has baijiu, while in Madagascar, rum is the national tipple. But in Belgium, Germany, and the U.S. (the last of which provides the backdrop for this piece), beer stands at the top of the pile. Here, beer is a cultural marker and a personal identifier, an integral part of any meaningful event. With this fantastic article, we move away from the decorative and historical into what I feel is true collector territory: beer cans. 

When I look around at my piles of records and books, I justify these acquisitions as things that provide something definable beyond their physical selves. Beer cans, though, belong in a different category. While they serve a valid role as socioeconomic and aesthetic artifacts — as do all man-made objects —  it’s hard to consider used beer cans worth anything in terms of material value. The Brewery Collectibles Club of America, though, does not agree. This piece introduces you to them and other collectors across several continents, all of whom hold an abiding passion for items that most of us would throw in the recycling bin without a moment’s thought. This is the beating heart of the genuine collector exposed — a heart that quickens over a thing only their fellow brethren would understand.

Dave Larrazolo, an ex-Army drill sergeant, is wearing a bumblebee costume and adjusting his antennae when I speak with him at the canvention. He explains that he doesn’t bother with “rust,” which refers to rusty beer cans. Another collector tells me Larrazolo’s collection is known to be “squeaky clean.”

Despite the group’s communal nature, friendly divisions exist: rusty cans versus clean, new crowns versus old, plastic-lined versus vinyl-lined crowns. Other collectors specialize by geography, brand, or type — West Virginia or California, Ballantine’s Beer or Hamm’s, quarts or 12-ounce size. There are accessories, too, like can openers referred to as “I-7s.”

Wings of Desire: Why Is An Obsessive British Collector Risking Jail To Kill Rare Butterflies? (Tim Lewis, Esquire UK, February 2018)

England’s beautiful Cotswolds is not a place readily associated with international crime, but the picturesque region nonetheless serves as backdrop to this absorbing tale of the murky side of collecting. The practice of lepidoptery (collecting butterflies) has its roots in the 17th century, when explorers and scientists, largely from the West, journeyed thousands of miles under harsh conditions in order to discover new species of flora and fauna. These groups were almost exclusively composed of educated, wealthy white men who possessed the means and opportunity to travel — and who often took with them a sense of superiority and entitlement, together with a distinct lack of respect for the native populations in the lands where they quested. Yet, while lepidoptery’s colonial and ethical legacy remains questionable, its practitioners’ study and documentation advanced our collective understanding by leaps and bounds.

In its time, lepidoptery was a highly fashionable pursuit. You can count at least two 20th-century British prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, among their number, along with highly respected author Vladimir Nabokov. These days, with much more attention focused on humanity’s interactions with nature, butterfly collecting is far from mainstream. Yet, in the U.S. and U.K., lepidoptery is still perfectly legal. There are important caveats — some species and certain designated areas are protected — but where there is prohibition, as this story makes clear, there is always money to be made.

A butterfly’s wings, their colours and patterns, are made up of tiny, overlapping scales. These are at their brightest for the first day or two, but over time, the scales fall out or rub off. No discerning collector would be interested in a faded specimen like this one, but there is still something pulse-quickening about seeing it. The large blue might be persnickety and ornery, but that is what has given this tiny insect its power over humans for centuries. As David Simcox says that day to a middle-aged couple who had driven more than 150 miles on a futile search for a large blue: “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be any fun at all.”

The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects (David Pilgrim, Ferris State University News, 2005)

When David Pilgrim began acquiring racist memorabilia in his early teens at the beginning of the 1970s, he could not have known that he would become a sociologist, or that his collection would eventually lead to the founding of the Jim Crow Museum, an institution that may discomfit but whose educational importance cannot be understated. If it feels obvious that he writes “Racist imagery is propaganda,” consider that such imagery is the most powerful social tool in the world. As much as we might like to pretend otherwise, we are deeply susceptible to visual cues, most of which are intentionally designed for just that purpose — whether racist caricatures on 1950s product packaging or modern-day memes. This is what makes Pilgrim’s work so vital.

Perhaps the most telling (and most moving) moment in the piece comes when the author describes how many of the young people he talks to, both black and white, are at first skeptical about the atrocity of the Jim Crow era; when they see the items he has collected, though, the illusion falls away. When in the presence of a large number of such objects, Pilgrim writes, the overwhelming feeling is one of heavy sadness. It is one thing to read about history, and quite another to hold a living piece of it in your hands.

I suppose every sane black person must be angry, at least for a while. I was in the Sociology Department, a politically liberal department, and talk about improving race relations was common. There were five or six black students, and we clung together like frightened outsiders. I will not speak for my black colleagues, but I was sincerely doubtful of my white professors’ understanding of everyday racism. Their lectures were often brilliant, but never complete.

Unboxing the Doll Collector (Jackie Powers, Slow Notion, July 2021)

This thought-provoking piece acknowledges another driving factor behind collecting: comfort. It’s telling that the author’s collection began at a difficult period in her adult life, and Power’s particular passion, dolls, links back to childhood — a time when, hopefully, we experienced the least stress, worry, and hurt. That said, there is surely an element of solace to all collecting, be it sneakers, records, or beer cans. Childhood memorabilia covers a wide area, and the practice of adults continuing to pursue their youthful obsessions has become, if not quite fashionable, then at least acceptable. As EmGo, a Transformer-collecting vlogger popular with my own son, reminds us: “You don’t stop playing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop playing.” It’s a sentiment eruditely echoed by the author here. 

Powers’ dolls intersect with her other great loves of fashion, art, and design, but she finds herself faced with an ethical dilemma. Dolls mean plastic and packaging. Buying brand-new items is inarguably bad for the environment. The solution, as she reasons, lies in concentrating on the second-hand market — seeking out and even restoring items that already exist. There’s much to be said for this approach, but the real fascination in this piece comes from Powers’ meditations on what it means to be “adult,” and the stigma that often surrounds holding on to our childhood loves.

Although there is no time in my life where I haven’t loved dolls, there was a time in my life when I felt like I wasn’t supposed to love dolls. I can trace this shift into shame to another rough transitional moment in life — age 12. As I’m sure it was for many, for me, being 12 was awful. It was a time when I felt like I was trapped between leaving childhood behind and facing the unknown world of being a teenager and all the social pressures that came along with it.

Welcome to the World’s Only Museum Devoted to Penises (Joseph Stromberg, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013)

The protagonist of this piece, Icelandic history teacher Sigurður Hjartarson, considers himself a collector just like any other. His chosen subject, however, stands out (pardon the pun) as one of the more unusual on this list, or any other. There is nothing salacious about Hjartarson’s hobby; his interest is scientific and, in a liberal country such as Iceland, largely accepted as such. Reading this absorbing piece, however, it’s hard not to sense that Hjartarson revels, even if just a bit, in the quirkiness of his particular field; the Folklore Section of his museum includes an empty glass jar labeled “Homo sapiens invisibilis.”

Again, though, the real interest lies in the genesis and pursuit of Hjartarson’s hobby. As I suspect is the case with many collections, the teacher received his first specimen as a gift — an entirely unexpected and serendipitous spark that started the Icelander on his unique journey. Think of your own obsessions and interests. Where did they come from, and how would you be different without them? In Hjartarson’s case, you can’t help but admire the extraordinary lengths (again, forgive me) taken to complete his museum, and the disarming charm its curator displays.

He has three more donation letters hanging on the wall—from a German, an American and a Brit who visited the museum and were moved to sign away their penises after death—but every year that passes makes them less valuable. “You’re still young,” he said, poking me in the shoulder forcefully, “but when you get older, your penis is going to start shrinking.”

Chris Wheatley is a writer and journalist based in Oxford, U.K. He has too many guitars, too many records, and not enough cats.

Editor: Peter Rubin
Copy Editor: 
Cheri Lucas Rowlands