A few months ago I embarked on the rather difficult task of helping my elderly parents rid themselves of 53 years worth of amassed stuff in their home. A longtime art collector, my dad has a rather impressive collection that theoretically (depending on the fickle art market) will contribute to a very nice inheritance for my two sisters and I. However, it is not the art that has fueled my desire to analyze the psychology behind collecting. As the daughter of a psychoanalyst, it is very tempting to delve into this subject and learn WWFS in the process – that is, What Would Freud Say? I am guessing it is your mother’s fault, but we’ll see. In any case, in cleaning my parents’ home, I have uncovered a lifetime of junk and a few goodies, including:
- Rusty tools and hardware that is worthless
- Ancient papers that should have been shredded decades ago
- An old suburban bus schedule, circa 1964
- A huge stockpile of Ace bandages, gauze pads, band-aids and other assorted first aid items that would make Clara Barton jealous
- A nearly full box of Tampax tampons circa 1950s that I actually sold on eBay
- Tons of traditional camera parts such as filters, meters, lens caps/hoods, film splicers, but it appears these have little value on the secondary market
- An Abercrombie & Fitch pocket warmer NIB, circa 1950s that I sold on eBay
- An old reel of metal/rubber weather-stripping, circa 1960s that I transformed into a funky art piece that is currently in the Crest Hardware Art Show
- A leather Hasselblad case for one of my dad’s classic Hasselblads sold long ago – I sold this on eBay to a European collector
I think a few of these items give credence to the old saying, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure – or woman’s in this case.” Lately I have been asking myself why I collected so much junque over the years – note the spelling of junque – does my stuff warrant this loftier label? I am inspired to rid myself of this extra baggage and keep only the collectibles that mean something to me. With that said, the “invaluable” collections still amount to a daunting number of knick knacks that gather dust. Among my prized possessions:
- Bakelite trylons and perisphere souvenirs from the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair
- Hands, hands, hands made of porcelain, wood, brass, ivory – some are meant to hold jewelry and there are even a few glove molds
- Farm pigs – the more realistic the better – porcelain, brass, wood – the coolest one, circa 1950s, was made by LaCross to hold nail polish
My one and only daughter is also a collector at heart and has accumulated an astounding amount in the 4 1/2 years since she moved out. I spent five straight hours without a break cleaning up her apartment last week in advance of her move this autumn and another three hours this week. It hit both of us hard what an encumbrance all these worldly possessions pose when one is trying to make a change. She collects totally different things than I do such as limited edition Nike & Adidas shoes and haute couture designer purses. But it is the excess food and related products accumulated through her demo business that have proved the most challenging. We’ve only just begun – three large garbage bags tossed down the refuse shoot in her building and six bags for charity.
Before sharing WWFS, my self-reflection on the subject of acquisition has revealed some interesting personal insights. I have divided this activity into saving mementoes and proactively buying things for a collection. Both of these activities at an extreme can become hoarding, but that is like comparing being 5-10 pounds overweight to morbid obesity. For me, the following is what has fueled my own collecting:
- The realization that time is very fleeting and saving things from childhood (mine and my daughter’s) somehow softens that harsh reality.
- A keen interest in history and a vivid imagination that in combination infuse mere objects with magic.
- Frequenting flea markets, rummage sales, and garage sales is a lot of fun and there is always that promise of finding elusive treasure.
- The pursuit of unusual knick knacks to add to a growing themed collection – this works for a while but I have lost interest as I have gotten older and more in touch with my own mortality.
- Buying nice things makes me feel better when I am down, but this fix is very momentary.
- Collecting unique baubles, medals, religious items, and other oddities has inspired my artwork since I was very young.
- Antique collecting is a great way to recycle goods and selling them has provided spare income for me over the years.
Some people collect expensive objects such as luxury cars, wristwatches, and purses to keep up with the Jones – in other words, as status symbols. But back to the nitty-gritty underlying psychology of collecting – and WWFS? According to a superb article by Mark B. McKinley, Ed.D., Freud theorized that collecting harkens back to the time of toilet training. He suggested that the loss of control and what was flushed down the toilet was a traumatic occurrence and that the collector is trying to regain control of “possessions” that were lost so many years ago. That is really gross and a stretch Siggy, but not a surprise – so where does the Oedipus complex fit in here? Hoarding is collecting or saving junk to the point that it disrupts life and makes one dysfunctional – not surprisingly, hoarding can be caused by obsessive compulsive disorder, chronic depression, and/or an addictive personality disorder.
I am definitely trying to live a sparser life with less clutter, but it is hard since I was born a collector. I don’t want my daughter to be in the same boat that I find myself in with my elderly parents now. You Can’t Take it with You.