What is collecting?

In an attempt to understand “collecting”, I fell into a rabbit hole and found myself reading academic papers on the subject, trying to make sense of it all. What you will read below is a collection of ideas from the papers referenced below, as well as several other publications which are linked in the text. Even after all that reading, the topic is so abstract that it was challenging to reach any universally applicable conclusion. Instead, I offer a universal truth about people who are passionate about collecting. I hope you enjoy it, and look forward to your thoughts.

History of collecting

The idea of gathering items simply for enjoyment seems to have started in the stone age around 4,000 BCE, when Homo erectus created collections of non-functional stone tools. Collecting is believed to have been born in the ancient East, ancient Greece and Rome, and the term “collection” was believed to have been used for the first time by Caesar in one of his speeches where he described “collection” as the gathering of different objects together (Note: I found an article that claimed this to be the case, but upon digging deeper was unable to find a reliable source to verify, so take that Caesar fact with a pinch of salt!). The most ancient collection is believed to have been discovered by archaeologists in Altai. It is a collection of small stones of different colors in the forms resembling animals. Items were sorted by size, colour and similarity to animals, and the age of this collection is believed to be around 4500 years old.

The hobby itself began to develop in the Middle Ages. First it started with the book and manuscript collections in churches and monasteries, memorial monuments, weapons arsenals. Through collecting activities the formation of the royal treasuries took place, and closer to the 17th century the popularity of collecting plants took hold with the emergence of greenhouses and gardens. Additionally, increased interest in the animal world led to the creation of collections of animals and birds.

The proper “rise” of collecting started in the 18th century, and in most places it became not just fun, but the serious passion of many nobles, coupled with the scientific interests of the collectors. In the 19th century, aristocratic collectors were the most common, as their collections were perceived as a status symbol. They collected art, fossils, books, zoological specimens, and other objects that were popular at the time. The Victorian era aristocracy kept these items in a “cabinet of curiosities,” which was actually a room rather than a piece of furniture, specifically for displaying and storing collectibles. These so-called cabinets were seemingly the precursors to the first museums.

Collecting wasn’t a hobby for commoners until the mid-1800s or so. William Buell Sprague, the father of ‘collecting as a hobby in America‘, called collecting his “mania,” his “passion,” and even his “ruling passion.” For half a century he assembled one of the largest collections of autographs, manuscripts, and pamphlets in American history. Sprague’s activities as a collector mark a significant chapter in the development of American libraries and archives.

Around the early 1900s, collecting became synonymous with the word “hobby.” It was truly a pastime for everyone; Rich people would collect art, pottery and furniture, while poor kids would follow cigar-smokers down the street to collect discarded cigar bands. Collecting was for everyone, and often even encouraged as part of a child’s education.

A discussion about collecting

We can probably all agree that collecting, in one form or another, is truly ubiquitous; It is a part of humanity’s experience, its essential nature. You will find many debates about whether it is instinctive or acquired, and about whether it is a rational activity or a mental disease. As watch collectors we might argue it is both, in equal measure! Either way, much like any other human behaviour, collecting is complex enough to be sure of one thing: there is always something more to be said about it. Any attempt to better understand collecting simply helps us better understand human nature, and further enhances the experience of collecting itself.

In the most basic sense, collecting is “the accumulation of tangible things”. This definition pretty much covers anything from regular physical objects to Bitcoins and NFTs. Although we might argue about whether an NFT is ‘tangible’ – I believe it is, insofar as its tangible existence on the Ethereum blockchain, tied to a specific address. This is different from memories or thoughts, for example, which I would exclude from the definition of “things” in the context of collection.

Take, for instance, the idea of “need”. Some might argue that the concept of collecting must relate to items that are in excess of what is needed for survival… but what constitutes “need?” Prehistoric human beings are now thought to have admired and saved certain tools for aesthetic reasons… so perhaps our collections are an essential part of establishing a sense of human identity and defining our places in the world. To quote Lord Eccles, in On Collecting (1968):

During the blitz on London I saw how simple and profound was the passion for things of one’s own. The morning after poor people had been bombed out, they grieved far less for the house or rooms where they had been living than for their things, the things their mother had left them, or their children had given them. The bomb which destroyed their things destroyed part of themselves

“On Collecting” by Lord Eccles

In short, all forms of accumulating objects can potentially be “necessities of life”, if the role of emotional well-being in physical survival is adequately taken into account.

Another aspect of collection is whether it is worth distinguishing random accumulations of objects from purposeful selections. Some will say the term “collection” should be reserved for things that have been systematically ‘curated’ according to a unifying principle and should not be used to unnecessarily dignify the miscellaneous hoarding of possessions. The problem here is that you can’t really find a universally agreed definition for how “collections” are different from “accumulations,” because everyone will have their own criteria! For example, if I collect things I like – then this could very well be all my possessions! The truth is, all accumulations are actually an individual’s own selections, and therefore they will be imbued with meaning (for each person) through their own selectivity. Every accumulation, whatever additional significance it may be found to possess, has the unity that comes from its telling something about a human being who lived in a particular time and place. Of course, it might be useful to distinguish between people who deliberately pursue their own ideas of coherent groupings and people who give no conscious thought to why their possessions are multiplying as they are; but this differentiation must still acknowledge that both types of people are still “collectors.”

Then there’s the consideration of the length of time one possesses something, and whether this has any bearing on someone being a collector (or not). Simply put – once you add something to a collection, how long it stays there shouldn’t really be a factor. Some people, at all levels of sophistication and deliberateness in their collecting, willingly dispose of items and start on others.

Werner Muensterberger’s book Collecting: An Unruly Passion” references “subjective value” in his definition of collecting, to make the point that the desirability of an object to a collector is independent of the market price it would fetch. I was originally in the camp who differentiated such people in the watch world as ‘dealers’ rather than ‘collectors’ but I think I’ve changed my view. Those who collect for investment (at least in part) or take some pride in the monetary value of what they possess… simply make this (monetary value) a part of the total psychological underpinning of their “collecting criteria”. Who are we to judge?

Muensterberger saw the origins of collecting in childhood traumas. He argued that when kids had the experience of feeling deprived of the protection and support of those close to them, they sought relief through controllable physical objects. In doing this, they became emotionally attached to one or more items which became associated in their minds with the relief of frustration and mental distress. The act of demonstrating that one possesses and controls the objects is a pleasurable experience, and one that is repeatedly satisfying because it creates “the illusion of being able to cope”.

Muensterberger’s discussion goes deeper into the psychology of collecting than many other writings on the subject. Philippe Jullian’s Les Collectioneurs, for example is relatively superficial; At one point he says “Every collection is inspired by the same basic factors: fear of boredom, desire for immortality, aesthetic sensibility, vanity, speculation.” Similarly, Holbrook Jackson, in “The Anatomy of Bibliomania”, under the heading “The Causes of Bibliomania” breaks down the sections into “Greed,” “Vanity,” and “Fashion”.

While all these reasons might impact peoples’ collecting, what is still unclear is why collecting was the chosen remedy – for example, there are other ways of passing time (i.e. curing boredom), investing (i.e. speculation), or showing off (i.e. vanity). The most fundamental question in trying to understand collecting is to ask why collecting should be the path chosen to attain personal goals.

So at this point we might decide it is best to start defining collecting by the particular combinations of goals that characterise individual collectors; but this doesn’t really reach the deepest levels of the drive to collect. An inquiry like Muensterberger’s, which tries to identify the mental processes underlying the more overt motivations, is of course an important step, even if it does not tell the whole story.

Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” suggests there is more to be said. One of Benjamin’s most insightful observations is framed as a question: “For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” The pleasures of “the chase” and “adding to one’s collection” are described by Benjamin as follows: “The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.

Concluding thoughts

The human need to find order is, to me, the most academic explanation of collecting. The other explanations such as a fascination with chance, curiosity about the past, and a desire for understanding can all slot under the umbrella of “the urge to tame the external world”. This general idea, in which collecting is traced to a human need for making the environment seem less threatening and more understandable, has been much in evidence in the past few decades, as intellectual interest in the process of collecting has increased.

Ultimately, we should try and see collecting not as evasion and escapism but as a human urge to connect with the world, to make sense of it so that we can feel in harmony with it and experience it more richly. Vladimir Nabokov, wrote a well-known account of his “obsession” with butterflies and butterfly-collecting which was originally published in The New Yorker on 12 June 1948.

Butterflies served as tangible reminders of episodes in Nabokov’s own life, and even the smell of ether, used as the killing substance for one of his earliest childhood catches, “would always cause the door of the past to fly open.” Nabokov’s repeated acts of observation and pursuit of butterflies, made him an expert lepidopterist who contributed to the field through important published papers. His understanding that collecting and rigorous thinking go hand in hand was shown by his ridicule of those who advocated the relaxing of scientific standards for collectors: “Their solicitude for the “average collector who cannot be made to dissect” is comparable to the way nervous publishers pamper the “average reader”—who cannot be made to think“.

Nabokov of course wrote novels as well as scientific articles, and he saw the connections: “I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.” Nabokov’s most moving words for a description of “the highest enjoyment of timelessness” came to him when he stood outdoors among “rare butterflies“- and I think this captures the essence of collecting quite perfectly:

This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which I cannot explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love, a sense of oneness with sun and stone, a thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern, perhaps to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to the tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.

Vladimir Nabokov – Butterflies: On life as a lepidopterist.

That’s the bottom line really… we’re all seeking ecstasy – one watch at a time. There is no right answer, and every single collector’s journey is unique… the more we try to make sense of it, the less we realise we know… and it also explains why we can’t stop, and why the often-used phrase “we will stop when we die” is pretty much the only universal truth that exists!


General References
  • Tanselle, G. Thomas. “A Rationale of Collecting.” Studies in Bibliography, vol. 51, Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1998, pp. 1–25, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40372043.
  • Mulder, John M., and Isabelle Stouffer. “William Buell Sprague: Patriarch of American Collectors.” American Presbyterians, vol. 64, no. 1, Presbyterian Historical Society, 1986, pp. 1–17, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23330916.
  • Derevianko, A.P. & Rybin, Evgeny. (2003). The earliest representations of symbolic behavior by Paleolithic humans in the Altai Mountains (In English). Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia. 27-50.

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