Why Do People Collect Things?

Mom with one of the Royal Doulton Figurines she loved to collect

My mother-in-law Anne, collected Royal Doulton china figurines. She loved beautiful things and she had a curio cabinet in her living room where she kept her Royal Doultons.  Each woman in our family received one after her funeral. In this picture, Mom is holding a figurine called Fair Lady which she received as a Christmas gift.  It was the one I inherited as a keepsake. 

Note seashells on furniture cushions, seashells on the coffee table and seashell picture frames underneath the coffee table

Many people collect things. On a trip to Mexico, we visited a woman who collected seashells and items connected with seashells. One room in her house was exclusively for her seashell collection. There were seashells from all over the world everywhere. The room was furnished with couches and chairs with a seashell pattern on the upholstery. There were lamps with shades covered with shells. Sculptures made of shells and books about seashells sat on the tables. Family photos in seashell- encrusted frames lined the shelves. Even the business card the woman gave me was decorated with a photo of a large shell.

My mother collected buttons in this button box

People have a natural tendency to collect things. Seashells may not be their passion but whether its coins, stamps, postcards, spoons, buttons, or more bizarre things like teabags, chocolate bar wrappers or traffic signs we human beings seem inclined to be collectors. Dr Steve Anderson, a neurologist at the University of Iowa says our need to collect may harken back to an earlier point in our evolution, since many animals hoard things, especially food.

According to Susan Pearce, author of the book Interpreting Objects and Collections one in three North Americans collects something. There are many different kinds of collections and collectors.

The earrings I bought in Ukraine

Some collections are souvenirs. I collect earrings from the places we visit on our travels. My sister and her husband have a collection of traditional painted masks from many of the countries where they have travelled. 

Some collections are gifts. For years my brother gave my mother a china plate every Mother’s Day with a message or saying about mothers on it. He hunted through antique stores and curio shops, often for weeks, until he found a unique plate and a design. 

Some collections are of practical use. A couple who were our teaching colleagues in Hong Kong collected Starbucks coffee mugs from every place they visited. 

Our friend Rob collects military memorabilia. Photo by Jordan Ross/The Carillon

The desire to learn new things can also be the impetus behind a collection. Dave and I have a friend who collects military artefacts. He has uniforms, machinery, vehicles, sheet music, maps, books, flags and photographs. His collection has helped him learn a great deal about military history. 

Some people collect things because of their monetary value. I used to work with a woman who collected Barbie Dolls. She assured me someday she would sell her collection and make a mint of money.

Our son in a shirt he received as a gift from our friend who collects Superman items

Susan Pearce says there are some collections which she terms ‘magic’. There is no rhyme or reason for collecting them but they have a certain appeal or attraction for the collector. I imagine this might apply to the collection of snow globes my brother used to have or a friend’s large collection of Superman memorabilia

Collections can remind us of positive experiences and important people in our lives. They can help us learn new things. They can be practical or magical. Collections can enrich our lives.

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Filed under Culture, Reflections

4 responses to “Why Do People Collect Things?

  1. pernodel

    A sad confession in which I outline another reason for a bizarre collection: https://perrynodelman.com/salt-and-pepper-shakers/


    • I think I remember seeing some of these posts in the past. I was especially intrigued by all the shakers associated with eggs. I imagine your collection is now proudly displayed in your Halifax home. Have any of your children or grandchildren expressed interest in inheriting your shakers one day? My son suggested I listen to the Malcolm Gladwell podcast which is about collecting. http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/42-dragon-psychology-101. It starts out with a story about the Metropolitan Museum of Art and how they collect art.
      Lovely to hear from you Perry. Hope you and Billie are well.


      • pernodel

        Sorry to have missed this. Yes, there’s a post in there somewhere about a variety of eggs. And both grandchildren have shown great interest in the shakers at one point or another. When we first moved here, Julia, at three, helped me match the pairs as they came randomly out of the moving box. John, three now, treats them like toys, as a result there are a number of missing arms, legs, beaks, etc. But I can’t get anybody to claim their future, and I can’t get my oldest son to stop adding more to the collection every birthday and Christmas—I think he likes searching eBay for them more than I like adding them to my collection. I’m kind of hoping that one of the younger Js will turn entrepreneurial in their teens and put them up on eBay to attract suckers like their dad.
        Nice to keep knowing what you’re thinking via the blog—especially these days of no tours.


      • I actually got a request from the WAG for the first time this week for guides to be on hand during the opening of the new Inuit Art Centre. But since I am not vaccinated yet and helping with care for my 93 year old Dad and four month old granddaughter it didn’t feel safe although I would love to go back to the gallery.


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