General Pursuits

Why Do We Collect?

The August issue of The American Philatelist arrived a few days ago and I’ve slowly been perusing it during rare periods of free-time (this time of year has always been a busy period for me but this year I am nearly overwhelmed!). American Philatelic Society president Mick Zais has a particularly interesting column this month in which he examines some of the reasons that people collect and poses the question, “Is there a collecting gene?”

An auction house once stated that collecting is, in fact, a basic human instinct; a survival advantage amplified by eons of natural selection. Those of our ancient ancestors who managed to accumulate scarce objects may have been more prone to survive long enough to bear offspring. Even today, wealth correlates to longer life expectancy — and could any form of wealth be more basic than scarce, tangible objects?

According to The Guardian a few years ago, “One psychoanalytical explanation for collecting is that unloved children learn to seek comfort in accumulating belongings; another is that collecting is motivated by existential anxieties — the collection, an extension of our identity, lives on, even though we do not. More recently, evolutionary theorists suggested that a collection was a way for a man to attract potential mates by signalling his ability to accumulate resources.”

Another site lists the following as the most common reasons people collect things:

  • Knowledge and learning
  • Relaxation and stress reduction
  • Personal pleasure (including appreciation of beauty, and pride of ownership)
  • Social interaction with fellow collectors and others (i.e. the sharing of pleasure and knowledge)
  • Competitive challenge
  • Recognition by fellow collectors and perhaps even non-collectors
  • Altruism (since many great collections are ultimately donated to museums and learning institutions)
  • The desire to control, possess and bring order to a small (or even a massive) part of the world
  • Nostalgia and/or a connection to history
  • Accumulation and diversification of wealth (which can ultimately provide a measure of security and freedom)

There’s even a “Psychology of Collecting” article on Wikipedia which says that, “When people think of collecting, they may imagine expensive works of art or historical artifacts that are later sold to a museum or listed on eBay. The truth is, for many people who amass collections, the value of their collections are not monetary but emotional — and often, not for sale. Collections allow people to relive their childhoods, to connect themselves to a period in history or to a time they feel strongly about. Their collections may help them to ease insecurity and anxiety about losing a part of themselves, and to keep the past present. Some collect for the thrill of the hunt. Collecting is much like a quest, a lifelong pursuit which can never be complete. Collecting may provide psychological security by filling a part of the self one feels is missing or is void of meaning. When one collects, one experiments with arranging, organizing, and presenting a part of the world which may serve to provide a safety zone, a place of refuge where fears are calmed and insecurity is managed. Motives are not mutually exclusive; rather, different motives combine in each collector for a multitude of reasons.”

The Wikipedia article mentions that while “there are unemotional commerce-motivated collectors, those that hunt for collectibles only to turn them around soon after and sell them. . . .collecting is still mostly associated with positive emotions. There is the happiness from adding a new find to the collection, the excitement of the hunt, the social camaraderie when sharing their collection with other collectors.”

According to a 2007 article in The National Psychologist, “Sigmund Freud didn’t see collecting as stemming from these kinds of motivations. He postulated that collecting ties back to the time of toilet training, of course. Freud suggested that the loss of control and what went down the toilet was a traumatic occurrence and that, therefore, the collector is trying to gain back not only control but “possessions” that were lost so many years ago. Well that’s Freud.”

I believe that I collect stamps primarily for the knowledge that I gain from these little bits of paper. I have learned a great deal about history and geography which I frequently use in my job as an English teacher in Thailand, as well as about other topics that may seem useless but enhance my enjoyment of the hobby (printing methods, paper, etc.). Researching the subjects of my stamps often lead me to unexpected discoveries. I also collect for the relaxation it offers, the “thrill of the hunt,” and goal of completion (“A Stamp From Everywhere”, thank you very much).

I’m not certain if any collector can narrow down the reasons they collect to just one. Can you?

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4 thoughts on “Why Do We Collect?”

  1. Wow, what an interesting post! I admit that I find myself in the reasons inserted in your article, and I do believe that there’s a gene of collecting, that grows more and more in time. Cătălin

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  2. In my own blog, I have often referred to a collecting gene. Some have it and some don’t.
    When a stamp collector, coin collector, postcard collector visits a flea market or car boot sale, he/she may not be very interested in baseball cards and cigarette packs but we understand the motivation of a collector.
    Hoarding or Conservation?
    But the world is increasingly disposable. The concept of antique has moved from Georgian snuff boxes, Dresden China to 45rpm singles from the 1960s and even Nintendo games.
    So there is a conservation element to what we do.
    While I am not American, I see USA stamp albums as a kinda Greatest Hits album. the best of American History, Art, Literature, Music, Fauna, Spirituality is reduced to a very small size. I see collecting stamps from a country as being a very practical form of Patriotism.
    And I see sending and receiving mail from anywhere in the world as being a very practical form of Peace-Making.
    the downside of stamp collecting is the obsession. Tracking down that coil, that colour shade….but the upside is the surprise receipt of 50 stamps from Netherlands or Japan. No obsession…just childlike enthusiasm as it was 55 years ago. We can dress it up as an adult hobby but a “little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men (and women!).
    I don’t want to over-analyse it but I think as the centuries and decades advance, a greater number of people in the western world have been “allowed” into collecting…it is a luxury that was denied to most of our forefathers/mothers.
    So in part I see it as a 55 year journey from a simple “half crown”Trusty stamp album which my father bought for me because stamp collecting was considered educational to an entire room, a den, a man-cave where I have built an Archive of sorts.
    Thank you for reading.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comments.

      Collecting touches our lives on so many levels and I am proud to call myself a collector. I think the difference between a collector and a hoarder is a fine one at times with the accumulation of items just for the sake of having “more” is the distinction — unless, of course, one actually looks at and thinks about the items accumulated and makes an attempt to learn from them. This can be as simple as recognizing the origin of the item, categorizing it (i.e., looking it up in a catalogue in the case of stamps), to as complicated as discovering its background — how it was created or what it represents (subject matter, etc.). This, I believe, it true of all collectibles — not just stamps.

      I totally agree with your comment about patriotism derived from collecting stamps. I’m American so I take great pride in those of my nation’s stamps that communicate its history, people, and diverse culture. I’m less interested in some of the more thematic issues of the past few years but there’s usually at least one or two of these each year that draw me in as well. But I also become greatly excited (and patriotic, I suppose) for various items portrayed on the stamps of other entities. For example, I am intrigued by the propaganda portrayed on the stamps of the USSR and North Korea although I don’t particularly agree with the political ideologies communicated. Flags and marching soldiers on stamps fascinate me no matter where they are from or if they are “against” the nation of my birth.

      Also, your comment about sending and receiving mail internationally being a form of “peacekeeping” is spot-on.

      Thank you for taking a look at my blog…

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      1. I should add that the date a stamp is issued says as much about a country as the issue itself. For the established world…eg Britain, France, USA, Spain etc stamps have been around for 130 odd years. This means that some events have now been commemorated as centenaries, bi-centenaries etc. And History is being constantly revised, updated and even re-written, thru the medium of stamps.

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