The Psychology of Collecting

For years I’ve observed the link between collecting and mental illness. I’ve seen it in others and I’ve seen it in myself. I’ve also seen hoarding, excessive shopping, depression and bipolar disorder, though I’m glad to say that, apart from the hoarding, this has been from a distance.

I will confess now, that the house is full of junk and it is a case of hoarding rather than collecting. The old excuse – that it’s stock – no longer applies because I don’t have a shop. Even when I did have a shop I could never part with the rubbish. As a result, when I moved from the shop I moved carfuls of worthless junk that now just clutter the house. That’s how you know you’ve passed from “collecting” to “hoarding”, or from sanity to something that needs tackling.


Brick from Watnall Pit Brickyard

Julia, having found out that there were a lot of local brickyards, including those run by the National Coal Board, has started a collection of bricks. So far this one is the entire collection. We have a photograph of another in a post on Rufford Abbey, which was where we discovered that there were such things. There is, inevitably, a website on the subject. This is a good example of what can actually be done by a collector with a passion for his subject.

One of the things I found when doing the research for this post, is that Freud considered that hoarding to be a result of our feeling of loss of control we experience when we flush the toilet. I’ve never felt the urge to retain anything I’ve put down the toilet. Fortunately I’ve never known anyone who has, and nobody has ever brought such a collection into the shop. Dr Gillian McKeith might have an archive collection, but that’s work, not a hobby, so is probably acceptable.

I was struggling for vocabulary for a moment, but after reading the Gillian McKeith article I can now use the word stool. Normally I only use it when referring to a small backless seat, but needs must. None of the other words I know are really suitable, though the word stool is not as clear as it could be.

If I refer to not being offered a stool collection during my days in the antiques trade I lack clarity as, for all you know, I might have been in the furniture trade. I suppose, with modern technology such as freeze drying and vacuum packing, it is only a matter of time before the first stool collection hits the market. Or the fan.

It seems that many people collect things. Up to 70% of children collect things, though by the time people are in their 20’s only 23% of people collect things, falling to 12-15% of people in their 60’s. These things don’t have to be valuable, they just need to be something that interests the collector.

This is part of my collection of Post Box photos. The box is a double aperture Type C with the post-1980 “Royal Mail” logo. Oh yes, collections can be dull and worthless…


Post box at Bakewell

It’s clear from this that the people I would to as collectors are different from the people that psychologists would refer to as collectors. They see people who accumulate things as being collectors where I tend to think of collectors as people who collect to a plan. Even if that plan is to amass a pile of stuff as cheaply as possible.

As for hoarders, these are collectors who have let things get out of control. Between 2% and 5% of adults meet the criteria for being hoarders.

The lack of clarity in terminology is only one of the complications you run into. The mind of the collector is another cause of confusion.

There was a collector in Nottingham who used to enter all his purchases in a diary. This was so that he could prove to his wife that he was sticking to a strict budget. He did this by writing down a cost that was 10% of the true cost. Even at that level, his wife thought he was spending too much on his hobby.

It all went well until he died. His wife, armed with the book, then marched into the dealer where the husband had made most of his purchases. After lecturing him on the evils of him helping her husband waste his time and money she pointed to the book and demanding that he repaid her all the money her husband had wasted. She wanted the full purchase price back, she declared, and wouldn’t take a penny less.

So he paid her.

It’s a tricky moral point. He paid her what she wanted and she went away happy. If she’d merely asked how much he would give her he’d have paid more.

On another occasion a widow called me in to look at a collection. It didn’t go well and, after travelling fifty miles to do so, I fell off the badly made loft ladder leading up to the hobby room in the roof. It got worse after that, but I won’t bore you with the details, I’ll just leave you with the comedic picture of me stuck halfway through a roof hatch as she struggled to shove the ladder back under my flailing feet.



Notts and Derby sweetheart brooch

And, of course, no discussion of collecting would be complete without a picture of a sweetheart brooch. It appears to be as big as a Double Aperture Type C pillar box, but is actually quite a lot smaller.

I have yet to master photography as a documentary medium.

45 thoughts on “The Psychology of Collecting

  1. Clare Pooley

    Derrick’s comment is very interesting regarding childhood poverty. I know that I hang onto stuff like scrap paper because I was always taught to save paper and I used to have an enormous collection of plastic carrier bags! Waste not want not etc. I can’t bear to get rid of books but like you, I have been trying very hard to give away those I can most bear to part with. Some objects are easier to get rid of than others. Some elicit a feeling of relief once they have gone but others a feeling of guilt or even sorrow.

      1. Clare Pooley

        Yes, strange, though I have noticed similar tendencies in my daughters. Recycling doesn’t seem to matter to them as much as equality etc. People and society matter more than the planet. My daughters are also quite lazy and are happy to let me and Richard do all the clearing up while they lecture us on our un-PC behaviour.

      2. quercuscommunity

        Number One son, back for the weekend, lectured us on our eating habits and our lack of political awareness then left. I wonder if I was ever like that. πŸ™‚

  2. jodierichelle

    The stool thing was hilarious. And the collecting thing is a really deep subject. I think people collect for different reasons, for sure. That’s all I have figured out so far. . .

  3. beatingthebounds

    “I have the world’s largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world… perhaps you’ve seen it.”
    This is Steven Wright, the stand-up and a brilliant collector of one-liners. I have a hoarding issue, at least where books and records are concerned. I also collect mountains, tarns, miles under my boots, blogposts, blog traffic, comments, likes, birds-spotted, butterflies, plants etc. I sometimes regret the fact that I’m a bit flaky and half-hearted at collecting all of these things, but I suspect it’s probably better for my sanity that I don’t take any of it too seriously.

    1. quercuscommunity

      Great quote!

      Collecting things in the right way enhances the experience, I always feel. Unfortunately I can get a bit obsessive so I have to be careful. πŸ™‚

  4. Laurie Graves

    Oh, my goodness! That incident with the ladder sounds like something straight out of a movie. Derrick is right about how the subject could be explored further. People and their obsessions. What a funny bunch we are.

      1. Laurie Graves

        Tee-hee! My mother was obsessed with cleaning, but she made me promise that would not be the only thing I write about her in her obituary. I kept my word—my mother was very active in her community as well as whiz of a house cleaner—but I did mention that she kept a very clean house. πŸ˜‰

      1. Laurie Graves

        My husband’s philosophy is to expect weirdness, and he is never disappointed. πŸ˜‰

  5. higgledypiggledymom

    I have very few collections now, moving into smaller abodes helps tremendously, nor did I feel too badly about parting with the stuff. Mind you I think sometimes it is peer pressure or keeping up with the latest and greatest, until I felt embarrassed by all that I had. Felt it was kind of disgustingly greedy. While I have unloaded things, some are still boxed up, and forgotten. Mr. HP forgotting he started that collection for me, and sometimes I find still more of things I thought I had limited. It may be for the kids to get rid of.😏

    1. quercuscommunity

      I was advised years ago by a lady who’s been an army wife when we had bases all over the place that moving every two or three years cuts clutter. We’ve been here 30 years…

  6. derrickjknight

    An absolutely fascinating article on a human behaviour that could run and run. In fact you could start a series. Please accept my permission to begin the hoard with this.

    Twice in my childhood I collected stamps and each time gave them all away. I do have a collector in me still. It is manifested in 60+ years of photographic images. I give those away rather than sell them, but keep the originals. When we moved here I was ready to give up my book collection, but Jackie, a one-time librarian, insisted I kept them all. Some, I do give away.

    I have to tell you that stool collections are not actually unknown. If you are lucky they are wrapped up.

    I recognise the psychological element in me and attribute it to childhood relative poverty. The mystery is that I don’t monetise stuff once I lose interest in it. Money is not as real as an object to me


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