Those of us with collectors in the family know that personal collections of anything – from stamps to coins to comic books – carry stories that are both unique and fascinating. Collectors, however, typically won’t tell you these tales unless you ask. As a collector myself, I think I know why: collections are a physical manifestation of the collector’s memories, feelings, and thoughts. More than likely, anyone with a collection can tell you exactly when and where the item was purchased and what was going on in their life at the time. As a family historian, it’s important to ask people about the things they collect. Not only is it a great way to learn more about them, it may lead to other memories that would otherwise be lost to time.
Both my mother and father were collectors. Mom had a china cabinet full of all kinds of little knick-knacks, some dating back to the mid nineteenth century. She didn’t collect one particular thing but I knew each item had some tie to her childhood. My sister Karen inherited the collection and I’m sure it will be passed to my niece Jillian one day. My father collected Matchbox and other toy cars. As a child, I loved to sneak into his cabinet and play with them. I had to sneak because touching his collection was forbidden. I never asked why he had such a liking for tiny vehicles but my guess is that his reasons were different than my mother’s. Dad grew up in a poor family and I suspect his collecting was to fill some childhood gap.
My sister and I collected stamps and coins. Dad and mom used to help us build the collection by buying us stamp and coin books. K-Mart, and other department stores, used to sell bags of old stamps that were still attached to the envelopes. We’d bring them home and spend hours sitting at the dining room table with a cup of water to soak off the glue and waxed paper to let them dry. Finding where they belonged in our stamp books became a treasure hunt. What I remember most about stamp collecting was the time my sister passed out while eating bread and putting stamps in our book. Once second she was nibbling and the next: kerplunk! On to the floor. Despite that little incident, when we were kids, collecting stamps and coins was one of the ways we all came together as a family.
When I was in my mid-teens, I began to collect books. I blame this on both my parents because they both loved to read. Since they often frequented used bookstores, and paperback novels were pretty cheap, I’d usually come home with 5 or 10 each visit. My love was finding books based on movies. I had a pretty big collection that covered everything from Star Wars to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Exorcist (my personal favorite was the Amityville Horror. It still gives me the creeps…). Did I read them all? Nope. I just liked to collect them. Over time, my collection disappeared. I am fortunate to have kept my original 1977 paperback copy of George Lucas’ Star Wars, however.
Collecting can be a cumbersome hobby. I know this too well having had to manage my collections across multiple sets of transfer orders with the United States Coast Guard. On more than one occasion I’ve had to dispel with a complete collection to make room for another. When I joined in 1985, I gave away my baseball card collection and my magazine collection. This I regret since many of the cards and magazines would have held monetary value today. Recently I’ve had to pare down my book collection since my wife and I nearly exceeded our transfer allowance for household goods.
I, like most of my kind, do not like disposing of, selling, or thinning down our collections. It’s painful. For us, it’s who we are. On the other hand, if we do give up our collections, do we not have permission to build another? Of course we do! I’m still collecting and I’ll probably never stop. Today I collect military challenge coins, tie-tack pins from my adventures across the globe, old View Master reels, and, yes, books – although I’m a bit more particular now.
The next time you’re in a family member’s home, look around. See if they have a collection and, if so, ask them what it’s all about. You may be surprised at what you learn.
My father’s toy car collection disappeared after he passed away in 1986. What became of it is unknown.
I still have the stamp and coin books from when my sister and I were children.
Since moving from Hawaii to San Francisco last summer, I’ve thinned out my book collection by nearly two thirds. I had to. We barely squeaked by at 17,400 pounds – only 100 pounds shy!
What will I collect next? Who knows? But whatever it is, I’ll guarantee you that it will be meaningful and a direct reflection of who I am. All you need to do is ask and I’ll tell you the story.