By Kurt Kuersteiner (© Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
There was a talk radio program on the other day about collectors. They tried to explain what it was that made people collect. The "expert guests" decided there were two reasons: Nostalgia and the thrill of the hunt. One caller offered another reason: Collectors collect stuff in order to own something others don't have, and thus achieve bragging rights.
I don't dispute any of those reasons. Many people collect in order to relive their childhood. Others collect for the fun of tracking down the tough items. And of course, many enjoy owning something unique that others don't have. The only problem with those motivations is that they don't apply to me. And I suspect they don't apply to a large number of other collectors either.
Growing up in Florida, most non-sports cards were rarely available locally. Topics like dinosaurs and war are two of my favorite subjects, yet they don't have anything to do with my childhood. Most of the sets I collect today, I never saw until after I was thirty. Nostalgia may account for some of my collecting interest (particularly monster cards), but not all.
I don't particularly enjoy the frustration of tracking down tough items either. I'm the kind of guy who avoids cross word puzzles and skims detective novels to jump to the end. It aggravates me when card producers deliberately make certain cards scarce in order to make me spend more money finishing the set. I find it hard to believe others actually enjoy that kind of manipulation. It's reminiscent of the old joke: How do you keep a gullible person in suspense? (I'll tell you next issue.) So I think it's fair to say I'm not in the "thrill of the chase" category. Call me a party-pooper, but the feeling I get chasing after scarce items is more akin to stress or frustration.
As far as bragging rights go, I'm usually more embarrassed by my collection instead of proud of it. My family teases me about it constantly, saying I spend more on cards than drug addicts do drugs (hey, it's my "fix" man, give me some slack)! It doesn't particularly impress visitors either. Dates take one look around my house, then say something like "so what does your psychiatrist think about your card obsession?" (Believe me; you won't get anywhere trying to impress girls by whipping out your card binders.)
So while nostalgia, the "thrill of the hunt," and bragging rights may motivate some collecting, it doesn't motivate all. There's something more to the hobby. I believe the main reason people collect something is a basic interest in the topic. Many items we take for granted become fascinating upon closer inspection. When I first heard of some of the common items people collect, my first reaction was "who would want to collect that junk?" But when I saw the collections, I found myself becoming engrossed in the wide variety, clever variations, and historical insight many collectibles offer.
Here are just a few examples of such items: Bricks, soda caps, keys, locks, mugs, bugs, barbed wire, knives, swords, guns, cactus, subway tokens, marbles, bottles, beer cans, cereal boxes, rubber stamps, fruit labels, flags, license plates, old time radio dramas, match books, puzzles, pez, paper weights, postcards, newspapers, magazines, comic books, and of course, the ever popular coin and stamps collections.
I've seen all of the above items in large collections and found them very intriguing. You may think a brick is a brick, but most bricks are stamped with a town or company name that has a story behind it. Some of them were made by slaves. They may not be visually dramatic, but they're fascinating nonetheless. I heard there was a guy who collected older main frame computers. I can't imagine how that would be interesting, but who knows? Maybe if I saw it, I would appreciate it more. You'd be amazed what little details you notice when you can compare different items side by side; Especially when you can listen to a collector who gives details and background info.
Take barbed wire for example. You probably think all barbed wire is alike. You couldn't be more wrong. There are thousands of variations. Some barbed wire has double tipped nails sticking out of it. Others have razor blades carved out of the wire itself. I saw one antique strand with jagged wheels inserted every few inches. It reminded me of the spurs cowboys wore on their boots! Little wonder: Much of this wire was used to tame the wild west over a century ago. Barb wire collectors call themselves "Barbarians" and many of them carry a wire cutter and a spare spool in their trunk in case they come across an old forgotten fence with interesting wire on it. (They're expected to patch any fence they collect from.) Most collectors cut specific lengths (18 inches). These strands make surprisingly interesting displays. Some cost $600!
The first barbed wire collection I ever saw was my grandmother's collection that she kept at a farm in Nebraska. Her father was a doctor there during the late 1800s. He would ride his horse to neighboring towns for medical emergencies. But valuable time was lost when sending a messenger long distance to summon him. The solution? He strung a primitive telephone line along fence posts from the neighboring town to his, using two barbed wire lines as the conduit, and broken bottle necks as insulators. It was the first phone in his farm community. (Moo Bell?) It's neat to have a piece of that fence in the collection, but my brother (who happens to collect antique bottles) still frets about all the vintage glass destroyed while making the insulators.
Of course, that's just a personal example of how history and collectibles often overlap. There are many other examples that effect us all. In fact, entire fields of scholastic research have been established based on the information first uncovered by collectors. The study of dinosaurs began in a large part from the efforts of collectors who gathered prehistoric bones. Priceless fossils would have been lost to science if collectors had not gathered them before knowing what they really were. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Important digs are pilfered by thieves as the price of fossils sky rocket (largely the result of the blockbuster movie, Jurassic Park).
Many entomologists (insect experts) collect large inventories of bugs, carefully killing them in ether and pinning them to mounting boards. This is a hobby anyone can collect locally, especially if they have a pool and clean the filter. But the most beautiful of insects can't be fished out of the water skimmer. Butterfly collections are truly remarkable, with many of the specimens costing hundreds of dollars, especially rare specimens from remote regions of the world. Talk about nature and color colliding... It's like capturing a piece of the rainbow and preserving it under glass. (I'd collect them myself, but I like seeing them alive more than dead.)
Some of the most enjoyable items to collect are those that don't cost much. There are collectors who collect feathers. Others collect beer coasters (the cork mats that slide under a glass and advertise name brands). I know a fellow who collects walking sticks which he carves out of wood from countries he visits. (Each cane reminds him of the trip he found it on.) My father collected cigar bands. I'm amazed at all the diverse and neat designs that were made. Since he smoked cigars anyway, it gave him an excuse to try different brands and collect new labels at virtually no additional cost. These type of collectibles may never increase in value, but why should that matter? The point of a hobby is entertainment. If it costs nothing to collect, why worry about its value?
Others may disagree, but I believe one of the things that runs up the price of collecting is the introduction of a price guide. Once someone assigns an official value to something that was considered worthless before, others will begin hoarding it for financial benefit. I enjoy price guides. I use them constantly and have contributed to them. But in general, it's safe to say that most collectibles would be cheaper without them. Price guides have a way of turning a hobby into a business.
Some neat collectibles are not only cheap, they pass through our hands every day. The US mint is currently issuing 5 different quarters each year until 2008. The goal is to provide a special commemorative quarter for each state. The designs are interesting and historic. If you check your change for the next ten years, you can complete this series for just $12.50. Interesting stamps from all over the world arrive in mailboxes every day. All it takes to remove them professionally is steam from a kettle of water. You can't get much cheaper or easier than that.
There is another thing people enjoy about collecting. It's the community of collectors one meets while buying or trading. The Wrapper in particular has large numbers of friendly dealers and traders, several of which I now consider best friends. However, some hobbies are not as social. I was particularly disappointed with many of the dealers I met while collecting US coins. They seemed completely obsessed with money (which is, after all, what their hobby is all about). When I look back at the coins I bought as a youngster, I'm amazed how many of them were cleaned or altered, despite having come from various "reputable dealers." The fact they took advantage of a kid makes it even more pathetic. They obviously weren't in it for the fun or friendship.
On the flip side, I've met some friendly dealers who sell ancient coins. These guys are full of fascinating facts and historical information. They love talking about and sharing their knowledge of early Rome, Greece, Egypt and other ancient civilizations. I was really surprised to find many of the 2,000 year old coins cost the same thing as most 100 year old American coins. $20-$50 can by a real piece of history!
Which brings us to the story-telling aspect of certain collectibles. These are the proverbial "conversation pieces." There's some unusual or interesting story that goes with the object. I have a friend who has an engraved cup from the civil war. But this particular piece of civil war memorabilia has special meaning to him and his family. It was given to his great grandfather by Jefferson Davis (the President of the Confederate States of America). It turns out that his great grandfather was a body guard to the President, and was imprisoned in the same cell with Mr. Davis after the war. Needless to say, that's one collectible he won't sell or trade.
However, many collectible conversation pieces are not family heirlooms. The item may have been withdrawn for some odd reason, or have an unusual defect (like the 1955 "double die" penny). It may be something that was once common, but is now extinct or obsolete. Some people collect bird eggs, which are often as colorful as the birds themselves. The hobby was so popular in the last century, it contributed to the extinction of several bird species. Nazi memorabilia is very popular today, and not because of its philosophy. (Many of the collectors and dealers are Jewish.) The items are sought after because they are well crafted, very controversial and extremely historical. The fact that they're not making it anymore only adds to the interest. The same applies to whore tokens- the coins given to customers who frequented brothels. The "johns" (often cowboys) would pay the Madam downstairs in the saloon, then take the token upstairs to the prostitute to prove they were paid up. She would then turn the token over to the Madam later to be reimbursed a percentage of the transaction. These tokens often have witty sayings on them- none of which I should repeat here. But they're historical (and often hysterical). Can you guess which US President collected these tokens? No, it isn't Clinton, but you're getting warm: It's the other famous womanizer, JFK.
For the record, my favorite collectable is still trading cards. They not only offer artwork for the eyes, but contain their own stories on the back. They're often organized in collections themselves. A set might be devoted to classic guns, great scientists, birds of prey, coins, movie stars, hot rods, serial killers, beanie babies or whatever. As luck would have it, there's even a set of trading cards devoted to collecting collections. It's called "Fascinating Hobbies" and was issued by The Collector & Hobbyist in 1950. The 25 card British set profiles many collector's hobbies, including rail way tickets, beer labels, cheese labels, medals, match books and -- well, you get the picture.
The point is, if there's more than one variety of something made, the chances are that someone out there collects them. So be careful when you visit a friend and mention you collect cards. They might show you their collection- and get you started on another collecting craze too!
The Non-Sports Trading Card Article Index