Growing up, one of my sisters collected dog figurines. She saved every dollar she earned to procure new ones from Sullivan’s Toy Store on Connecticut Avenue. She would play with them, yes, but the principal joy of owning them was lining them up along the shelves of her expansive white desk in highly particular arrangements. My mother collects Lladro porcelain, stored tidily in a glass-front cabinet, and — it must be said, mom — shoes; she is the Imelda Marcos of our family. One of my best friends collected elephants — stuffed animals, toys, knick-knacks — throughout her childhood, and her bedroom is a pachyderm menagerie. My mother-in-law is a polyglot collector, with an impressive array of vintage oyster plates (Majolicas are a big deal), of Hungarian pysanky, of Ingeglas Christmas ornaments. Mr. Magpie had an extensive set of baseball cards as a boy, and so did my brother, who kept his organized in plastic sleeves stored within binders, organized by team and league. I have been an intermittent collector — as a child, I collected stickers, trolls, My Little Ponies, Barbies, beanie babies (ugh). For a time, I collected Louboutin shoes: I stalked eBay regularly for gently used pairs no longer purchasable online. And I have been a lifelong collector of books. Even as a kid, I loved lining up all of my Elizabeth Coda Callen books on my shelves, my glossy red Bobbsey twins, my pastel Baby Sitter Clubs, my garish banana yellow Nancy Drews. Nowadays, one of the most common comments when someone visits my apartment is “Did you buy these books exclusively for the color of their spines?”, as I have organized all of the books on one of my shelves by spine color: at the bottom, Penguin Classics in neat stacks with their staid black spines crackled through with use. The next few shelves are aquamarine and pale blue. And the top shelf is cream: Oxfords, Scribners, and Little Browns.
Why do we collect things? Stamps, seashells, vintage cars, charms for charm bracelets, Steiff stuffed animals, vintage Herend china? Why do we feel the deepest reaches of satisfaction arranging those curiosities on shelves, on sticker pages, in binders, in bins?
As a young child, collecting was about ownership. “These are mine,” I would assert, elbows out, keeping my Barbies out of the clutches of my nosy little sisters. I wasn’t this way about all of my belongings; there was something grandiose and defense-worthy about having multiples of something — of anything — that made me particularly possessive of them.
A little later in my childhood, collectibles formed a sort of early economy. We traded stickers, baseball cards, beanie babies. I can’t tell you how many questionable swindles I took part in at the hands of my brother: “Here, take this brand new pack of cards — all of them! even the piece of stale gum! — and give me that dumb old card in exchange for it.” I’d skeptically hand over a Cal Ripken. Our collections were a currency at a time when we were illiquid.
As I aged, I noticed that collectibles were more about habit, sort of similar to the way we all had “favorite colors” as kids. For years, I would automatically reach for the blue one of anything. “And a blue one for Jennifer,” my mom would say instinctively. Even in college, my friend would gravitate towards anything with an elephant on it, more out of tradition than anything else.
And now? Some collectibles are status symbols, externalized wealth, members of an actual asset class (versus the false economies of my youth). Others are shorthand for personal passion: a wall of Audubon prints in various shapes and sizes and stage of decay, a glass bowl of wine corks, an unwieldy bundle of yellowing road maps, a bookcase of old Vogues. But nowadays, I mainly think that collecting is more about remembering. These curiosities we gather and organize are artifacts not from cultural history, but from personal memory, signifiers of adventures or relationships or versions of ourselves we worry we might otherwise forget. The seashell from a honeymoon, the fraying Andres Galaraga card from a summer spent in Colorado that year that the Rockies were really good, the miniature cocker spaniel figurine from a special trip to the toy store with mom–all of them insurance against the lapse of time, the threat of oblivion.
What do you collect? Why?
Post-Script: A Collection of Things I Absolutely Love Today.
A truly random smattering of items with no legible relationship to one another except for the fact that I love them. See my notes at bottom for the why…
+Banjanan Dress — The collar! The color! The sleeves! The print! I must own this dress.
+Cocofloss — It was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to luxify floss. What epic branding! Opening my medicine cabinet to this would make me legitimately excited to floss.
+Sam McKnight Lazy Girl Dry Shampoo — People LOVE this stuff, and it apparently smells ridiculous (in a good way — highly floral). And I love the packaging!
+We Might Be Tiny Snack Tray — I mean…adorable.
+Veronica Beard Blouse — On super duper sale for under $100 and such a flashy statement.
+The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand — I’m in the mood for a mental vacay.
+Hunter Toddler Rainboot — For some reason I’m very excited for mini to wear her first pair of rainboots this fall.
+Mrs. Meyers Rosemary Laundry Detergent — I love Mrs. Meyers’ detergent and feel like rosemary, which I’ve never tried before, would be the perfect scent for this upcoming fall!
+Prep Solutions Brown Sugar Keeper — Why I get so excited about kitchen/pantry storage and organization is beyond me. But I do. It me.
+Jamin Puech Personalized Tote — This is just flat out epic. How many straw bags does a girl need, you might be asking? Don’t answer that question.
+Frida Toddler Toothbrush — This gets good reviews.
+Angela Caglia Quartz Roller — Purports to “drain fluid, boost circulation, improve elasticity, and promote cell turnover for a brighter, healthier glow.” Looks pretty while doing so.
+Alepel Monogrammed Mules — A less expensive, more personalized way to get that Gucci Princetown look.
+Hippeas — I could not stop eating these while at my friend’s place the other night.
P.S. Speaking of powerful memories, I was just thinking about the bris I attended last year and enjoyed re-reading my reflections on roots.
P.P.S. Slices of joy.
P.P.P.S. CUTE. And, separately, a great gift for a new mom you don’t know too well. I LOVE this stuff.