Sunday, July 25, 2010


by Nell Pratt

I'm a hoarder by proxy. You all know what hoarders are, right? They're those people who acquire things and can't seem to let them go. It probably starts out innocently enough: they look at something someone gave them and say, it's too good to throw out, so they don't–ever. So-and-so would be hurt if she knew I'd gotten rid of it, so back on the shelf it goes. Until the shelf collapses under the weight. It takes real strength to put things you own into a recycling bin or a yard sale, and you wonder if you'll regret it somewhere down the line.

These people even have their own reality shows now (more than one!), and they'd be funny if they weren't so horrible. I mean, one woman managed to lose not one but two cats under the rubble in her family room–they were found years later, flat and mummified. Ick. Double ick. Their kitchens disappear under piles of stuff, and so do their bathrooms. What's really strange to me is that a lot of these people hold down responsible professional jobs–and then come home to chaos. It's a sickness, definitely.

That's why I'm happy that I work in an institution that collects things, and then keeps them. The Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society has been collecting things for over a hundred years, and even we don't know all of what's stashed in our storage areas. When I write grant proposals, I say we have over two million items, but that's just a guess. An item can be anything: a book, a letter, a doll, a desk. One of my favorites is a horseshoe that's been turned into an inkwell, all nicely encased in Victorian silver. It belonged to a famous nineteenth-century actor, and came from a horse that was named after him. Not your typical artifact, but kind of charming, in a weird way.

Because I work at the Society, I don't have to collect things myself. Which is a good thing, because I live in a tiny house that started life as a carriage house. You know, where they kept carriages, and the horses that went with them. Over the past century it's slowly been converted to living space, and now it's four rooms plus bath, two up, two down. I created the kitchen nook myself when I bought it, but it's not big enough to be considered a room. As you can guess, there's not a whole lot of storage there, so the only things I collect have come mainly from my grandmothers. There's no room for anything else.

Back to the Society: when I wander through the storage areas there, I really do understand the desire to hoard. There are so many interesting things. I don't necessarily want to own them, but I take pleasure in handling them, so I understand the impulse. Each one of those items teaches us something about the past, about the people who owned them or created them. Each one gives us a little glimpse into a different world, if only for a moment. That's why I'm happy to work at the Society, and happy to preserve all these wonderful "things" and make them available to the public.

So I count myself lucky, because I have the best of both worlds: I'm surrounded by great bits and pieces of history, and I don't have to worry about them. What about you? Do you collect things? Will you notice when your collecting gets out of hand?

What's the weirdest thing you've ever collected?


  1. I do collect things. I don't necessarily mean to do so, and it's gotten better in recent years, but I think it started with not having a lot of money and "making do" with boxes as dresser, no table lamps, that sort of thing. I've discovered that I have probably 30 pair of brass candlesticks. I'm not sure why, and I know I've gotten rid of several pair, and I HATE to clean brass (but I love the way it looks clean.) I just keep placing them around the house. Now to collect the candles to place in them.

  2. I used to collect, but not so much now since I have limited space.

  3. Not so much...but I do keep old letters, old pictures, and even old pictures my kids drew from their preschool days. :) So maybe actually I *do* collect things!

  4. Thread. Machine embroidery thread is beautiful, even on the spool. It gleams. I always need new colors for my designs, and of course I have to keep the partially used spools. I wish I had more space.

    Note from Janet Bolin: Willow may get her wish...

  5. Okay, weird alert: Years ago, I found an odd little saucer at a yard sale that, for no reason, I simply had to add to my china collection. It didn't match anything, it wasn't very valuable, but there was something about it--I had to have it.

    Ten years later, I discovered to my surprise that I'd been taken from my birth mother and adopted as an infant. My biological brother began to fill in what I'd missed, sending me many things that had belonged to the mother who died before I got a chance to know her.

    One of these things was her favorite teacup, which had no saucer. Guess what? Yep.

  6. Laineshots, what a beautiful story!

  7. Hi Nell,

    What a terrific job. I don't really collect anything except maybe strays--cats, men, teenagers (anyone who needs some help).


  8. Laineshots, that's incredible. I got chills reading your comment.

    I don't collect a lot but I find it nearly impossible to pass up old Nancy Drew books when I find them (cheap) at bookstores. I don't buy the yellow spine books because I already have all of those from when I was a kid. I also never buy anything published since then. No paperbacks. I only pick up the old blue bound copies - the really old ones. I get particularly excited when a book still has its dust jacket. And... even rarer are the pink-bound versions published for libraries.

    By the way, I was lucky enough to read FUNDRAISING THE DEAD in manuscript form. Loved it!! What a great series Sheila's got here. I encourage everyone to pick this one up!


  9. Laineshots, that's an amazing story. I've heard stories from people who are driving across the country, stop in at a flea market, and find photos of their family. I've found a handwritten diary by an ancestor of mine, although the used bookstore was no more than 40 miles from where it was written. But still--it does give you chills.

    Julie, my mother gave away my entire collection of Nancy Drews (all of them!) in 1963, and I never forgave her. (And thanks for the boost!)

    The hardest thing to get rid of is things that come down through the family. They may be useless or odd, but there are such memories attached! The problem is somehow recording the history so the next person to inherit them knows what they meant.

    Willow, I have thread from my grandmother, my mother-in-law, my mother--you'd think I'd never have to buy any, but I do. I also have embroidery yarn (hand, not machine) from my grandmother and mother.

    And I just keep going to flea markets. You would not believe the strange cookware I've found.

  10. I collect reading material. Books, comic books, etc.

    My problem is not throwing enough stuff AWAY. I'm learning to be more heartless.

  11. Skye, you collect teenagers? NOW you tell me - now that all five of mine are past that stage!

    Willow, your description made me long to collect thread. It IS beautiful. I still have a bagful of assorted threads I bought at a yard sale; it contained a length of tatting, still attached to both the thread and thingie. I can't throw it out.

    Julie, I'd love to collect the old Nancy Drew books!

    And Nell...your story makes me tingle. My first dream house was a Victorian carriage house.

    So why shouldn't we collect things that give us pleasure? As long as the "stuff" doesn't take over and bury children, husbands, pets, or other important things, of course.

  12. I can barely watch those hoarding shows--they're so sad. They accomplish one amazing task, though--they make me want to clean and throw stuff away.

    I'm not a huge collector of any one thing, but a huge collector of lots of little things. My favorite new thing to collect are tiny bowls--pottery, glass, doesn't matter. Love them.

    Laine--amazing story!!!

  13. I collect Snowbabies, mostly the older ones with less color.
    I also collect alphabet books.
    My daughter inherited a hug collection of Precious Moments pieces.
    She doesn't really care for them, but they belonged to her grandmother. She feels obligated to keep the collection.
    Sheila, I know how you must feel. My mother threw out my Beatles magazine collection. Never got over it.

  14. There is so much misunderstanding about hoarders out there - even with the shows. But one thing research has proven is that it is often connected to things like decision making processes, OCD, perfectionism etc... And they tend to experience huge amounts of shame as well. It is incredibly complex and much more about thoughts and feelings than the actual stuff itself. And the loss of those things do not affect hoarders in the way of non-hoarders.

    As someone who has spent an intense year de-hoarding and learning, and working in therapy, I wish more people understood how different the thinking is and how utterly incapacitating the anxiety can be.

    I wish it was really just about having nice stuff or just too many collections.

    But the bottom line is if it interferes with functional living, it is something that needs to be addressed, and due to the lack of education and understanding on the subject, well meaning friends or family often make it worse. Because their minds really are working differently.

  15. The weirdest thing was my own hair. I would run my hands through my long hair when shampooing, then put the loose strands on the shower wall to dry and collect in a box.

    It's not as weird as it sounds. I was growing my hair out for Locks of Love for the first time. I didn't want to "waste" all that hair. I then read the online info. on donating, no loose hair. Out went the box of hair, however I just donated my 6th pony tail in 10 years.

  16. My collection isn't weird- but I sure do have a lot of them. What are they, you ask. Penguins, what else? Pins, earrings, stuffed ones,tee shirts, plates, teapots, cups, ceramic, wood, glass and even one made out of a pinecone.

  17. Anne, that's wonderful! My daughter used to do that too - did it several times. And then this year she was ill, nearly died, and the stress caused most of her hair to fall out. She was thinking she might have to contact Locks of Love and get some back!

    Sheila, you found your ancestor's diary in an antiques shop?? How lovely! I can only imagine how you felt. You did buy it, right?

  18. I'm not sure I collect anything weird but I love, love, love jackets and flip flops. I have way too many of both-it's quite ridiculous!

  19. I don't really collect anything specific...I just keep everything!

  20. I hoard travel articles, travel brochures, pictures--anything that reminds me of exotic places I'd like to go. One of my friends (who is super-organized) reminded me I could toss all this paper and find everything I need on-line, but somehow it's more fun to sift through the pictures and descriptions of lovely islands and cruises and think: someday!

  21. Diana, don't let Charlotte Adams hear you say that! She'll have your closet organized before you can say "packrat!"