Collecting and childhood

Some literature on collecting seems to suggest that the pursuit of a collection is a wholesome hobby in childhood, but a sinister one in an adult. In his otherwise admirable book Touch, Gabriel Josipovici suggests that 'unfortunately, like so many other childhood passions, this mania for collecting can take on rather more sinister connotations when it passes undiminished into adulthood'. This view seems to haunt some kinds of collecting more than others - we are all probably guilty of sniggering at trainspotters at the station, or those with houses full of stuffed teddy bears.

In fact, Susan Pearce's comprehensive study of collecting behaviours, On Collecting, suggests that collectors are not stuck in some sort of odd, regressive childhood state which has skewed their relationship to material culture. In fact, her review of the evidence suggests that there is no hard and fast correlation between collecting in childhood and maturity. Some child collectors carry their passion into adult life; some don't. Some collectors only begin as adults.

During the course of conversations with friends and colleagues about my thesis, it invariably emerges that most people have kept collections at one time or another; monopoly games, sweet wrappers, stickers. I had several short lived collections, including my Dad's own childhood stamp collection, but I never got further than carefully removing the specimens from their homes (the little sleeves you get around After Eight mints) and carefully putting them back in, aided by some plastic tweezers. I don't think I ever added more to the collection than one or two brightly coloured special issue Christmas stamps, perhaps because I didn't start it myself. Continuing someone else's collection is less appealing than embarking on your own.

My most memorable collection was probably my 'crabby collection', compiled over a week's holiday on the south coast, which consisted of a carrier bag full of dismembered claws, empty shells, and in some very exciting instances, entire dead crabs, which I would religiously lay out on the back step every evening for counting and display. I remember being very upset when I was told it couldn't come in the car for the long drive home, and I remember very vividly the awful smell that was the cause of this ruling.


In the process of collecting for the crabby collection
 In the nineteenth century, children were actively encouraged to start collections. It was felt to be an enriching and worthwhile pastime. Instruction manuals were printed to help the would-be collector on their way. One such book was C. A. Montresor's Some Hobby Horses and How to Ride Them, published in 1888. It gives instruction on the identification and classification of coins, seals, crests, stamps; not natural history as Montresor wants his book to be accessible to 'town children', although ideally, he says,
every house ought to possess a "Museum", even if it is only one shelf in a small cupboard; here, carefully dated and named, should be placed the pretty shells you gather on the sea-shore, the old fossils you find in the rocks, the skeleton leaves you pick up from under the hedges, the strange orchids you find on the downs.
Montresor remembers fondly his childhood collections, but despairs at their disorganised state ('the coins of Great Britain in the time of Queen Anne lay on the top of Roman medals, and both were classed alike as "Antique English"!'), so he sets out to prepare his young readers with the knowledge necessary to 'render your hobbies really valuable'. His advice is to
Learn what you can about each object before you put it in the museum, and docket it not only with its name, but also of the name of the place in which you found it, and the date; many a happy memory will the museum bring back to you years hence, when you and your brothers and sisters, now a happy, even if at times quarrelsome little party at home, will be scattered far over the wide world in homes of your own. For, after all, the greatest delight which a collection of any kind can afford is the memory of the days in which it was formed...
Although none of my collections were ever documented quite as meticulously as Montresor advises, they nevertheless do inspire the happy memories that he says they might; despite the sad loss of the crabby collection, I do remember foraging among the pebbles with my sister and a happy family holiday spent recording the beaches we went to and rating their rockpools out of 10 (this scoresheet survives). Really, what Montresor is advocating is collecting as a way to both create happy memories, and call them to mind at a later time; a sort of material record of childhood, and Pearce finds that many adult collectors use their collections in this way too; 'the collector may view his collection as miniature trains or examples of Victorian lace, but he knows, and the investigator soon discovers, that each piece also acts as a memory which carries a particular narrative of time and place'.

I see nothing 'sinister' in that at all, whether it be adult or child who compiles the collection of memories. Did you have a collection as a child? What memories does it bring back?

2 comments:

  1. Hi, i ran into your blog and i found it quite interesting! I happen to be writing my thesis specifically on henry james and the collector's mania of the 19th century. Do you have any suggestions on material i should be reading? Thank you so much!
    Meg

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  2. Hi Meg, it's great to hear from you. I would love to hear more about your thesis, which James texts are you researching? Perhaps you could get in touch via email and we could share some ideas about material etc? My email is m.e.addyman@warwick.ac.uk
    Looking forward to hearing from you again!
    Mary

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