For a few years in the nineties I collected presidential buttons. I have over 200 of them going back to Lincoln. I can tell you that William McKinley buttons are fairly plentiful as are FDR’s. I remember filling a beanie hat with Roosevelt’s when I was seven years old. Sadly, George McGovern must have put all his resources into buttons demonstrating some inverse proportion between their number and success. I can also report that recent buttons are ten times larger than early ones. If it’s any measure of ego I expect Trump’s buttons to be the size of billboards.
While I was busy with the above Peggy was searching for old mechanical pencils. She has a couple of dozen from the 19th century. Low tech but retractable; some were worn on vests. They were both ornamental and always for use at the ready. A small universe of pencil collectors and political button folk exists unbeknownst to normal people. Collectors also collect collectors, kinship souls. There are far crazier ways to find an alternative reality.
We met those who collect early orange juice squeezers, even salt shakers. I had a small number of whirligigs, now gone with the wind. Peggy and I still take pride in our Polish movie posters and signed first editions. Then there are her perfume bottles and old business cards.
Even more fun than having was the hunt. I recall how we would drive into a small town and brake for used book stores. There was a small aha in plucking a nugget from a stack of dusty books, some even inscribed. Damn the Internet. It has taken away both the discovery of the gem and the bookstores themselves.
One person’s prize lead pencils or button stash is another’s idea of clutter. Where we see objet d’art others may see tchotchkes. Our collections run from ephemera to folk art to fine art. Here I am gazing into our small array of netsukes; some of these ivory carvings are museum quality. Likewise our several Japanese woodcuts. Staying with something long enough can be a transcendent experience, finding realms within, the everything contained in anything.
We all need someplace to hide from the madding. Don’t we? Of course listening to Bach or Sinatra can serve that need. But there is a certain satisfaction focusing on the concrete object. Das Ding, as Heidiger put it. Ultimately ephemeral but not just yet.
Maybe it all started with bubblegum cards of ballplayers under crossed rubber bands in my back pocket. Where they went I’ll never know. Collecting becomes as much an experience of letting go as it is of gathering in. I should mention that we haven’t bought anything in the past twelve years or more having run out of walls and shelves.
Unless it’s a fox hunt with hounds one develops some sort of momentary comradery with others so afflicted. We used to go to Paper Shows where dealers and collectors would buy or swap; sellers were usually former collectors looking to divest. For sale was old paper, that is, Civil War letters or early currency and such. The scene becomes its own society of slightly obsessive people on the prowl.
What does this mean psychologically? We go from a vague sense of being hunted to becoming hunter. Maybe it speaks to an anchoring need and a certain honoring of what has come before; a way of ordering the randomness and creating an illusion of permanence not unlike any tradition or ritual. Maybe we’re clutching on to the material world unable to face mortality. Maybe not. It could be we have the sort of aesthetic that zeroes in on minutia.
Freud proclaimed collectors as being stuck in their potty-training phase. What did he know? I have no memory of collecting poop. Siggy himself was an avid collector of antiquities which he displayed on his desk. A peek into his psyche? Why not? Everything we say or do … or withhold is a window into our unconscious, a mystery not to be solved.