Sally Feldman's pages from New Humanist, May/June 2011Tom Hanks does it with old typewriters, Demi Moore and Courtney Love enjoy vintage dolls, while Quentin Tarantino prefers board games, and both Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin go mad for Bakelite jewellery. What they all have in common is that most powerful and human of instincts: the urge to collect.

As someone whose closest connection with the hunter-gatherer impetus was the time I tracked down a bargain Chloe handbag at the Selfridges sale, I find it difficult to identify with this urge. It shouldn’t be that foreign to me. I’ve known my fair share of collectors. There’s Barbara, who can barely move in her tiny flat for the vast array of teddy bears dominating the soft furnishings; Roger, who collects saxophones, Hawaiian shirts, Art Deco ceramics and fake food; Guido, an Italian financier whose mansion is spilling over with vintage kitchen utensils and old radios. I once shared a flat with someone who eventually ended up sleeping in the kitchen because his room was piled to the ceiling with magazines, records and tapes of music programmes he’d carefully made, labelled, but never got round to hearing.

What I’ve learned, the hard way, is that the one thing you must never ask a collector is “why?” It’ll get you nowhere. They’ll just stare at you in baffled amazement before returning to contemplation of their most recent acquisition, or dreaming of the next one. These are people who thrive on making classifications, pondering the arrangements of their trophies and annotating them with informative labels. Often their obsession seems to derive from a need to impose order on a chaotic world, from the fear of death and oblivion. The collection will ward off mortality, carrying the illusion of eternity. Collections represent nostalgia for previous worlds, a desire to reclaim the past, to rescue and give meaning to objects otherwise lost in the flux. At the same time, though, collecting also encourages some of our most dangerous and base qualities: possessiveness, acquisitiveness, the lust for power.

But collecting can also be a noble, even a humanist calling. Collectors are often highly gifted experts with immense hoards of knowledge about their specialism – knowledge which has not only provided valuable information and insights, but has often driven the urge to understand the world and to challenge accepted assumptions about it. And collectors are, in their own way, heroic. They will go to enormous lengths, take tremendous risks, brave considerable adversity in pursuit of their acquisitions. Today’s collectors, mind you, have it easy. They can find their treasures on eBay; exchange arcane details on Facebook; share rare discoveries with fellow bloggers.

Earlier fanatics, however, would often face real danger and deprivation in their quests. In her new book, Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves, Jacqueline Yallop focuses on the lives of five Victorian collectors. Among them was Stephen Wootton Bushell, a doctor sent to China to treat the British community there, who became an expert in Chinese porcelain; the redoubtable Charlotte Schreiber, who braved war zones and revolutions in her quest for paintings, porcelain, playing cards and fans; and the silversmith Joseph Mayer, whose passions included finds from Anglo-Saxon burial sites, military arms, Burmese manuscripts, illuminated mediaeval books, paintings, pottery and coins. Mayer eventually created a museum to house his collection, which has survived today as the Liverpool Museum.

This was a time when travel to distant lands was becoming easier and more commonplace, and where political upheavals had thrown up new treasures and new opportunities. Charlotte Schreiber may have been shocked at the condition of Paris after the brutal suppression of the Commune, but she was delighted with the bargains she was able to pick up as a result. The passion for Egyptology was facilitated by Napoleon’s conquest, after which Egypt was considered more hospitable to travellers. And the huge expansion of colonialism meant increased opportunities to travel to distant lands and – in many cases – to plunder them. The Great Exhibition of 1851 whetted the public appetite for exotic and beautiful objects from all over the world. There had long been a fascination with India, but this was matched in the second half of the century by the increased interest in Chinese art and porcelain, as well as in everything Japanese.

For while collecting used to be the province of kings and sheiks, keen to demonstrate their wealth and power, or landed gentry with time and money to spare, it was now in the reach of the growing, and increasingly monied, bourgeoisie. Yallop’s chosen subjects came from very different backgrounds: Schreiber was from an aristocratic family, while Bushell and Mayer were from the professional middle class. All of them were intent on seeking out beautiful objects and rescuing them from obscurity. But all were also keenly aware of the monetary value of their finds, and became shrewd dealers, combining their arcane knowledge with a sure instinct for commerce.

And this mingling of private passion with market knowhow does distinguish these Victorian adventurers from what Baudrillard describes in his essay “The System of Collecting” as the true, the absolute collector. Like them, the real collector will engage in a quest, often a lifelong quest. But the monetary value of the desired objects is not the point. What really matters is the sense that, whatever form the collection takes, it must have the potential to be completed. Although, Baudrillard warns, this desire to finish could be illusory. The absent item in a collection, he suggests, is often the most crucial and indispensable, for “whereas the acquisition of the final item would in effect denote the death of the subject, the absence of this item still allows him the possibility of simulating his death by envisaging it in an object, thereby warding off its menace. . .”

This desire to complete a collection is familiar enough to the rock critic Simon Reynolds. His new book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, includes a chapter on record collecting, in which he acknowledges that collecting records does offer the possibility, however remote, that one day you might actually have an example of everything. The record industry is recent, the rock genre even more so. And some collectors will refine their search to a particular sub-section: a set period, for example, a genre, a single label.

And this desire to complete, rather than merely to accumulate, does help to explain the increasing interest in the collecting of ephemera. While the Victorians set out to gather whatever was beautiful and artful, by the 20th century even the most unlikely objects had become collectable, from dance cards to sweet wrappers, toy cars to bus tickets, train numbers to postage stamps. Spotting a lucrative commercial opportunity, some manufacturers over the last century have deliberately exploited the urge to collect – through cigarette cards, Green Shield stamps, football stickers, and now the staggeringly popular Pokemon cards for children. The late Eddie Stobart, owner of the country’s most popular haulage company, knew what he was doing when he gave a name to each lorry. It was a gift to collectors who could, just possibly, end up spotting all of them.

Most ephemera, though, is far from finite, which might explain why those who collect it are in most danger of being overtaken by their obsession. Robert Opie, for example, followed in the footsteps of his collector parents, Iona and Peter, specialists in children’s stories and folklore. But he chose a rather more cumbersome interest, and might well have drowned in his vast collection of over 500,000 examples of commercial packaging had he not sensibly set up a museum to house it. He has, for example, 10,000 yogurt cartons, and hundreds of chocolate and biscuit wrappers, cereal packets, Bovril jars, Oxo packets, milk cartons, slimming product wrappings, as well as games and toys. His philosophy is perilous: “There should be no limit, because otherwise one is limiting the collection,” he believes. “I could take you through an analysis which will say, ‘There’s nothing which I cannot find a reason for saving.’”

And that must also have been the philosophy of the most notorious and tragic collectors of all. The Collyer brothers, from a wealthy New York family, were reclusives who, in the early part of the 20th century, obsessively collected newspapers, books, furniture, musical instruments and many other items, with booby traps set up in corridors and doorways to protect against intruders. Both were eventually found dead in the Harlem brownstone where they had lived as hermits, surrounded by over 130 tons of waste that they had amassed over several decades. It included rope, baby carriages, rakes, umbrellas, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, collections of guns, x-ray machines, thousands of books about medicine and engineering, a horse’s jawbone, human organs pickled in jars, one UK and six US flags, 14 pianos, a clavichord, two organs and more and more newspapers.

It was the collection that finally killed the brothers. The dead body of Langley Collyer was found only ten feet from where Homer had died. Three huge bundles of newspapers covered his body. Langley had been crawling through their newspaper tunnel to bring food to his paralysed and blind brother when his own booby trap fell down and crushed him. Homer then died of starvation.Police inspect the home of the Collyer Brothers
Police and reporters inspect the Collyer brothers' collection of newspapers and ephemera that filled their New York mansion

You could view this as a parable for collectors. Never allow the collection to take over. And Baudrillard would agree. Once the system becomes more important than the objects within a collection, you are in trouble. That might apply to bird-watchers more interested in ticking a great auk off their list than in marvelling at its magical swoop; to train-spotters who care more about the numbers than the impressive design of the locomotives; or those who collect music they’ll never listen to, books they’ll never read.

Baudrillard compares this dislocation with the dehumanising of a loved one, when possession becomes paramount. “A given woman stops being a woman and becomes no more than a vagina, a couple of breasts, a belly, a pair of thighs, a voice, a face – according to preference. Henceforth she is reduced to a set whose separate signifying elements are one by one ticked off by desire, and whose true signified is no longer the beloved, but the subject himself. For it is the subject, the epitome of narcissistic self-engrossment, who collects and eroticises his own being, evading the amorous embrace to create a closed dialogue with himself.”

And his analogy does feed the common view that obsessive collectors tend to be male, and to have difficulty in connecting with others – especially women. “One invests in objects all that one finds impossible to invest in human relationships,” writes Baudrillard.

Simon Reynolds recognises the syndrome. “Obsessive collecting also recalls the mild autistic condition known as Asperger’s Syndrome, which combines difficulty with relating to other people with an obsessive need for things to stay the same and an immersion in arcane knowledge,” he observes. “When you look at the more extreme manifestations of music fandom online, there’s something Asperger-y about the hoarding of data: catalogue numbers, changing line-ups, details of recording sessions, the locations and dates of gigs (including in some cases the minutely varying set lists playing on each date of a tour).” Reynolds cites two of Nick Hornby’s novels – Fever Pitch, about football fanaticism, and High Fidelity, about a record collector – as critiques of “masculinity in retreat from the mess and risks of adulthood into a more orderly world of obsessive fandom”.

Reynolds regards this emotional retardation as rare, though. Most collectors are better balanced, he believes, though it’s true that most really ardent obsessives tend to be men. Plenty of women describe themselves as collectors. They just don’t go to the same extremes as men. Jacqueline Yallop relates these differences to Victorian attitudes to collecting. China collecting, for example, was approved as a suitable pastime for a woman, as it supported her role as home-maker, and a pretty display reflected well on the standing of the household. But anything more concerted would be discouraged as unladylike. It was even feared that to be exposed to too many beautiful objects might lead to instability or even sexual licentiousness. At the time of the Great Exhibition several Punch cartoons showed over-excited women jostling to view the precious jewellery and fabrics.

Male collectors, on the other hand, were often regarded with suspicion as nerdish and a bit effeminate, like the clearly repressed character Gilbert Osmond in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, or the wealthy aristocrat Sir Willoughby Patterne in George Meredith’s The Egoist, whose obsession also renders him incapable of genuine relationships.

Such characteristics would be recognised by Freud as a neurosis deriving from the inability to develop beyond the infantile “anal” stage, which may result in the adult becoming anally retentive – hoarding, collecting, fearing letting go. But it’s unlikely that Freud would have categorised himself in this way, despite the fact that he was a passionate collector, amassing nearly 2,000 objects from antiquity, mainly from Greece, Egypt and his particular first love, Rome. He confessed that his passion for collecting was second in intensity only to his addiction to cigars. And just as he famously remarked that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar,” he probably felt similarly about his collection.

In his essay on the collection John Forrester emphasises that Freud was not systematic in his acquisitions and was far more interested in the differences between the objects than in forming any unified theory about them. His approach to them was very similar to his approach to psychoanalysis: he would seek hidden meanings through details, much as he would explore the hidden recesses of the mind to unravel each human journey. Freud attempted to draw an analogy between the historical topography of Rome and different psychic events lodged within the mind, so that each stage of an individual’s development matched the evolution of civilisation. Indeed, Freud would use archaeology as a metaphor for psychoanalysis, explaining to one patient that conscious material “wears away” while what is unconscious is relatively unchanging: “I illustrated my remarks by pointing to the antique objects about my room. They were, in fact, I said, only objects found in a tomb, and their burial had been their preservation.”

And this approach underlines a crucial difference between earlier forms of thinking about the world and post-Enlightenment views. Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things, contrasts the two as being the difference between an assumption of a fixed and immutable universe which could be formulated into a matrix or table, and one which was subject to change, to development, to evolution. From the end of the 18th century, he argued, “the table, ceasing to be the ground of all possible orders, the matrix of all relations, the form in accordance with which all beings are distributed in their singular individuality, forms no more than a thin surface film for knowledge… The visible order, with its permanent grid of distinctions, is now only a superficial glitter above an abyss. The space of Western knowledge is now about to topple.”

Marx himself, claims Foucault, embodied this difference to perfection, by identifying a historical imperative. “Marxism exists in 19th-century thought like a fish in water: that is, it is unable to breathe anywhere else.” For, claims Foucault, “at the beginning of the nineteenth century a new arrangement of knowledge was constituted, which accommodated simultaneously the historicity of economics ... the finitude of human existence ... and the fulfillment of an end to History.”

And this “rearrangement” can be seen most clearly in changing attitudes to the business of collecting. For the 18th-century collectors, the purpose of amassing, classifying and ordering species, for example, would be to lay out on the table the evidence of God’s work. Each discovery would be a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, testifying to the wonders of creation. Jacqueline Yallop explains that for the first half of the 19th century artefacts would be sorted according to geography, and linked to ideas of voyage and adventure. There would be little sense of chronology or of historical development.

By the 1860s, though, these fixed ideas about how to present such objects began to be questioned, as the collections themselves began to serve a different purpose What prompted this change was the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, followed by Herbert Spencer’s work on evolution, Principles of Biology, in 1864, and the further experiments of Francis Galton on theories of biological inheritance. As traditional religious beliefs were being challenged, the presentation and classification of ethnographic collections became connected to controversies over race, religion and biology. The British Museum itself claimed its purpose to be to provide for “the scientific study of manners and customs of particular peoples and to show their development from savagery toward civilisation.”

Darwin’s ground-breaking discoveries not only informed Victorian attitudes to collecting but were themselves shaped by his own collection. The theory of evolution sprang directly from his meticulous study of the details of the hundreds of species he collected. Rather than merely classifying and listing them as one synthesised whole, he detected differences, irregularities which suggested curious interlinkings and crossovers, in much the same way that Freud found historical development in the details of the minds he probed, or Marx did in his revolutionary examination of societies.

So don’t be coy about the stamp albums in your attic, the tin toys in your cabinet, the groaning shelves of 78s in the basement or the house so full of books that there’s no room for you any more. Rejoice, instead, at the glorious humanism of your obsession. Without it, civilisation would still be in the dark ages, gathering dust.

Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World by Jaqueline Yallop is published by Atlantic. Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past by Simon Reynolds is published by Faber.