Collections and Hobbies

In almost all cultures and societies, children have collected a broad spectrum of items. Although the activity seems to be universal, very little has been written on this subject. And even though collecting has played an important part in many individuals' lives, it is seldom described in memoirs or AUTOBIOGRAPHIES. This may be because many collections are suddenly abandoned when the collector grows up. Many of these collections are split up and disappear unless parents understand the fascinating world of the small collector and pay special attention to saving them. Some collections, however, continue into adult life, becoming lifelong passionate occupations; this is especially likely with collections that have some kind of economic value or present the adult with challenges or opportunities for further study.

The pleasure of founding and creating collections may lead children, as they grow, to collect a new category of items that are more acceptable to their age. The spirit of the collector once established never leaves the individual but is turned in new directions. Grand collections may end up in professional institutions, such as museums, which seems to be the dream of collectors, who do not want their passionate investments to disappear with them. But most collections are scattered by the years and do not survive their owners.

The Functions of Collections

Collecting serves a wide range of purposes and functions. Collecting trains the eye, creates a sense of order, and develops aesthetic appreciation. But collectors can primarily be characterized by their joyful dedication to their project. The world of collectors may be lonely, but can also be social when collectors share their pleasure with each other. The collector often participates in a community, whose connections may range from informal gatherings to organized networks. These give collectors the pride of showing and the pleasure of seeing others' collections, as well as an opportunity to exchange experience, advice, and actual items. Many collectors know that individuals outside the collectors' world consider them members of a special subculture that pays too much attention to an eccentric and limited sphere of interest.

Children's collections tend to be looked at with more tolerance, however strange or fantastical they may seem to the adult world. They form a space where childhood fantasy and imagination can be indulged. Contemporary tendencies reveal a change in the differences between the collections of children and adults. Many children start collections of valuable items that are marketed directly to them by the mass media and commercial powers. At the same time, adults show an increasing interest in collecting items that once belonged only to childhood or that possess a significance that may be regarded as infantile. Male and female toy collectors all over the Western world collect valuable antique matchbox CARS, TIN SOLDIERSDOLLS, and dollhouses, as well as more recent miscellaneous objects that were once strictly children's TOYS. They seem to represent a dream of never-ending childhood, which never requires giving up the fascination with toys but supplies it with the new, playful ambition of the economically independent adult collector.

Sheer entertainment may be the purpose of one of the contemporary world's greatest collectors, Michael Jackson. His collections consist of amusement park attractions, a ZOO, and numerous kinds of toys, although he has a special devotion to toy animals. To some people he may represent the disappearance of well-defined borders between the ages in postmodern life: the boy who never grew up and the grownup who never adapted to his new role and responsibility. Jackson may exemplify the collector's true identity, which confuses work with play, leisure with learning, childhood with adulthood, and creating new openings for possible and impossible identities.

Subsistence Economies

In subsistence economies, nature is a never-ending source of objects for infant collectors. Stones, shells, bones, twigs, leaves, flowers, feathers, teeth, and hair have been collected and appreciated by adults and children in most tribal cultures, although anthropologists have seldom described this activity within the specific context of childhood studies. They tend to study it in the context of the magical, religious, or festive. The basic instinct to behave like the parental group or other care givers may have been the origin of these childhood collections, whose durability and existence depended on the mobility and social stratification of the population.

Gender and division of labor may have been decisive factors shaping and structuring children's collections. Depending on the integration of children's work in subsistence economies, time for play and leisure varied. Hunter, nomad, and pre-agricultural societies generally offered less domestic space and thus less place for objects and collections that were not mobile.

Peasant Societies

Children in peasant societies worked, but they lived a much more settled, domestic life than did children in subsistence economies. This allowed for the possibility of more consistent collecting. Even though toys were seldom bought, they could be made, and depending on how much time was available for play, collections could be started. Sticks could be made into bows or used as throwing instruments. They could be carved in patterns or exchanged for other objects. In American immigrant milieus, it was easy to turn corn husks into dolls, and many girls had lots of them. No clear line exists between the possession of homemade toys and collecting.

In peasant cultures, children often reused objects from the adult world. It was common to collect pieces of glass or colored pieces of broken pottery. Yarn from worn-out knitwear could be sewn into balls in many patterns. The loose winter hair from cattle could be shaped and rolled with spit to make balls that bounced well. Braiding straw and flowers was often popular among girls. Paper could be folded or cut into more or less spontaneous patterns. Paper pierced with needles could provide children a great deal of joy. Children often collected beach stones with holes so they could put a string through the holes and pull them like cows. Exchanging such objects or using them for a lottery was common. Turnips, beets, and pumpkins could be hollowed and turned into lanterns, as is still done for HALLOWEEN. Clay could be shaped into small figurines or made into beads and then into bracelets or necklaces. Leaves, straw, shells, and many other objects could be fixed on the surface of any kind of box to create a home for one's treasures. Collecting in peasant cultures was generally a moneyless, outdoor activity, which appealed to both fantasy and social play. In the 1800s and 1900s, these collections were far more ephemeral than collections in the bourgeois culture and industrial society that developed alongside peasant culture.

Industrial Society

The bourgeois culture that began to develop at the end of the 1700s stressed consumption and domestic life. Even family life changed radically. Bourgeois children were given more physical space; training and education became more focused; and new intellectual borders between ages were established. More and more, the ideal domestic life excluded production and favored intimacy, reproductive activities, and leisure. Children began to have their own rooms in the home and were looked after by a differentiated staff, made up mostly of female servants. Education and schools played a still more important part in the child's life. Care and control developed side by side. Children's collections changed and were directed toward new aims.

The economic subordination of women and children in the reproductive and consumer spheres created new conditions for the small collector. Items became far more prearranged, dependent on money and the booming practice of giving gifts. During the 1800s, Christmas changed, becoming less of a social, religious feast and embracing the private, emotional, cocooning elements typical of the modern celebration. Parental love was increasingly connected with giving children gifts at Christmas and BIRTHDAYS and in other specific situations. The new collections often started and developed via such gifts. Children began making lists of items they wanted, which could be bought in shops and markets. However, homemade gifts were still usual and were often regarded as more personal. In the 1800s, Germany took a leading position in the production of toys. But the German paper industry developed innovations for children, including printed games, paper dolls, cards, sheets, and colored paper scraps.

Fascinating collections, however, could still be started without special expense. The birth of a consumer society meant large-scale production of luxury paper for packaging. Products were marketed in attractive paper wrappings, which children often saved. Food, sweets, cosmetics, tobacco, and many other goods were presented in new ways to the customers and their children. Mail-service companies started the printing of stamps, which initiated many young philatelists. Railway tickets and other items from the expanding world of transport and communication represented new collectors' items, enlarging the world of childhood.

Twentieth-Century Collections

The growth and democratization of consumption may be the outstanding feature of the recent period, and it changed children's collections decisively. After World War I, it became common to celebrate children's birthdays. Invitation cards became a new collector's item in the 1920s, functioning as social souvenirs. Girls started collections of exquisitely printed paper napkins, often brought home from birthday parties. Marketers introduced a new strategy, adding collector's items for children to products for adults. Cigarettes, soap, coffee substitute, chewing gum, and many other products contained collectibles for children. The expanding film industry, sports, and mass media sent children hunting for autographs, photos, or other memorabilia from the stars. Beautiful packaging was still popular, including matchboxes, tin boxes, fancy bottles, and shopping bags from fashion shops. Before World War II the Walt DISNEY Company launched a strategy of integrated consumption of trademarked goods, which appealed to young consumers and collectors. Film, magazines, cards, posters, soap figurines, bubble gum, printed napkins, and toys built up a total universe of desirable objects and experiences. This strategy was so successful that it turned into the contemporary business of merchandising, which puts trademarked characters on wallpaper, videos, computer games, towels, schoolbags, pencils, erasers, and clothes, and in fast food. Even though such collecting may worry some adults because of its prearranged character and the way it commercializes childhood, it mirrors the conditions of modern culture that also affect the adult world.


Merrick, J., ed. 1988. Merete Staack: Bo § rns samlinger. Fra vaettelys til coca-cola-kultur. Copenhagen, Denmark: Barndom.