Why Do People Collect Things? 9 Common Reasons

Updated June 23, 2022
woman at flea market adding to collection of blue dishes

Why do people collect things? Every collection of objects has a unique story, and each individual collector has a distinctly personal reason for what brought them to their hobby. Although not all of these reasons are conscious, it's undeniable that humans like to gather stuff into piles, and they often enjoy putting those piles on display. Find out which breed of collector you are and which ones are your top reasons for catching the collecting bug.

Nine Common Reasons Why People Collect Things

Typically, individuals collect things for more than one reason, finding their love of bringing stuff home mixed up in an indiscernible jumble of thoughts and feelings that--when asked to vocalize--almost always turns into the phrase "I don't know, I just liked it." While that may be true, underneath that sentiment are some serious motivations and psychological reasons for why people collect the things that they do. Discover nine of the common reasons why people collect things.

1. Sentimental Attachments

old vintage family photos

Almost everyone has a small collection of personal memorabilia that has familial and emotional meaning. These sentimental collections of old family photos, greeting cards from friends, family, or lovers, flower petals from meaningful bouquets, strips of ribbon from gift wrappings, seashells, and other small reminders can bring back happy memories of lost people and past times. Although these fragments aren't usually purchased, that doesn't mean they aren't purposefully and carefully curated.

2. To Connect to Their Childhood

collection of vintage toys

Others have collections of stuff from their youth, such as sports cards, comic books, dolls, teddy bears, matchbox cars, and other things that they loved as a kid. In the same way that family photos can help you relive your favorite moments with your loved ones, childhood mementos offer up the chance to connect to that special time in your life.

3. To Gain More Knowledge and Learn About Something New

A fundamental aspect of professional collecting (such as the practices in archival work) is learning from the objects in a collection. Each independent item can tell a story about the person who collected it, the period it was purchased in, what it meant to the original owner by how well it was taken care of, and so much more. You don't have to be a collegiate educated collector to be able to pursue knowledge through the items you find.

Every observation is a useful one, and even the most minute detail that an object can unlock for a collector is worthwhile. Take, for instance, this seemingly innocuous South Carolina airport register from the turn of the century. An item that many people might gloss over actually reveals a wealth of information about the number of female pilots circling the skies at a time of male dominated air travel. And, a slightly water damaged cherry on top is a famous signature of a female pilot you might have heard of - Amelia Earhart.

4. To Connect With the Past

girl looking at museum display

Often, collectors are fascinated with history as most collectible objects come from the near or distant past. People with a passion can collect all kinds of historical memorabilia such as historical documents and ephemera and autographed letters, all of which connect them to past events, heroes and heroines, villains, and ordinary people of the past.

In fact, it's this drive to connect with and understand the people of the past that inspires many to pursue collecting in a professional capacity. From running an antiques store to learning how to become an appraiser, the chance to expand your knowledge increases with every new object you come into contact with.

5. Pleasure and Enjoyment

Some collect for pure enjoyment and because the act of collecting is fun. They might collect art because they appreciate beauty. Others may collect wine, music boxes, DVDs, music albums, or other music memorabilia such as posters, photographs, and concert tickets because they're musically minded. Funko Pop collecting is fun for people passionate about pop culture. Finding these things can give a collector real personal pleasure and enjoyment, and there's actually a scientific explanation for why this might be. Explored in a series of experiments with young children, the Oddball paradigm describes a phenomenon where people's brains respond to unusual or unique stimuli. Essentially, things that happen out of the expected or out of the norm fall into this pattern, and finding fun and unusual collectibles can trigger this chemical response. Therein, collecting can actually be considered in some way a biological imperative.

6. To Make a Future Investment

Andy Warhol portrait of Marilyn Monroe titled Lemon Marilyn

Many individuals think of collecting as an investment, and they purposefully collect rare and vintage items like antiques, stamps, coins, toys, rare Funko Pops, and even rare whiskies with the hopes that all of their stuff will accumulate value overtime. While this isn't the case for most collectibles, pieces of fine art with autographed signatures, and one-of-a-kind items can all appreciate in value over time. For example, Andy Warhol's famous 1962 Pop Art painting "Four Marilyns" was sold in 1992 for $955,433 (adjusted to $1.6 million in 2015 inflation) and then in 2015 for $36 million.

7. The Community It Creates

thrifting for vintage items

Regardless of why they started collecting, many people continue collecting because they enjoy the social interaction of flea markets, swap meets, and auctions. Additionally, the internet age has allowed collecting communities and societies to expand beyond their regional limitations and reach fellow collectors across continents and oceans.

After all, everyone just wants to feel like they belong, and collecting can open a gateway for certain people to find the right community to make them feel like they belong. According to Roy Baumeister, a psychologist, "meaningfulness comes from contributing to other people, whereas happiness comes from what they contribute to you." Thus, collecting touches something beyond the act itself and can bring real social benefits to the people involved.

8. Recognition and Prestige

There are also collectors who want recognition and prestige for putting together the best and most valuable collection of a particular thing. Many of these collections are ultimately donated to museums or learning institutions and prominently give thanks to the collector - a practice that's been going for hundreds of years.

For example, Sir John Soane was an English architect and collector of classical antiquities who's better known for his massive collection than he is for the impressive architectural works his firm created. In fact, he left his home-turned-museum to the British people, where it's still open today.

9. The Thrill of the Hunt

woman discovering antique vintage lamp at flea market

Although most collectors began their collections for another reason, many people soon find that the joy and excitement of finding a new treasure for their collection becomes their primary reason for collecting. Just look at the highly successful History Channel's television series American Pickers, which follows a group of antique dealers on their journey to discovering hidden treasures around the American heartland, and you can see just how captivating the treasure hunt can be.

Can Collecting Be a Mental Disorder?

You needn't worry, collecting is a healthy and ordinary human activity. Not only is it not helpful to interpret collecting through the filter of a mental disorder, as a collection is most often just a collection, but it's also dangerous to reduce mental health conditions to a singular characteristic as well as to do any self-diagnosing. However, it's true that some people may go overboard in collecting and blur the line between collecting and hoarding. Hoarding is often described an obsessive-compulsive behavior, and most collectors don't struggle with the same obsessive and compulsive habits that contribute to hoarding that hoarders do. In short, collectors pick and choose what they collect and have control over their behavior; hoarders do not.

What Do You Call People Who Collect Things?

Often, a person who collects something is normally referred to as "a coin collector," "a doll collector," and so forth. However, there are a few names that are used to describe specific types of collectors:

  • Philatelist - People who collect stamps.
  • Numismatist - People who collect coins and banknotes.
  • Lepidopterist - People who collect butterflies and moths.
  • Coleopterist - People who collect beetles.
  • Dipterist - People who collect flies.
  • Oologist - People who collect bird eggs.
  • Deltiologist - People who collect valuable old postcards.
  • Notaphilist - People who collect banknotes.
  • Tegestologist - People who collect beermats (coasters).
  • Phillumenist - People who collect matchboxes or matchbooks.
  • Scripophilist - People who collect bonds and share certificates.
  • Vexillologist - People who collect flags.
  • Brandophilist - People who collect cigar wrappers.
  • Discophile - People who collect vinyl or phonograph records.

Collect the Things You Love

Collectors invest a great energy, time, and sometimes money into their collections. But in return for their investment, most people derive genuine pleasure and joy from amassing things that interest them and displaying their collections for everyone to see. So, no matter why you collect the things that you do, continue to do so with the special kind of zeal that only collectors can seem to harness.

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Why Do People Collect Things? 9 Common Reasons