Antiques & The Arts

The Invention of Collecting

Vsauce! Kevin here. At the Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York
City. Visited by a record 6.3 million people last year to look at a rotating collection
of over 1.5 million pieces ranging from Mesopotamian cylinder seals to King Henry VIII’s personal
armor. 20% of the total collection, 306,353 items were collected by one person, Jefferson
Burdick. But why would he do that? Why do people collect things? Autographs, Barf bags, Cards, Dolls, Erasers,
Fabergé Eggs, Gum, Hair, Ink, Jokers, Knives, Lunch boxes, Miniature Chairs, Nails, Oil,
Perfume bottles, Quilts, Rocks, Soap, Toothbrushes, Umbrella covers, Video Games, Wine labels,
X-men, Yo-Yos, Zippos. What is a collection? Is it just acquiring
stuff, or is it a carefully selected, curated assembly around a particular theme? Is your
memory a collection of thoughts? Is living just collecting memories? Are your thoughts
a collection of you? Well, maybe. But Psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger defined a collection
as, “the selecting, gathering, and keeping of objects of subjective value.” For Jefferson R. Burdick, it was cards. Born
in 1900, Burdick grew up with the dawn of photography and mass-printed illustrations,
with halftone printing technology allowing for the reproduction of complex images. Picture
cards were inserted into consumer products, like pouches of tobacco, to bolster brand
awareness. A generation before television beamed moving pictures into the living room,
Burdick and his friends were captivated by the brilliantly colored chromolithographs
printed on thin cardboard stock . Saying, “Practically every small boy saved these
kinds of cards. We made our dads use certain brands whether they liked them or not.” The most popular icons to grace product insert
cards came from baseball, a game that took the United States by storm in the wake of
the Civil War. By the 1900’s, America’s cities fielded teams to play a game that helped
unify a divided country. From Boston to St. Louis, regional competition was channeled
through sports, and advertisers leveraged the popularity of the game and its stars to
promote their products. In 1889, kids in Boston fought over the Old Judge Cigarettes picture
card of the Boston Beaneaters’ Mike “King” Kelly, and in 1909 boys in Pittsburgh watched
their fathers open pouches from the American Tobacco Company to see if their favorite Pirate
— Honus Wagner — would emerge. Wagner, who reportedly didn’t want his picture associated
with marketing cigarettes to children, pulled his card from production. With fewer than
60 known to exist, one of them sold at auction in 2013 for $2.1 million. But during Burdick’s lifetime, all of these
cards were basically worthless, and a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth that could sell for $250,000
today was not significantly more valuable than an 1891 Allen & Ginter Golden-Pencilled
Hamburgh chicken. In 1961, two years before his death, Burdick valued that Holy Grail
T-206 Wagner card at just fifty bucks. But wasn’t about the money, it was about
the collection. He spent a lifetime amassing not only 30,000 baseball cards, but hundreds
of thousands of postcards, tobacco and baker cards ranging from champion women swimmers
to perilous occupations and depictions of jokes. In the developing era of cheap mass-production,
Burdick collected and cataloged virtually every type of card printed — centuries before,
the Marind people of South New Guinea were collecting human heads. They believed skulls, along with other objects,
contained a sacred life-force known as mana. Invisible power capable of soothing insecurity,
anxiety and feelings of vulnerability. Mana is the magic that human belief imbues
in objects, whether it’s a religious relic embodying the power of a deity, a dreamcatcher
to filter nightmares, or picture cards that could teleport Jefferson Burdick back to his
youth. Humans add meaning to objects and search for solace, safety and security in them — which
might just come with the territory of being born. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology,
believed that collecting stems from a collective unconscious “nut and berries” behavior
inherited from our hunter/gatherer ancestors. Father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud believed
that collecting originates in an infant’s trauma associated with bowel control, holding
onto one’s poop then becomes holding onto one’s objects. Werner Muensterberger, the
author of “Collecting, an Unruly Passion,” believed collecting to be a relief from the
shock and uncertainty felt when an infant realizes they’re a separate entity from
their mother. They’re alone, and an object helps fill that void. Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott describes a
comfort object as something that substitutes the mother-child bond. Often a physical object
like a teddy bear or security blanket, it’s the first possession of the child that’s
understood to be not the mother and not me. Like thumb sucking replacing the comfort of
breast-feeding, the teddy bear becomes a source of emotional security. Collecting is when this protection becomes
a passion. But being a collector requires access to and the availability of objects.
Historically, only the elite had access – Bishops like Abbot Suger collected religious relics
such as splinters allegedly taken from the Holy Cross; alchemists during the reign of
Rudolf II gathered artifacts from around the world, with the hopes that somewhere within
the collection lie the Philosopher’s Stone, believed to be capable of teaching humanity
the alphabet of creation; and Tsar Peter the Great turned an inherited cabinet of curiosities,
furniture designed to store magical objects like bezoars and unicorn horns, which were
actually narwhal tusks, into a collection spanning thirty rooms that was eventually
opened to the public in 1714. The availability of items to collect blossomed
during colonization and the expansion of trade. A generation before Burdick, Sir Thomas Phillipps
set out to collect one copy of every book in the world, but it wasn’t until mass production
that a set could reasonably be completed. You couldn’t exactly collect a complete
set of Greek sculptures. Burdick lived in the first era in which an average person could
build an extensive collection of goods — and then he lost control of his hands. By age 33, chronic arthritis — likely exacerbated
from his job assembling electrical parts — reduced Burdick’s mobility. Living alone in Syracuse,
New York, he renewed his childhood interest in cards and made it his mission to collect
every single one before he died. And he did it the hard way. Burdick’s collection
was built by trading with collectors he met through magazines and by going to libraries,
small store exhibits and auction sales. Unfortunately for him, eBay, which today has over 800 million
items listed and boasts $82 billion dollars worth of items sold in 2015, was sixty years
away. With Burdick, as with any true collector,
there was no saturation point. Just as eating food provides temporary hunger fulfillment,
so does obtaining a new object. Collector Paul Wallraf said he would “manger avec
ses yeux” – “eat with his eyes” — A sentiment Burdick shared when he said, “Card
collecting is primarily an inherited love of pictures.” The hunt to obtain a new object sparks a collector’s
seeking system, defined by neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp as a basic impulse in animals,
including humans, “to search, investigate, and make sense of the environment.” It’s
the same biological need that drives a dog to investigate a noise, or the curiosity that
influenced you to watch this video. For a collector, the satisfaction from attaining
a new piece quickly subsides… and the hunt resumes. Collecting as a form of preserving the past
confirms our belief that there must be an infinite truth. Life existed before me and
it will exist after me, and “Here’s the proof.” Collecting as a form of inspiration
influenced artists like Rembrandt, who made paintings of his antique sculptures of Homer,
Aristotle and Socrates. Or writer Umberto Eco, who when asked if he had time to read
his huge collection of literature and poetry said, “It is not indispensable to read a
book – it’s enough to touch it and by a mysterious fluid, you absorb it.” Whether it’s Eco’s mysterious fluid or
a tribal belief that objects carry mana, it’s the reason an X-ray of Elvis Presley can sell
for $3,500 and an X-ray of your cousin Larry was probably thrown away. And collecting as a form of establishing one’s
identity is a celebration of individuality because no two collections are the same. Your
button, coin or card collection creates a conceptual circle of magic that wards off
uncertainty and chaos, helps define you, and proves not only that you exist, but that you
are unique. A collection is a secure micro world of order entirely controlled by you
in a macro world of chaos… but that becomes a problem when the toy trains control the
conductor. In 2013, Hoarding Disorder was split off into
its own entry under Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders in the DSM-V. It’s defined
as persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions regardless of the value others
may attribute to them. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that two to five percent
of the population suffer from Hoarding Disorder, which creates fire hazards and health hazards
for themselves and family members. Some people are incapable of letting their objects go. But as Burdick’s health deteriorated, letting
go of his collection became a personal crusade. When Sir Hans Sloane donated his massive collection
of coins, books and dried plants to The Royalty Society in 1759, The British Museum was born.
Jefferson Burdick was determined to leave his legacy here at The Met – and curator A.
Hyatt Mayor accepted the offer under the condition that Burdick organize it all. He spent the
next 16 years cataloguing all 300,000 cards, and eventually moved to New York City to work
on the project full-time at a small oak desk here in the Print Department of The Met. Along
the way, he developed The American Card Catalog, a classification system for organizing old
cards that’s still used today. Burdick was determined to immortalize his
collection in the face of his progressing illness. It became a race against time; he
took cortisone shots that made him sick just to briefly dull pain so bad that it took a
full minute of agony just to put on his hat. He’d often tell Mayor, “I might not make
it.” But he did. When the final card was glued down into history,
he stood up, painfully twisted into his coat, and said, “I shan’t be back.” The very
next day, Jefferson Burdick checked into University Hospital and never checked out. He died two
months later. According to Mayor, the cause of his death was an exhausted heart. But he didn’t die from collecting. He lived
from it. And in his collection lived the dream that a nobody like Jefferson Burdick, a nobody
like me, a nobody like you, each in our own unique way has a chance to leave a lasting,
positive mark on this world. And as always – thanks for watching.

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