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The American Affection for Collection


For the longest time, humans have collected things, just for fun. Butterflies. Buttons. Thimbles. And coats of arms. It's not just an American thing, of course, but we go a little nuts with it.

We know someone who searches out beer bottles. Not cans, which are more commonly collected and stacked against a wall. Bottles. He says their shapes and colorful labels are more interesting than a bunch of ordinary cans. This all started when he tossed a single empty beer bottle into a suitcase as a cheap souvenir on a trip to Hawaii. Now he has 1,552 distinct empty bottles of different beers, brewed in America and arranged by state.

Other people have a thing for umbrellas or matchbooks or metal toy cars.

Surely the first prize for fanatical collecting goes to a fellow in New York City who calls himself Inspector Collector. On an Internet website by that name, he shows photos and tells little stories about the many, many things he hangs onto.

Menus from Chinese restaurants, for instance. "It's free and easy," he writes, "and it can teach you foreign languages." He also hoards pencils and scissors and bottle caps. Coins, too. But not just any coins: banged up, bent and mutilated ones. "Lots of ugly things together can be beautiful," Inspector Collector explains.

Here are some his other collections: spoons, paper clips, maps, toothpicks, drinking straws, shopping bags, postcards, hockey sticks, transit tokens, marbles, dice, security badges, airline tags, citrus peelers, stuff having to do with pickles, memorabilia of the eccentric comedian Pee Wee Herman, and even miniature cast-iron frying pans. That's right: miniature frying pans.

Inspector Collector may be an extreme case. But if somebody makes it, somebody else is collecting it.

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