The curious act of collecting

“When we are collecting books, we are collecting happiness.”― Vincent Starrett

Losing interest in proceedings my mind wandered and was ignited by the idea of collecting. Curiously, this had no remote link to the lecture I was in.

Intrigued, I began following thought webs as they spun in seemingly random patterns. My mind’s eye posed snapshots; images of rooms full of collectables,  articles I’d read and interviews I’d seen with crafty and committed collectors.

I wondered, with the astounding diversity of collections, what compels us to collect things― stamps, coins, teapots, snow globes, dolls, Elvis memorabilia, matchboxes?  Is curiosity, interest or habit the driver? When did it all begin?

For a short time as a child I collected stamps. I was introduced to it by my father. While it wasn’t something I chose on my own my interest was definitely piqued by his old album of small pieces of paper from all over the world. I remember receiving bags of mixed, used stamps every few months, some still attached to envelopes, from a club I joined. I would spend hours gently  removing the torn envelopes, arrange the stamps by country, date, cost. In retrospect, it was a relaxing pursuit. I could do with some of the calm it bought me, now.

Some stamps were beautifully decorative, others simple and plain. The shapes too were a source of interest, for among the small and large squares and rectangles of all sizes were triangular stamps. There was a fascination too in wondering who had purchased that stamp, who had received a missive with the stamp glued to the  envelope. Of particular interest too was looking for the first edition stamps and envelopes printed in Australia. My father would take me to the post office to purchase these beautiful mint condition treasures. It was nice to share an interest together. Why it lapsed I don’t know. Age, school, lack of real drive and passion. Perhaps a combination.

I haven’t collected anything since, though I do love teapots and sweet antique tea cups and I have several of each but I wouldn’t class it as a collection, merely an interesting display in a cabinet. I do have a habit of picking up shells on the beach and random seed pods and dead leaves that interest me. I have a few glass vases and pottery bowls filled with these treasures.  Maybe they are collections after all? I wonder?

I have seen incredible collections compiled by people who have dedicated their lives to sourcing different versions of a single item. I love the look of a collection. I admire the dedication and the single-minded focus. I’m lazy. I don’t have the dedication to follow through as some do.

Collecting has a history. The Egyptians collected books at the Library of Alexandria. The Medici family, had the first private art collection. Of course our museums and art galleries are collection houses.

A Preston and Child crime novel introduced me to the idea of a “cabinet of curiosities” which was common among scholars, with the means and opportunity to acquire unusual items, from the 16th century onwards. Some of these collections were quite hideous indeed.

In time, with advances and improvements in the general standard of living and the emergence of leisure, more and more people had the means and opportunity to begin collections. But the question remains — why do we collect?

It’s at the core of the human psyche and there are several reasons collecting is a hobby pursued by many. As you might suspect, collecting often goes hand-in-hand with an interest in the objects collected and what they represent. For my friend, blue and white porcelain antiques reflect an interest in an age where delicate, beautiful objects of quality were produced.  There is an enchantment that emanates from a room of blue and white antiques.

Collecting is relaxing.  Tending to a collection is meditative. It can take the collector away from the stresses of life and provide a meaningful and satisfying pastime. I’ve visited a few model train expos and it is evident too that the social connections forged through a shared interest can be strong.

Then we go to the other end of the spectrum where compulsion is the motivator.  I’ve often thought of myself as obsessive and so have tried mightily to avoid or give up habits that see my compulsions escalate. I know for sure if I’d not found Pinterest my love of  tea cups and teapots would drive me, and my husband, to distraction and financial ruin. Pinterest allows me to collect without financial outlay, without having to worry about space, or breakages or dust.

A little tidbit that captured my attention is the link to our past. As hunters and gatherers we were primed to collect food and supplies for survival. Interestingly too, collecting is linked to memory and the making of meaning. The human brain, adept at cataloging and organising information,  associates meaning with objects.

My reverie into collecting was refreshed when, delighted, I came across the tribute (below) to collectors everywhere at the Swell Sculpture Festival. Do you have a collection? I would be interested to know what drives your passion.

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Puzzling over puzzles

It’s always the small pieces that make the big picture.

There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.  

Deepak Chopra

I love puzzles.  Crosswords, logic puzzles, find a words and Sudoku. At the moment I am in the midst of an intense affair with jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaws have long been a favourite holiday pastime. When we’ve gone away to the beach, the mountains or even stayed at home over the Christmas New Year period there has always been a large puzzle set up on a table for all to enjoy.

A few months ago I found a box of ten puzzles in a secondhand store. They were different sizes; 250, 300, 500, 750 and 1000 pieces. I took to completing the smaller puzzles over a weekend, often completing one in a few hours. The impulse became so strong I set up the 1000 piece puzzle and worked on it in the spare moments over a fortnight. The bug had bitten. I dug out previously purchased and untried puzzles. Once completed, I scoured the secondhand stores for more. My craving became so strong I realized I couldn’t budget for the demand so I began swapping puzzles with other avid solvers and it got me thinking about where jigsaw puzzles began.

I imagine John Spilsbury, a mapmaker in the mid 1700’s, was so enamored with the wonder the world offered and so insightful, to realise young children needed to develop the capacity to place themselves in the world, that he created a very clever educational tool. He pasted a map of the word onto thin wood and cut it into pieces to teach children about geography. Voila, the first jigsaw puzzle.

Very soon these early ‘dissected maps’ evolved as other entrepreneurs realized the scope of jigsaw puzzles and added historical scenes to be reassembled for educational purposes. Wooden puzzles are still a popular toy gifted to young children today to teach about shape, improve dexterity and aid in building vocabulary. My son had several as an infant and he too is a keen puzzler.

The humble jigsaw puzzle has evolved from an educational tool for children into a source of enjoyment for both adults and children. The early puzzles for adults were truly tricky though. There were no interlocking pieces as today, simply pieces cut along colour lines with no picture on the box to guide construction.

A decade ago there was a huge craze for Murder Mystery dinner parties. Well, I was delighted to discover this set-up began in the 1900’s with weekend puzzle parties held by wealthy puzzlers at their country homes.

During the Great Depression puzzles for adults were a great source of distraction and accomplishment with sales reaching an astounding 10 million a week in 1933. Clever unemployed craftsmen cut jigsaws at home and sold or rented them in local neighborhoods.

Soon after the cheaper, less expensive cardboard puzzles began to be mass-produced making puzzles more widely available. But the fun didn’t stop there. A quirky concept, I would love to participate in, saw the emergence of a weekly jigsaw puzzle. The 25-cent puzzle of the week was sold on news stands and, naturally, people rushed to buy them.

Manufacturing techniques were perfected in the 1950’s and standard puzzles haven’t changed much since except perhaps in picture quality. A jigsaw puzzle of a 1000 or more pieces with an engaging scene is my preference. Though I have recently completed a beautiful 3D puzzle of Neuschwanstein Castle (an absolute delight as I remembered walking its perimeter several years ago) and a couple of holographic puzzles (very hard on the eyes but good fun) as well as some Impossibles were a single image is repeated with little distinction. I recently discovered a new form of What if puzzle, where what you see on the box is not the puzzle you solve. I am keen to try one.

My curiosity about the history of the humble jigsaw has now been sated but not my appetite for puzzles themselves.

Anyone care to swap?