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With the growth of collecting in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, we see collectors of all types of objects labeled as being afflicted with “the collecting mania.” Evidence as early as 1812 in French publications referred to collectors as developing a mania for pursuing autographs and historical letters. This language does not resurface until the 1860s. According to one assessment in 1868, a stamp collecting mania appeared in the U.S. and affected young people, while the mania for collecting pictures and coins mainly affected adults.1 Articles referencing the “collecting mania” and a “mania for collections” were published in newspapers across the US, and can be found in the Library of Congress’s database of digitized newspapers Chronicling America. Discussions of manias were common in the popular literature as well. Searching for the term in the Google Books corpus illustrates that the term’s usage peaked in the 1880s.
Generally, manias were associated specifically with women at a time when many health professionals believed the female physiology made them more susceptible to mental disorders. Popular discussions positioned the mania in opposition to the scientific ideal as both concepts were being developed and shaped by cultural, gender, and class-based stereotypes. Women, identified as middle-class or of means, who shoplifted merchandise from department stores were not common criminals, but instead were afflicted with kleptomania that left them physically unable to resist goods that passed before them.2
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The “collecting mania” or “mania for collections” was applied to both men and women collectors who could not help their desire to acquire more objects. To prevent the mania from setting in, a variety of articles warned readers against collecting objects of any kind by the 1880s and 1890s. Something that started innocently as a childhood activity, according to one observer, might progress to an adult “disease” or to the early stages of dementia leading one to an asylum. While stamp collecting appeared to onlookers in the nineteenth century as “merely a form of mild insanity or monomania,” for some “enthusiastic collectors, it became the principal interest of their lives.” By the 1920s, as collecting grew in popularity, more adults accepted it as a suitable leisure activity and found that collecting offered individuals “the surest remedies against the tedium and monotony of life.”3 In the early twentieth century, more Americans grew interested in collecting, and public opinions of collectors began to change, as we will see, due in part to the growing legions of stamp collectors.
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Originally published as a column in the Paris Spectator, January 4, 1812; collected and translated in Etienne de Jouy, The Paris Spectator, Or, L’hermite de La Chaussée-d’Antin, Containing Observations Upon Parisian Manners and Customs at the Commencement of the Nineteenth Century, trans. William Jerdan (Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1816), 96. This article was then re-published in: “A First Night in Racine,” The Knickerbocker, April 1844, 345.; and “Collectors and Collecting,” Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1868, O3. ↩
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 “The Collecting Fiend,” New York Times, March 20, 1877, 4.; and “Stamp Collecting,” Boston Daily Globe, July 11, 1896, 6.; and “Collecting Souls,” Youth’s Companion 94, no. 29 (July 15, 1920): 422. After keyword searching through Proquest newspaper and periodical databases, the term “collecting mania” appears most often—in 40 separate articles—between the 1890s and 1900s. Between 1840 and 1940, the term appears 134 times. ↩