U.S. television viewers are gorging on a diet of shows about weird and quirky forms of economic consumption. From the relatively innocuous “American Pickers” to the slightly irritating “Storage Wars” and the extremely disturbing “My Strange Addiction,” we can’t seem to get our fill of shows about oddball consumers.
“Hoarders” and “Hoarders: Buried Alive” are the most distressing of this genre. The obsessive, desperate and profoundly sad people featured in these reality shows have become the most famous hoarders since the eccentric and reclusive Collyer brothers were found dead in their Harlem mansion in 1947, entombed by more than 150 tons of stuff they had accumulated.
Experts disagree about the source of the urge to hoard: Some link it to obsessive-compulsive disorder, others to anxiety that becomes acute at moments of personal crisis, and still others believe it stems from lack of impulse control.
While we may think of hoarding as a modern problem -- we can surround ourselves with so much stuff only because we have disposable income and access to credit and very inexpensive goods -- it appears with some frequency in the historical record.
Discussions of hoarding in 18th- and 19th-century literature focused on misers accumulating money. Typical was an article in a 1732 issue of the London Magazine describing the “Character of a Miser,” a “Creature that deserves to be despis’d as a Shame on human Nature.” The author continued, “A Miser’s Chest is like a Whirlpool, that draws in every thing within its Vortex, but returns nothing back.”
Being rich was one thing. But keeping capital out of circulation was something else entirely. It was not only a sign of profound avarice, but also contrary to what was deemed appropriate behavior for people who had amassed riches. Purchasing next to nothing -- and certainly not happiness -- misers refused to use their money to better themselves or the larger society. As they were often portrayed, misers tended to live in utter conflict with the resources at their disposal, wearing tattered clothes, inhabiting ill-furnished hovels and subsisting on meager diets of porridge and bread.
Eighteenth-century authors wrote less often of people who hoarded goods, but there are accounts of them, too. A somewhat beleaguered Simon Slenderpurse wrote to the editor of the Lady’s Magazine in 1761, cataloging the financial depredations wrought by the “follies” of his wife, a compulsive “bargain-monger” who couldn’t resist the seduction of auctioneers, peddlers and used-goods dealers. The man’s house almost overflowed with her purchases.
“It is in vain to remonstrate against these proceedings,” he sighed. “She returns home every day attended by porters laden with such cargoes, as would be enough to stock half a dozen middling shopkeepers.”
As researchers have observed, hoarding isn’t a gender-specific activity, and people hoard all manner of things. Mass production and ready access to cheap goods have increasingly enabled hoarders, and it is no coincidence that our recognition of hoarding -- and perhaps its frequency -- has been on the rise.
But even well before the second Industrial Revolution, some Americans were avid hoarders. An article from an 1850 issue of the New England School Observatory, for example, describes the acquisitive “passions” of a man identified only as “Old Colonel W---.” He surrounded himself not with consumer goods, but cast-offs and miscellaneous items that were of no use to anyone else.
“Though close-fisted in general,” according to the account, “he was continually throwing away his money, in fives and tens, on such trash. In this way, he filled all the odd corners in his dwelling and out-houses with a collection of non-descript articles, that would have puzzled a philosopher to tell what they were made for, or to what use they could be put.”
A woman living in Boston devised an ingenious way to manage her hoard, which consisted of financial instruments, dry goods and clothing. She packed these objects in trunks, each stored at a different location. Upon her death at age 80, her heirs discovered a trunk containing possessions estimated to be worth almost $7,000. It also contained a key to another trunk, which itself contained a similar key belonging to another trunk. And so on, until her heirs found “twenty very large sized trunks and three huge packing chests.”
Her collection required a four-ox team to haul, and when inventoried, it included 89 dresses, all “new and perfect” and made of the best silk, velvet, satin, poplin, alpaca, and cashmere; 19 shawls; three velvet cloaks; 106 skirts; 114 pairs of hose; undergarments “too numerous to mention”; table linens; towels; handkerchiefs; counterpanes; blankets; coverlets; sheets; goose feathers; chinaware; elegant tableware; fine jewelry in silver and gold; and more -- “enough to stock a large store,” according to a newspaper report from 1877.
These accounts suggest that while hoarding may be particularly emblematic of our materialist age, the “passion” has seized Americans of previous generations, too.
(Wendy Woloson is an independent scholar and consulting historian. Her most recent book is “In Hock: Pawning in America from the Revolution to the Great Depression.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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