Beatle Wigs & Cereal Boxes

The thriving subculture of pop culture collectibles

| May-June 1995

Today’s most valuable “collectibles” are not housed in fancy art museums or Park Avenue curio cabinets, but in the attics and basements of ordinary people with average tastes and middlebrow sensibilities. So goes the credo of a thriving subculture of people who treasure and collect pulp fiction paperbacks, Avon bottles, eight-track tapes, videos of old TV shows, cereal boxes, movie star memorabilia, comic books, Pez dispensers, Barbie dolls, and Melmac dishes.

Like their contemporaries in the "serious" art world, pop culture collectors have their own pricing market, auctions, dealers, and national conventions. They even have their own zines, with names like Avon Times, 8-Track Mind, Barbie Bazaar, Optimistic Pezzimist, and TV Collector. At the center of the subculture is Baby Boomer Collectibles, a glossy magazine that tells collectors what’s hot, where to find it, and how much they should pay for it. In the January 1995 issue, we learn why Frank Sinatra memorabilia is “too marvelous for words,” what happened at the Hasbro International GI Joe Collectors Convention, and where to purchase the “Bridal Shower” episode of Laverne & Shirley for only five dollars.

What drives people to collect the mundane? Anthropologist James Clifford says that collecting has never been a pastime reserved for the wealthy. The tendency to gather, arrange, and classify objects is found in people across cultures, and when they happen to live in a modern society, pop culture products are fair game. But in the growing obsession with gathering and preserving throwaway consumer artifacts from the past, nostalgia appears to be the primary factor.

“Can you sing the Flintstones or Mouseketeers theme song, word for word? Do you look for diners that still serve Green Rivers? Did you grow up in a household with avocado green appliances? Do you remember bell-bottoms? Maybe you played records you cut off the back of cereal boxes or you sent away for decoder rings? If so, now there’s a magazine for you,” promises Baby Boomer Collectibles (Oct. 1994).

Artifacts and styles from the 1950s and 1960s—Partridge Family souvenirs, TV trading cards, 1950s board games, retro Barbie dolls, pulp comics—figure most prominently in Baby Boomer Collectibles, but less mainstream items like Beat paperbacks and Ed Wood memorabilia also make an appearance. “There are few pleasures like the joy of a memory reclaimed,” explained one writer of the booming desire to own these items.

But a past constructed of trinkets and theme songs probably says more about the way things never were than about what people actually did or how they made sense of those eras. It also suggests something about the need to possess memories we believe are important. Why else would people pay $80 for a set of “original 1969 Woodstock tickets,” complete with letter of authenticity, when they didn't even attend the concert?