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?
One reason is that pop culture collecting has become big business. In an article on collecting Beatles merchandise, Baby Boomer Collectibles reports that the trinkets and souvenirs young fans tucked away in hope chests in the 1960s—Flip Your Wig board games ($110), Yellow Submarine wristwatches ($675), Beatles hair spray ($800), Paul Bubblebath ($110), Beatles lunchbox with thermos ($250)—are among the most valuable collectibles on the pop market today.
What happens to the social and political meaning of pop culture when it is revived and inserted into another era? The newly emerged Politically Incorrect Collectibles Association is testing the limits of that question. “Politically incorrect collectibles are the toys, banks, figurines, compotes, postcards, vases, dolls—you name it—from our past which use stereotypes and clichés of different groups as their theme,” says the PICA news release. The premier issue of the Politically Incorrect Collectible Association Newsletter (Dec. 1994) highlights ethnic and class stereotypes, and girlie merchandise, while the next issue promises spouse-abuse collectibles and the “valuable relics of the Ku Klux Klan.” PICA claims that the most offensive artifacts are the most sought after—a dark underside to the collecting phenomenon that reminds us of its political connotations. What a culture does and does not deem worthy to collect is profoundly important, says Clifford, because it reflects the cultural milieu of the time—and of ours.