Plastic Cockroaches and Toenail Clippings: America’s Obsession with Collecting

Let us descend for a harrowing moment into the mind of a passionate collector of things. “I like plastic cockroaches, which I have by the hundreds. I like the fact that people find them revolting,” the collector said when we talked recently. “I also like plastic fake food, which fills the linen cupboards in my house. And I collect Lee Harvey Oswalds, and —”

Wait. Assassin Oswald? That Lee Harvey? Yes, the collector affirmed. “He’s been demonized for too long.”

“Isn’t that just a little bit creepy?” I wondered.

The swift reply: “Well, some people think I could be insane.”

He’s not. He’s actually the highly regarded theatrical set painter Paul Wilson, of Phoenix, who in his leisure time is a serious collector of improbable items large and small. Which, if you want to call that insane, feel free.

“Collectors are the last bastion of individualism in a world of conformity.”

There’s nothing crazy about the undisputed fact that Americans have long devoted themselves to building all manner of personal collections. That’s different from being a hoarder, but it can sometimes, in extreme cases, seem nearly as disturbing.

Several weeks ago, out of perverse curiosity, I went in search of the oddest, most bizarre collections I could find — the nuttier the better — which is how I stumbled upon Paul Wilson, who collects everything Lee Oswald. I didn’t need to wait long to hear from other folks on this subject. A day after I put the word out on social media, my inbox was flooded.

From a well-known Kentucky journalist who’s on the country-music beat: Among her most prized samples of historical hair are clippings from Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. From a New York investment banker and a Connecticut editor: Each reported on the whereabouts of notable beer-can collections, three said to be worth at least a million bucks apiece. From an L.A. photographer: able to direct me to a massive trove of toenail clippings. From an art collector in Wisconsin: specializes in amateur films documenting monkey acts. Monkey acts! Isn’t that fantastic in a barely normal sort of way?

Many of the messages I received were freaky and delightful in equal measure, detailing personal collections that suggest either a sick state of mind or discerning curatorial skills. Harry Rinker, who has long written a newspaper column about collections, told me, “Collectors are the last bastion of individualism in a world of conformity.” Further, he said, English-­speaking countries are where you will find the most avid collectors, adding that, according to an eBay study, 60 percent of Americans collect something. “If you haven’t discarded certain things, then you’re a collector,” he said. Maybe — but it seems to me it may just as easily mean that you’re lazy.

Of the messages that rolled in when I inquired about peculiar collections, one of my favorites pointed me toward Chuck Diehl, a Baltimorean who had fallen hard for washing machines. “It just turned me on completely!” Diehl once told People magazine about his first encounter with the appliance. For decades, Diehl carefully archived old washers, storing many in his apartment. He so ideally captured the eccentric collecting phenomenon that I thought I should try to find him. The trace ran dry at a Home Depot, where Diehl, not unexpectedly, had sold washers. Ah, well. I’d like to imagine that his career eventually spun to an end there because, of course, he’d been too much of an agitator.

In the last issue, Neuhaus wrote about his adventures with DNA testing.

This article is featured in the May/June 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.