Cookbooks. Cars. Coins. Comics. Trading cards. Department 56 Christmas villages. When we think of collections, these are items that come to mind. But there's oh so much more up for the collecting.
Across the world, hobbyists spend huge amounts of energy and income acquiring “special” items that would put your aunt’s case of Hummel figurines to shame. In many cases, collectors of oddball items enjoy a greater sense of camaraderie and community than those who go for standard things like stamps, spoons and snow globes. With fewer of these niche items in circulation, the competition is greater, the hunt more challenging, the stakes higher. In rare cases, there is no competition.
We’ve rounded up 10 of the weirdest and most wonderful collections, including several recognized by Guinness World Records and those that can be viewed in standalone museums. We know there are more than 10 impressive offbeat collections exist out there, so if you know of any others, share them with us in the comments, especially if you're an unconventional collector yourself.
Air sickness bags
Collectors of aviation memorabilia are an enthusiastic bunch, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of aficionados quite as impassioned as the baggists — those who search near and far for the plastic-lined paper receptacles used in comedy sketches for decades.
Serious baggists — “those oft-maligned, always misunderstood, but heroic individuals who have taken on themselves the onerous task of preserving the world's bag heritage for future generation,” according to the Baggist Hall of Fame website — soldier on despite murmurs that the modern barf bag, introduced by Northwest Orient Airlines in 1949, is slowly vanishing from the seat back pockets of major commercial airlines.
Like any coterie of collectors, the baggist community boasts its own luminaries. Dutchman Niek Vermeulen’s 6,290 sick bags collected from 200 countries (as of February 2012) are recognized by Guinness World Records. Massachusetts-based Steve Silberberg is curator of the Air Sickness Bag Virtual Museum, and San Diego’s globe-trotting Bob Grove answers to the name Barf Bag Bob. You can view Grove’s impressive collection of more than 1,800 sick bags in the video above.
Visitors to southeastern Ohio’s Hocking Hills, a misty stretch of Appalachia renowned for its caves and craggy natural splendors, may not realized that the area also boasts things you can do inside, too. You know, things like view America’s largest collection of pencil sharpeners.
The Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum, which lives in a shed at the Hocking Hills Regional Welcome Center, is arguably the most popular indoor attraction in an outdoor-heavy region (the folks at the Columbus Washboard Factory and Museum might beg to differ). A testament to one man’s obsession with the manually operated devices, the museum features more than 3,400 specimens of all shapes, sizes, colors and materials.
Moved to its current location in 2011 after the death of the namesake collector, the Rev. Paul A. Johnson, the collection is organized by theme (e.g., Disney characters, Christmas, cats) and includes a sharpener that dates to 1906. Not too shabby for a collection that wasn’t started until the late 1980s as a retirement hobby. Johnson’s widow, Charlotte, shows off some of the sharpest tools in the shed to Southeast Ohio Magazine in the video above, which was filmed before the museum’s relocation.
And then there’s Ann Atkin, an artist and outspoken gnome advocate who has made it her life’s work since 1979 to provide a refuge to these wee creatures who really mean no harm: They just want to fish, smoke their pipes and nap under any available tree.
At Atkin’s four-acre Gnome Reserve and Wildflower Garden in Devon, England, visitors are encouraged to mingle with the more than 2,000 resident garden gnomes and pixies in their enchanting (and to some, unsettling) natural habitat. For self-conscious types who want to blend in with the local populace, human-sized gnome caps and fishing rods are available to borrow.
Atkin’s garden gnome collection, which includes valuable specimens housed within a museum at the reserve, is the world’s largest.
Where most people see an orange object in the middle of the road, David Morgan, the world’s preeminent collector of traffic cones, sees a thing of extraordinary beauty.
According to the official Guinness World Records entry from 2000, Morgan owns 137 different types of traffic cones from around the world. A 2007 Oxford Mail profile of Morgan, who hails from the small English town of Burford, Oxfordshire, estimates the total number to be in the ballpark of 500. The most cherished — and oldest — cone in his collection is a 1956 Lynvale rubber model from Scotland.
Once you learn what Morgan does for a living — he’s the sales director for Oxford Plastic Systems, the world’s largest pylon producer — his cone-fancier status doesn’t seem so unusual. Plus, his teenage daughter
Connie Poppy is totally cool with the whole thing, which is super important when your dad has several hundred traffic cones stacked in the garage and spread out in the backyard.
“It's a brilliant collection and very unusual. I've certainly never heard of anyone else collecting cones,” she told the Oxford Mail. "I'm not a particular fan of cones, but it's something to tell my friends — and they're all impressed.” She does, however, have limits: “If I see a new cone, I'll always tell him where it is — though I wouldn't bring it back myself.”
In the grand scheme of things, collecting yo-yos isn’t all that odd when you consider that there’s someone who owns thousands of umbrella sleeves. What is a bit surprising about the world’s largest yo-yo collection is the collector himself.
Dr. John “Lucky” Meisenheimer, a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in Orlando, Florida, is a living, breathing compendium of odd facts, impressive achievements and everything yo-yo related.
Although Meisenheimer’s collection of 4,251 string-based toys is mighty impressive, his feats not related to the yo-yo also caught our attention. For starters, in 1979, Meisenheimer swam a half-mile with one foot in his mouth (yes, you read that correctly). He’s also a world record-holding swimmer, underwater hockey enthusiast and an esteemed coach, having served with the Orange County Special Olympics swim team.
Outside of aquatics, the yo-yoing polymath has wrestled a bear, won an ear-wiggling championship, written a science-fiction novel, battled zombies and hung out with Martha Stewart. Kentucky-reared Meisenheimer, a founding board member of the American Yo-Yo Association and a widely published yo-yo historian, also acts and runs his own film production company. Seriously, if there’s one guy who can make you feel like an utter slacker, Doc Lucky is that guy.
This was news to us, but some folks are really, really into collecting sugar packets. That being said, sucrology seems to be most popular in the United Kingdom, where offbeat preoccupations and pursuits flourish and where a national pastime, tea drinking, often involves a small packet of sweetener on the side.
The world’s largest sugar packet collection, however, doesn’t belong to a Brit but a German. As of May 14, 2013, Ralf Schröder of Lower Saxony claimed a whopping 14,502 different sugar packets, with the oldest dating to the 1950s. The previous record-holder also wasn’t English, but a Chicago resident named Kristen Dennis whose collection, 13 years in the making, hovered close to 9,500 (artificial sweeteners included) in the summer of 2012.
Dennis, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, casually delved into sucrology in the late 1990s, inspired after viewing a TV program profiling ketchup packet collectors. Several years later, her kooky high school hobby got real.
“I don't know why, but I typed in 'sugar packets' on eBay and a whole world was opened up to me,” Dennis told the Chicago Tribune. “I didn't know other people collected these things, so I started bidding on them, and eventually the collection grew like crazy.”
Foxes, bears, hedgehogs and deer have enjoyed their time to shine as the decorative animal accent du jour. None, however, possesses quite the staying power of that big-eyed, nursery-friendly bird of prey.
Though we all might know someone (or someone’s mom) whose home decorating preferences are unabashedly owlish in nature, none holds a candle to Pam Barker of Leeds, Maine.
The thing is, Barker amassed her 18,000 piece collection of owl memorabilia — textiles, figurines, art, dishware and assorted ephemera — not because of a lifelong fondness for the nocturnal bird but as an investment.
The collection once belonged to another Mainer named Dianne “Owl Lady” Turner. When Turner passed away in 2003, Barker acquired the collection from a family friend who had been tasked with cleaning out the Owl Lady’s roost.
In 2006, Barker had the impressive parliament certified by Guinness World Records as being the largest collection of owl-related items in the world. The achievement is listed under Turner’s name in honor of a woman who, apparently, never met an owl-themed tchotchke she didn’t like.
Belly button lint
Australian librarian Graham Barker collects things both peculiar (bakery bags and beard clippings) and more prosaic (maps, rocks). But the one item that’s earned this self-described “inquisitive collector, photographer, writer and God-fearing weather geek” a citation from Guinness World Records is something that he produces himself: belly button lint.
But wait — there are more squirm-inducing details to share. As of 2010, Barker had collected and preserved about 22 grams of his own “naval fluff,” collected every day for 26 years. While he waits for his daily shower to warm up, Barker plucks each specimen and dutifully places it in a ceramic pot before it is transferred to a larger glass jar labeled by year. As Barker explains to The Daily Mail, each piece of fluff’s coloring and size is dependent on the color of towel he is using at the time and the type of clothing he wears that day. For Barker, thermal underwear tends to be “the most productive.”
In the wake of his Guinness nod (one would imagine there isn’t much competition in this field), Barker’s unusual pre-shower ritual earned him ample media attention, including a spot on “The Tonight Show,” where he appeared alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and fellow Aussie Kylie Minogue.
But as Barker tells The Daily Mail, he wouldn’t be devastated if, one day, he suddenly went dry: "I wouldn't call it an addiction, because it's not something I feel any need to do. If my belly stopped producing lint tomorrow, I might feel surprised, but not disappointed."
It only makes sense that a doctor who treats itchy, irritated skin happens to have a spot in the Guinness World Records for the largest collection of back scratchers — those handy-dandy tools that help us reach difficult-to-access body parts.
A longtime connoisseur of back scratchers, Dr. Manfred S. Rothstein (the second dermatologist on this list) displays his formidable collection at his Fayetteville, North Carolina, practice. As of September 2008, he had 675 implements — standard plastic models as well as tools crafted from jade, leather, corn cobs, blown glass, bamboo, brass and buffalo ribs — hailing from 71 countries.
One would assume that this gives patients something more interesting to stare at than Golf Digest while they wait. Sonja Rothstein, Rothstein’s wife-slash-office manager, explained to the Fayetteville Observer in 2000 that patients get miffed if they have to wait in one of the clinic’s examination rooms, which don't offer a display of back scratchers. Understandable.
Besides eBay, Rothstein’s patients are a source of the itch-relieving accoutrement. “Patients don’t mind getting them for me when they travel because they’re inexpensive and they’re light,” Rothstein told Dermatology News in a 2007 profile. “Every time I see one I don't have, I'm amazed. How many different ways can you do this?”
Barbara Hartsfield is the woman behind the world’s largest collection of tiny seats. No small feat!
Hartsfield is somewhat of a newbie to the world of miniature furniture collecting. She didn’t start acquiring small chairs until the 1990s, while employed as a psychiatric nurse at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. In the midst of writing an article about pregnant psychiatric patients for a medical journal, Hartsfield picked up a few doll-sized rocking chairs to have on hand while she interviewed patients, believing that the tiny rockers would bring a “soothing image” to the proceedings. And so it began.
In 2008, her 3,000-piece collection of seats — both miniature and doll-sized, Christmas ornaments, and salt and pepper shakers — was officially recognized as the world’s largest by Guinness World Records. The next year, Hartsfield opened the three-room Collectible & Antique Chair Galley, aka the Miniature Chair Museum, in a historic building in the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain to properly exhibit her Lilliputian collection to the public.
Divided into 27 major themes such as Christmas, Halloween, Easter and Coca-Cola, the collection has grown since the “world’s largest” designation; Hartsfield stopped keeping tabs long ago.
“People ask me which chair is my favorite all the time, and I almost want to say it’s like asking which one of your children do you like the best,” Hartsfield explained. “It’s almost impossible to choose.”
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