A friend recounted the time he brought his stamp collection to "show and tell," told the class he was an insatiable philatelist and Sister Andrew -- who had a hearing deficit -- whacked him over the head with her pointer.
Collectors, collectively, are a misunderstood lot. People snicker or shake their heads if your collection is considered eccentric. One close relative, upon discovering that I was fond of license plates, exclaimed, "Why are you nailing those dirty things to your wall?"
That's why collecting is thought of as a private pastime -- a secret obsession -- something you do in your den over a brandy and a cigar with the curtains closed and the phone off the hook.
You can't explain why you collect the things you do -- unless they are valuable stamps or coins that you lock away in a safe-deposit box at the bank. These, you can bequeath to your nephew (who will cash them in and buy a Porsche).
One psychologist, however, says it is not what you collect as much as finding other people who collect it, too. Otherwise, the collection sputters and stops. Like that shoe box full of matchbooks you've forgotten under the sink. Why did your interest die? It's because you forgot to join a matchbook-collecting club. The social dynamics of a club will not only set fire to your collecting tendencies, but you also will strike up several dozen new friendships.
"You may make the unconscious decision to collect something like butter containers," says psychologist Lonnie Carton, whose CBS Radio program, The Learning Center, is broadcast locally on WTOP. "But once you meet someone else who collects butter containers, too," she continues, "a vital socialization process begins.
"If I told those butter people they could meet many more friends if they collected tea leaves," Carton says, "I bet they would make the move over to tea-leaf collecting. Some people know how to seek people directly, through traditional social channels. Other people seek objects that, in turn, lead them to other people. The objects themselves are secondary."
Maybe so. But don't tell that to Mitzi Geiser. There's only one word to describe her.
She's not sure why, but when Mitzi Geiser of Orrville, Ohio, gets off an airplane, she heads to the airport restaurant with her purse open.
As president of the Sugar Packet Collectors Club International, Geiser has been seen in restaurants worldwide, rummaging through sugar bowls, looking to add to her 15,000-plus packet collection.
"I table-hop in restaurants, grab all the sugar bowls I can and bring them back to my table," confesses Geiser. "Even the waitresses will bring sugar from the kitchen for me to go through. I guess I have a collector's instinct. As soon as I get two of anything, I'm looking for the third. It's inbred. It's genetic."
Geiser kept her hobby under wraps until friends visiting from Belgium informed her that sugar-packet collecting was the rage back on the Continent.
She formed the club after the St. Louis club went defunct. Now she has 230 members around the world, many of whom are sweet enough to send her packets from their countries.
International flags, women of history and ethnic costumes are only a few of the reasons she finds sugar packets neat. Another reason is that the hobby is basically free.
"My first husband was deep into philately -- an expensive hobby," she notes. "I wanted a hobby that wouldn't cost much."
What you need to know about sugar packets: While very exclusive restaurants used china sugar bowls with silver spoons, most eating establishments had their own sugar packets printed, probably for hygienic reasons. Collectors of sugar packets poke a tiny hole in the packet, spill out the sugar, then mount the packet in a book.
Geiser edits The Sugar Packet Newsletter through which members correspond or trade. Last year, two members came to visit from Britain for three weeks. How did they spend their evenings? Going through Geiser's sacks of extra packets, cataloguing them for her and keeping the doubles for themselves.
A Couple of Brick-a-Brickians
Bill Brownlee of Prairie Village, Kan., likes to joke, "Whenever my wife, Barbara, and I go to a new community, instead of walking around with our heads up, smiling at every one we see, we look down."
They frequent dumps and hang around demolished buildings. If a street crew is digging up the road, they look for a piece of the action. Literally. As members of the International Brick Collectors Association, there's no telling how low they'll go.
"We found our first brick in my hometown, Lawrence, Kan.," Brownlee says proudly. "But at the time, I didn't think there was another person in the whole world who was as crazy as we were."
But there were a few hundred at least. Through another club, the Barbed Wire Collectors, the Brownlees uncovered more brick people than they ever could imagine.
Now every year -- sometimes twice -- Bill and Barbara Brownlee load up their car with 100 bricks or so and head off for an organized swap with other collectors.
What you need to know about bricks: In the 1800s and early 1900s, bricks were inscribed with the manufacturer's name and town. When laid, the inscribed side would face the dirt. The oldest brick in the Brownlee collection is 1849, Lexington, Ky., handmade by a slave and signed in elaborate script by the landowner.
The brick that hard-core collectors want most was put out by the Kansas Department of Health around 1900 when tuberculosis was thought to be spread by contact. It reads, "Don't spit on the sidewalk" and was laid along the roads throughout that state as a precaution.
Brownlee, who uses his bricks in fireplaces, floors, patios and sidewalks -- with the business end up -- says there is no monetary value placed on any brick.
"We only get involved in friendly trading at our swaps," he explains, "although I expect that is not adhered to in all cases."
Cutting Up With the Cookie Monger
Phyllis Wetherill of Northwest D.C. may very well rummage through your kitchen drawers if you leave the room. What she's looking for are your cookie cutters. What she's hoping to find is one made by Hallmark in the 1970s that depicts Snoopy sitting on a pumpkin.
"A serious collector will pay $100 for that one," says Wetherill. "When it first came out, it cost 75 cents. The highest price ever paid for a cutter was $7,000."
The founder of the 700-member Cookie Cutter Collectors Club justifies her love of cookie cutting by their historical value, however. Examples of molds used to shape sweet goodies go back as far as 3000 BC. Modern cookie cutting is 500 years old, with wooden molds carved by bakers. The cutters were used to promote politicians, mark a religious event, display a family crest or tell an amusing tale.
Also, because people could not see their names in lights in those pre-neon days, they settled for seeing their faces in dough.
"If you were somebody special, like Napoleon, the most flattering thing someone could do for you back then was have a cookie mold carved in your likeness," says Wetherill.
She spends at least 30 hours a week thinking about, writing about and searching for cookie cutters to add to her 10,000 piece collection. But when she set out to start a club, things got crummy.
"I went around collectors' shows and auctions asking people if they wanted to start a club," remembers Wetherill. "Nobody wanted to. So I put an ad in Women's Circle magazine and finally got four women together."
That was 20 years ago and ever since then, rolling in new members was, well, a snap.
Plugnaciously Sparky Bob Bond of Ann Arbor, Mich., started off big, then went small.
"I am one of your basic pack rats to begin with," says the engineer and founder of the Spark Plug Collectors of America. "I started collecting the old stationary gasoline engines that were used to power everything on the farm before the advent of electricity. To make these things run, you needed some rather unusual spark plugs you couldn't get at the local auto-parts store."
He hounded automotive flea markets for the plugs and soon discovered there were more than a handful of brands that were produced. That sparked his interest.
"The quest then became A) how many brands were produced, and B) how many pieces of that puzzle I could collect -- the latter being the force that drives all collectors," says Bond.
Bond says spark plugs are actually a good investment because they have appreciated in value due to demand -- especially those from the early 1900s. His collection is worth, he says, "many thousands of dollars."
But the idea for a club started as a joke to a friend. The two wrote a letter saying "Hey, I'm just as crazy as you guys and I collect spark plugs and I think we oughta have a club!"
They sent it out to 39 people who had recently bought spark plugs from an antique car-dealer pal.
Pretty soon, 39 people wrote back saying, "How much money do you want us to send and where?"
Mad About Everything
Mel Simons of Boston is a one-man collecting club. He collects everything, and with a mania. Not just 30 or 40 old radio shows on tape, for instance. But 100,000 radio shows. Old TV shows, too, and sports memorabilia, Al Jolson stuff, Jack Benny letters, Three Stooges autographs. He employs a carpenter -- practically full-time, he kids -- to build shelves for his collections.
"It started in the 1970s when I sent a picture in an envelope simply addressed 'Maurice Chevalier, France'," Simons says. "When it came back autographed, I sent one to Harry Truman. When that came back signed, I was hooked."
A TV and radio entertainer who comes in contact with celebrities of all kinds, Simons now creates his own collectibles.
"If I am going to meet a boxer, I bring him a pair of boxing gloves to sign. If it's a basketball player, I bring him a basketball. I send TV Guides to people whose picture is on the cover and usually get them back autographed, if I send a stamped envelope with it. I have all of Carl Yastrzemski's baseball cards -- signed."
Of course, he belongs to a ton of collecting clubs. They not only put him in contact with other people but also with more things to collect. He is already being chased by the University of Wisconsin for chunks of his collections. But it all may wind up in the hands of a nephew. Until then, Simons, who is only in his forties, still has a lot of good collecting years ahead of him.
"In today's world, collecting becomes escaping," says psychologist Lonnie Carton. "At collecting clubs, people do not have to talk about dreary economic forecasts or tragic human conditions. They can relax and talk about spark plugs and sugar packets."
So, you collectors of crazy things out there: Maybe you're not really crazy after all. Maybe it's just your way of staying sane in a world that, somehow, got crazy first.
Cookie Cutter Collectors Club, 5426 27th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20015.
International Brick Collectors Association, 8357 Somerset, Prairie Village, Kan. 66207.
Spark Plug Collectors of America, P.O. Box 2229, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48106.
Sugar Packet Collectors Club, 15601 Burkhardt Rd., Orrville, Ohio 44667.