I didn’t start out with collecting in mind, but after six years as a Scout and more afterward at summer camps, I had enough “stuff” to form a collection. Somewhere (I think well past a decade) in time I began actively adding to the stuff in addition to accumulating this and that from program participation. Many a collector will admit how their collection took off or seemed to happen just as they will confess an inexplicable fascination with what they collect and its arcane mysteries. What draws us to pore over minute details of seemingly un-noteworthy items such as versions of rank patches is beyond my explanation, but there’s no missing the way the entire being jumps when the recognition hits “Never seen one of those before!” It’s fair to say a collector is hooked before he or she knows it; certainly before the time they begin stalking rummage sales or used and antique shops for that chance find of a lifetime.

Active collectors will often more than willingly elaborate on their collecting field to happily explain the distinction between the dime-a-dozen and the rarity. It’s then that a collector’s hobby begins instructing us about more than just the “stuff” that will fill drawers or form lines on shelves. In Scout collecting, one of the most common finds is the cook kit or canteen. There is an ocean of those things out there, and I will assure you this: boys did not buy them. Boys bought things preferably sweet and readily consumable. Parents and relatives bought Junior’s hardware as a sign of his step into the outdoors out of the playroom. Christmas or birthdays were good times to gift Junior with a canteen that would get less use than his dictionary. And as many more started the program than stayed its course, a great many of these objects were used a time or two prior to being migrated to the attic. Scout knives are fairly common, too. Think of that. Imagine a time when kids carried pocket knives and were not considered violent criminals for doing so. If a youth wanted to injure someone, I doubt digging in his pocket for a short-blade knife would be a good choice. The purveyors of irrational fears know better, however, and see mayhem in a pen knife.

I made the observation about pocket knives not to start that argument but to show how small objects in collections can often carry a lot of societal information. When did we cross a line where carrying a pocket knife would get Junior expelled? There’s a fairly large shift in attitude there. I’d wonder if the absence of knives reduces bullying or has a positive scholastic side I’ve missed. At least as I recall it, having my Scout knife carried responsibility for safe and proper use plus the care and sharpening of the blade. In any case, collections such as mine are records of social change as well as the material.

Another item that turns up fairly often is the Scout shirt. As I visit shops in search, I’ll come across dozens of shirts before I see a single pair of pants. Why is that? Is it because a lot of families never bought the pants, knowing Junior would outgrow them too quickly, or were the pants used for play and got worn out? On the other hand, it makes sense for Mom to save Junior’s shirt with his honors sewn on. So again, what the collector finds involves a material and a social or cultural picture of a past time and certain features of it.

The serious collector in a broad area such as mine can run afoul of too much stuff. Thimble or cup collectors have it easy compared to a field with dozens of different tent and sleeping bag types to accumulate. And I’ve not yet mentioned the assorted hatchets, axes, flashlights, and other camping items, or the further afield area containing official cameras, binoculars, bows, telescopes, and typewriters. By the time collectors reach those things, their storage needs are far beyond the good old days when they had but a few dozen camp patches. If fatally infected, the collector starts seeking those things most likely to have been discarded, such as the official hanky or swim trunks.

Speaking from experience, I say I had to rein myself in. The stuff was taking up too much space and effort and cash. To keep collecting without being smothered in gear, I turned to photos. A foot-tall stack of three-ring binders full of old pictures is a lot easier to manage than a stack of tents. Photos, I’m happy to say, have proven equally or more instructive than the stuff. Know what turns up a lot in photos? It’s the snap of Junior in his new uniform. You know it’s new because it has little or no rank insignia. At the opposite end, the other common photo is of Junior as a new Eagle Scout. There is much on both ends but not much in the middle.

Also somewhat common are shots of the Scout and his mom. I’ve many examples of that and relatively few father and son. Maybe it’s because Dad was usually the photographer, but that, too, tells us something about the eras behind us. I’ve begun writing a paragraph here and there on the contents of the photos. In them I can comment on changes in uniform, including the habit of some past troops using ties instead of neckerchiefs. That, among other things, was a surprise. Not as surprising and actually quite moving are some of the earnest expressions in those photos. Seen in Tenderfoot or Eagle, there is a visible commitment to an ideal that shows in the young person’s expression. At times, too, the face shows character of a mischievous or individualistic nature. Many different kinds of people came to and took part in the Scouting program. The stuff in a collection is less important than the personal stories and societal changes item and image reflect.