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Collectible Rocks

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Waiting in line at our local Ben Franklin to pay for a PT-109 model back in 1975, I looked at a small stack of painted stones on the counter. The sign said, “Pet Rock—$3.95.” Though I have long since developed a very effective facial display of incredulity, back then, as a 13-year-old, it was all I could do to not blurt out, “What kind of fool would pay money for a painted rock?”

I hadn’t thought too much about fad collecting since then, but when Gary Ross Dahl, the inventor of the “Pet Rock,” passed away recently, it forced me to remember my first encounter with the craze-driven stones.

Indeed, when I heard the radio broadcast about Dahl’s death, the reporter mentioned that more than one million pet rocks had been sold. For a brief instant, pet rocks were all the rage. I smirked as I listened, “Not military collectors,” I thought to myself, “We are all too smart to waste our money on ‘fads’.” Over the next few days, though, I kept coming back to my assumption. Are we too clever?


Richard Gottlieb, of Global Toy Experts, a world-renowned consultancy and resource for toy industry insight, wrestles with discovering the next “pet rock” possibility. He seeks to identify that which transcends collecting into an intense and widely shared enthusiasm—a genuine fad.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Gottlieb offered a basic formula for something to have the potential to trend: An item has to be affordable, collectible (i.e., more than one example), and it has to relate to the person’s peer group.

Gottlieb went on to explain that the “pet rock phenomena” was not a one-time incident. Rather, it plays out many times within our culture.

Recently, Silly Bandz, were the rage—nothing more than rubber bands formed in the shapes of animals, objects, numbers, and letters. Introduced in 2008, they could be found for sale in more than 8,000 stores within two years. In 2011, having gained celebrity collaboration from Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashin, video games featuring the Bandz appeared for Nintendo and iPhone.

So popular, in fact, Silly Bandz have been banned in many classrooms for being too distracting, with students trading them with each other during class.

Regardless, Seth McGowan, a toy industry analyst for Needham & Company, said it is refreshing that the "lowest of technologies" is also the one that is the most appealing, to children.

A pack of 24 of the rubber bands: $3.95—The same price charged for the Pet Rock back in 1975.


You are probably thinking, “Yeah, but I am not an 8-year-old kid on the playground. I know how to handle my collecting money.” That might be true, but what is also true is that motivation to collect. It is deeply ingrained in our makeup. Sometimes, our most primitive instincts overwhelm our objectivity. You don’t believe me? Okay, show of hands:

*Who has bought a “Beanie Baby?”

*How about a diecast model car, tractor, tank, or airplane?

*Any “collector plates” in your home?

*How about any of those fantastic 1/6 scale military figures that came out a few years ago?

*Do you still have your “stamp collection” or “coin collection?”

*Is it hard for you to resist buying Lionel trains?

Put your hands down… We are ALL in it. We are collectors. No shame in that. But why do we collect what we do? Well, there a lot of theories, and some of them rather dark, but that isn’t really important—unless of course you still believe that storage shed full of beanie babies are going to pay your kid’s college tuition.

Basically, we collect militaria for the same reasons Richard Gottlieb shared about the Pet Rock: We search out items that have variation, tend to be inexpensive (relative to other militaria), and can relate to our peer group.

So if that is the formula, let’s see if it holds up with militaria. Patches, distinguished unit insignia, and (unnamed) medals seem to fall into the mold effortlessly. Recognizing Gottlieb’s formula in “type collecting” is, in fact, pretty easy.

But what about when we move up the militaria ladder? Instead of dealing with $5 or $10 insignia, how is it, for example, with helmet collectors?

I hadn’t really recognized the pattern 20 years ago—before internet forums. Today, however, it is readily apparent that the same formula plays out: Helmet collectors define the variations (M1, M2, “swivel loop,” “front seam,” “single decal Army,” “double decal Luftwaffe,” etc), scramble to obtain examples of affordable examples, and then interact with their peer group—most often, on Internet forums, rather than at club meetings, or a friend’s living room: Collectible, Affordable, Relatable—the three keys to a trend.


For most collectibles, that is, items manufactured to inspire a collecting trend like Beanie Babies, Hummels, Silly Bandz, or even Pet Rocks, what ultimately smothers a fad is over supply. Too many Beanie Babies made collectors ultimately realize the plush cows, pigs, and puppies wouldn’t retain their value.

Oversupply usually isn’t the trend-killer in military-related collecting, however (well, except for incidents of extreme unlikelihood such as the Wall coming down and the market flooded with Eastern Bloc material). What does bring a trend to a screeching halt, however, is the lack of relatabilty—that point at which gathering the “stuff” becomes more important than the history it represents.

That’s a tricky one, because, again, we are collectors by nature. Our programming tells us to “collect all we can—winter’s coming.” So, it is very, very easy for us to gather, gather, gather. We go out every weekend to hunt for cheap militaria. We bid on anything we see on ebay that we believe will sell “too cheap.” And we are ready to pounce when a veteran’s family says, “We were maybe thinking of giving Dad’s war souvenirs to the historical society.” Our “gatherer instinct” can sometimes override commitment to history.

Don’t get me wrong… there is not a thing wrong with gathering! In fact, as soon as this blog is done, I am walking downtown to hit a couple of antique shops just to see if anything showed up over the weekend.

Sure, maybe we share some fundamental instinctual drive with those people who bought Pet Rocks, Beanie Babies, or even Silly Bandz. Our commitment to history, however, is what sets us apart.

The formula remains the same: Collectible, Affordable, and Relatable. Our relics fit into the first category without any effort. The second, well that’s just relative to one’s personal finance—your affordable might be “out of the realm of possibility” for another collector. The third, though: The “Relatable” is where it all comes out in the wash.

We can be like the kids on the playground swapping and trading Silly Bandz by limiting our interaction to forum posts where we garner “Thumbs up!” and “Nice score!” That is very satisfying—in the short term. Sort of like rock candy. It is sweet and fun at that moment, but it doesn’t provide nourishment for the hobby.

As collectors of militaria, however, we find our “nourishment” through researching the soldiers who used the relics we treasure. We grow by sharing their history, using the relics they left behind as jumping-off points for telling the stories of sacrifice, commitment, and personal achievement.

It doesn’t matter where we find our "playground" to relate with others the stories of those who served: Internet forum, collectors clubs, local museum, or civic groups. What is important, however—that one thing that sets us apart from the pet rock buyers and the beanie baby investors—is relating the history that surrounds the objects we collect: Sharing the stories of soldiers with others is what sets us apart from the “trends.”

Preserve the Memories.

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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