Let’s face it: Collecting is creepy

Let’s face it: Collecting is creepy. Part obsession, part hoarding, it’s not that different than binge eating or binge drinking. And like those epicurean overloads, there is something very, very enjoyable about it.

I started collecting Barbie dolls not all that long after I outgrew actually playing with them. Barbie and her buddies were just one category of things I amassed in my early 20’s. Looking back, I think part of the impulse was to turn back the hands of time, or at least stop them for a while. Like a premature baby, I felt like a premature young adult. To say that I lacked direction or purpose does not do justice to my unusually embryonic state. I needed an incubator in which to hide out while I continued my development. In this case, the incubator was an apartment filled with a quirky assortment of detritus from the 1950s and 1960s. 

Each of my collections had special meaning to me. Drinking glasses decorated with cartoon-y illustrations of animals reminded me of happy times at my grandmother’s apartment, and stood in rebellion to my mother’s devotion to good taste, as did my space-age lamps with multi-tiered shades. But my connection with Barbie was the most personal, fueled by forces I could only vaguely fathom. Barbie was “born” in 1959, one year before me. Unlike me, she hit the scene fully formed. I remember when I first got my pudgy, three-year-old fingers around a sleek, svelte Barbie. What mystery she held! So much woman packed into such a tiny package. Would I ever…? Could I ever…? And so the obsession began. 

Most of my acquisitions as a collector took place at flea markets, but my descent into collecting Barbie dolls was quite literal. It began when I ventured down a dimly lit staircase, enticed by the smell of mold that is catnip to those in search of old stuff. 

I was in a stationary shop called Sorkin’s on the main drag in Hoboken, NJ, where I lived in the 1980’s. The store specialized in typewriter ribbons and correction fluid, but carried a bit of everything. I was looking for some party favors for a birthday. That’s when I spotted the stairway. Like Nancy Drew sleuthing out a clue, I followed it down to a landing, where a glass showcase built into the wall displayed some old cowboy and Indian figurines. I turned, and above the remaining steps was a sign that announced Toy Department, in very jolly 1950’s-style lettering. 

What happened next is any collector’s wet dream. I’m in a basement toy department, preserved in time from 20-plus years prior. The dim lighting and the thick layer of dust make it clear that this part of the store isn’t really open for business. But there, in front of me, is Barbie. Lots of Barbie. And Midge, Barbie’s freckle-faced sidekick who no one ever really liked, and Ken, Barbie’s boyfriend, who again no one ever really liked, and Allan, Midge’s boyfriend, who was actually more handsome and less peculiar than Ken, but who no one ever really liked either. There were outfits still in the pink cardboard frame boxes with the cellophane front. I had stepped through the looking glass to the past. It was sheer magic. After what seemed like a very long period of stunned disbelief, I gathered up a few of the best items and trepidatiously took them upstairs. The owner, a retirement-aged man with pointy features and a sick-of-it-all demeanor, rang me up without asking any questions. Everything was at the original prices, meaning $3.50 for dolls, $3 to $5 for outfits, and about $15 each for the two Mix ’n Match sets, which included a Barbie and about 10 pieces of clothing. 

I came back the next day and bought the rest. 

And with that, I became a Barbie tycoon. I was sitting on a fortune —well, more like a few thousand dollars worth – of dolls and ancillary items. I was 23, maybe 24 years old and working part time as a receptionist. I wanted to keep as much of my “find” as possible, but I also needed some cash. 

I subscribed to Collector’s United, a tabloid-sized newspaper with hundreds of listings of dolls, games, toys, and what have you. Talk about analog. It arrived in the mail once a month, and I’d comb the ads, looking to see what items similar to those I owned were going for, and also looking for opportunities to swap. This took days. Fortunately, I had plenty of time to read at my receptionist desk. 

Through Collector’s United, I became friends with a super collector in Ohio named Lillian, a sweet granny who had a pretty extensive Barbie collection. We conversed through the mail (!) and an occasional phone call. She sold me a used copy of The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Barbie Dolls and Collectibles, by Sibyl DeWein. DeWein was a legend in the collector’s world, who people spoke about in hushed, reverent tones. Interestingly, her co-author, Joan Ashabraner, was rarely mentioned at all. Among the minutiae this must-have, out-of-print reference book explained was how to differentiate between a number one ponytail Barbie (copper tubing in the feet) and a number two (no tubing), three (more natural flesh tone), four (blue eyeshadow instead of brown), or five (head is made of a different type of vinyl that sweats; stay away!). It catalogued each and every outfit, listing all the tiny, covetable accessories that accompanied it. 

And oh, those outfits. Tailored so precisely for Barbie’s unique proportions. The extraordinary attention to detail was part of Japan’s post-WWII effort to establish itself as a country that produced quality goods. The exquisite results were wasted on the grubby little 10-year-olds who bought the stuff. Collectors had nothing but contempt for the children who originally owned the dolls. I recall one ad for a Barbie whose hair had been butchered: “It’s not Barbie’s fault that some stupid child got creative with the scissors!”

Lillian was enthralled with the story

Lillian was enthralled with the story of my find, and also a bit jealous. Still, she was very helpful, guiding me regarding values and aiding me in navigating the collectors’ world. With her approval, I traded a couple of Midges (“Nobody really likes her, so you might as well get rid of her,” Lillian concurred) for a set of Kozmic Kiddles, a sentimental favorite from my childhood. These Lilliputian Martian dolls, about 3” tall, had big round heads that were completely disproportional to their teeny tiny bodies —a sure-fire recipe for cuteness, if you ask me. They glowed in the dark, wore Jetson-like plastic dresses, and each one had its own spaceship. The Kozmic Kiddles were an offshoot of the Mattel Kiddle family. The original Kiddles were small female dolls, the My Little Pony of their day. Mattel capitalized on their popularity with numerous spin-offs, including Kologne Kiddles (in plastic perfume bottles,) Storybook Kiddles (“Liddle” Red Riding Hood, etc.,) and Lucky Locket Kiddles, which had a very catchy jingle in the commercial that communicated an almost hysterical sense of urgency, with a little girl chorus singing each verse higher than the one before. I imagine frenzied 8-year-olds, eyes glowing like wolves, demanding that their parents take them to the toy store IMMEDIATELY. 

Another strategic acquisition: When Sibyl DeWein was offloading portions of her massive collection, I purchased a doll she deemed, “Wild Hair Ken.” Manufactured in the 1970s, this Ken had rooted hair that, instead of laying smooth, was kind of frizzed up in a semi-afro. He was a factory oddity, a rare case of an irregular product that had somehow slipped past Mattel’s quality control, earning him a place in a chapter of DeWein’s Encyclopedia entitled “Freaks.” He arrived with a certificate of his provenance.

Although my collecting impulse took hold in my early 20’s, even as a child, I had an inexplicable affection for old things. When I was about four, I developed an obsession with a rosy-cheeked doll called Betsy McCall. She was 8” tall, with an enormous forehead, lots of rooted hair held in place with non-removable steel barrettes, and was made of very hard plastic. Everything about her was old-fashioned, including the strange construction of her knees, with crescent-shaped kneecaps that gave the impression that the poor, sweet girl was crippled. I loved Betsy, and told my mother that she was all I wanted for Christmas. Unfortunately, she had gone out of production a year prior. 

Somehow, my mother tracked one down, and was thrilled that she would be able to surprise me on Christmas morning. She was out running errands one day, with me and my Grandmother in tow. We went to Wyman’s Department Store, and Mom told me to wait with Grandma while she picked something up. While Mom was looking for a sales clerk to help her, Grandma said, “Go look behind the display here, where they keep the stock. You never know what you might find.” I crept back to the stock shelves and, guided by some sort of telepathic GPS, went straight to an unmarked box, opened it, and squealed with delight. Betsy!!!

My mother was steaming. How on Earth had I found her secret Christmas surprise?

When it came to Barbie, I wasn’t that interested in the ones that were manufactured when I was 9, 10, 11-years-old. Sure, they were groovy, with their long, straight hair and bangs, and their twist-and-turn waists. But for me, only the original dolls, the ones from 1959 through 1964, held the power. I liked their stern faces, the hard precision of their bodies, the fact that their legs didn’t bend. Again, I prevailed upon my mother. She dutifully called the neighbor across the street, who had a daughter a few years older than me. “Marge,” my mother said, “is there any chance that Linda would be willing to sell her Barbie dolls? Strange child that she is, Carole only likes the old ones.”

Linda begrudgingly parted with a bubble-cut Barbie, a red felt coat and a few other pieces of clothing — and oh, yeah, a dreaded Midge— but refused to part with a ponytail Barbie or the cardboard Dream House I so coveted. Who could blame her?

When I first dipped my toe into the world of Barbie collectors, for a moment I thought I might want to be a Barbie Kingpin, a Big Wig, a mover and shaker. That thought quickly evaporated. If collecting is creepy, collectors can be even creepier—closet-y freaks with a fetishistic fixation on whatever it is that is their thang. But in the case of Barbie, they were just plain boring. I got my first inkling of this at a collectors’ meeting I attended in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, where a bunch of ladies sat around, talking about what they had, what they wanted, and what’s a good price. With my thrift store threads and punk rock ethos, I definitely did not fit in with these Dress Barn shoppers. But style wasn’t the only dividing line. Scanning the room, it was apparent that not only was I the youngest person there, but most of these women were too old to have grown up with Barbie. So how had they come to collect her? What was their connection to her? To me, she was still a totem that represented the mysteries of womanhood. By that point in my life, I’d looked at Barbie from both sides now; as an innocent little girl, and as a 20-something, with breasts of my own and a sex life to boot. And still, she intrigued me, representing aspects of feminine wiles that I enjoyed, others that I rejected, and still others that seemed as if they would forever elude me. That’s what motivated my collecting, but whatever motivated this bland bunch was not discussed.

Around this time, I started writing about Barbie

Around this time, I started writing about Barbie, partly as a way of untangling my feelings. If this were happening today, in the 21st century, I would have started a blog, but it was the 1980’s, so I put together a zine. Barbie and Tammy: The Real Story was about what two very different dolls, and what each represented. Tammy was a competitor of Barbie in the early 1960s, and represented a much more wholesome alternative. I ruminated on the differences between the two, and why Tammy didn’t stand a chance in this world. 

Partly out of curiosity, partly out of some misdirected desire to make friends, I signed up for the national Barbie Convention, which was taking place at a hotel across the highway from LaGuardia Airport. It was two-days-worth of workshops, dinners, and a sales room filled with collectable Barbies from all eras that had the attendees at fever pitch. The whole thing turned out to be just as dull as the collectors’ meeting, but on a much larger scale. I started to notice there were two camps of collectors: the ladies who emulated Barbie, with accessorized outfits and precise makeup and coifs, and then the overweight, sloppy bunch for whom Barbie was perhaps an alter ego. I didn’t fit into either camp. 

I brought along copies of my zine to share with the conventioneers. It had turned out well, filled with arty photos comparing and contrasting the two dolls. I printed it on pink paper, and crafted a binding out of silver metallic tape. It was selling well in the bookstores of the East Village in NYC, and it was going to be reprinted in a semiotics journal(1). But when I offered it to the collectors, they just looked confused. 

Feeling alienated and alone, I was ready to go home, but I wanted to attend the auction. I had a few of my primo items from my find in it: Arabian Nights, a rare outfit from 1964, and one of the doll-and-clothing boxed sets. I was excited to see what they might fetch.

Finally, the hour rolled around. As my lots came up for bidding, I whispered to the stranger beside me, “These are mine.” She was a gray haired plump gal with a kind face. “Oh!,” she said, and grasped my hand in hers. As the bidding grew fast and furious, she squeezed a little bit harder. When it was all finished, I’d made $1500. My new friend gave me a hug. 

“Honey, that’s the easiest money you’ll ever make,” she said.

I left the convention feeling happy about the money, but disillusioned by the whole scene. I used part of my windfall to buy a car—a vintage clunker that I loved, and that only set me back $700. The rest went to paying bills. I continued to collect stuff for a few more years, but by the time I closed in on age 30, the impulse to amass was all but gone. I no longer enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, and what’s more, I no longer enjoyed being surrounded by nostalgia. My self-made incubator had done its job, and now I was ready to face the world, if somewhat belatedly. I sold off the remainder of the collection for several thousand dollars, and used the money to help make ends meet while I went back to school to get a master’s degree. 

Occasionally, I have a tiny pang of regret for holding onto my collection, but not very often. I did keep a couple of items, including a blond ponytail Barbie (sadly, she’s a sweaty number five). Still, on the rare occasions that I come across her, stored in her box in the back of a closet, she seems like an artifact from a distant time, which at this point, she is. With her perfect hard body and her pretty little bitch face, she remains aloof and enigmatic. That’s her prerogative. What’s amazing is that the old girl still holds the power to transport me back to my childhood, and also back to those troubled years in my 20s when she came to my rescue. Barbie not only inspired me to write, she also helped pay for my education. 

What a good friend she turned out to be. 

Carole Nicksin is editor of Milwaukee Magazine. She has written for numerous magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, and is co-author of Party Fabulous: 12 Parties to Change the World, one of the most esoteric books on entertaining ever published. Her personal essays cover a wide range of topics, including touring the country as a Care Bear and stalking Andy Warhol. Writing this piece, Nicksin was surprised to realize the many ways Barbie still shapes her aesthetic. To her mind, no wardrobe is complete without a sheath dress, clutch purse and stilettos.

(1) The magazine lost the original artwork. What you see here is all that remains.