I suspect that the seemingly illogical excessive accumulation of things -- better known as "stuff" -- is a phenomenon of the past 75 years or so. Because before that time, many people were poor, and goods were far more costly as a factor of income. This is also why closets in older working class houses were either tiny or nonexistent. From a psychological perspective, this practice of accumulation is called compulsive hoarding, defined by Wikipedia as "a pattern of behavior that is characterized by the excessive acquisition of and inability or unwillingness to discard large quantities of objects that cover the living areas of the home and cause significant distress or impairment... [and] has been associated with health risks, impaired functioning, economic burden, and adverse effects on friends and family members."
On the lighter side, stuff has also provided fun fodder for comic strips and was the foundation for one of the most popular original radio shows called Fibber McGee & Molly, which premiered on NBC in 1935. On that show, the sound of Fibber's stuff falling from his closet upon his opening the door provided much comedy to listeners.
In full disclosure, I have friends and family who delicately tell me, from time to time, that I have too much stuff. Defense is difficult, since the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders indicates that "... hoarding patients do not recognize it as a problem." But, hey, I have lots of hobbies, a large basement, and a garage. And my gems -- musical instruments, vintage stereo equipment, and tools -- are mostly acquired from garage sales, Craigslist and eBay for pennies on the dollar, and they eventually get rehabbed and gifted to friends or charities. I think of it as my private little philanthropy, though my wife disagrees.
So I felt vindicated and pleased this past week when I assisted a psychiatrist friend with a project and discovered that his four-car garage was jammed to the gills with so much stuff that my own house in comparison looked more like Fibber McGee's little closet. And the next day's New York Times published a long expose titled "The Trouble With Stuff" in its Real Estate section. New York City's residential real estate boom appears to have resulted in a much broader acceptance of acquiring the homes of hoarders -- presenting some arbitrage buy opportunities.
Many of these dwellings look like condo versions of my friend's garage, or as NYT writes, "with inventory so low, almost any new listing gets waves of attention, and even the overflowing homes of hoarders are catnip to buyers. Yet selling these properties is different from most transactions: Brokers must restrain themselves from the push-and-pull that typifies most sales. Tact, restraint and sensitivity are the relevant qualities. With many properties, possessions have accumulated to such an extent that simply setting foot inside is a challenge."
If, like me, you're a saver or accumulator of things, the lesson in all of this is to be vigilant about the ultimate utility of the stuff you acquire and hold on to. Interestingly, the so-called disorder of hoarding -- though I do not believe I have it -- has an hereditary component. Because my parents were hoarders and it took me 12 months to clean out their home prior to sale, I've decided to inventory and market price the value my things. Dysfunction or not, it's simply not fair to leave copious quantities of stuff to our heirs and loved ones. And as a final caveat, should I fail to anticipate my eventual demise, I'm leaving clear instructions to feel free to dump it all. Meanwhile, I have some organizing to do this weekend -- and maybe a garage sale.