Hoarding – A New Disease of the 20th Century

If you had a medical condition that effected your behaviour every single day, that interfered with your ability to function effectively in your daily life, that negatively impacted your physical environment and compromised your ability to exist in that environment …. then I reckon we could say that you had a fairly serious disease.

I have one.  And its a disease that (so far as I know) has no effective treatment, has no medical recognition and no support groups.  But it really does have all of the characteristics listed above.

My name is Andrew and I’m a hoarder.

I suspect that this disease has existed amongst humans for a very long time but its only in the comparatively recent past …. in the 20th century, in fact …. that conditions within Western society developed in a way that enabled it to become a serious issue.  That’s because it was in the 20th century, that Western society moved from a time of scarcity, to a time of plenty.  And woe to those of us who’s lifetime straddled that transition. I can imagine that there was a time when parents fervently hoped that their kids would catch the hoarding bug, because it was a desirable survival trait.  (The same parents also hoped we’d catch Chicken Pox and Measles!) The cause of my particular ailment is, I think, a three bladed sword.

Our parents lived in an age of scarcity … a time when one’s very survival might be dependent upon frugality.  Ordinary people simply didn’t have much in the way of property and possessions.  The ability to sniff out and to acquire potentially worthwhile items or commodities was regarded as a real personal asset. It was considered an essential virtue to be frugal in all things …. never letting go of anything unless it was totally beyond any possible further use.  Those parents taught us to be frugal, to avoid waste and to not discard anything that might yet have a purpose.  They did their best to pass on to us, their children, the survival skills which life had passed down to them.

As the last century unfolded and the full benefits of the post industrial revolution set in, the level of materials and commodities that became available to ordinary people began to expand exponentially.  Our parents, steeped in the traditions of frugality and economy, were horrified by the new affluence and the emergence of the throw-away society.  They disapproved and they made sure that we, their children, learned of the evil that they saw in this new decadent age. Goods and property were now simply discarded …. not because they had exhausted every possible use, but simply because they had ceased to be desirable … perhaps they had stopped looking brand new, perhaps they were no longer the latest model …. or perhaps the owners had simply tired of them.  In addition to being taught the evils of our wasteful society, we were encouraged to take advantage of it … by picking up the good things that others had discarded.

The third facet of this awful debilitation affects fewer people but, when compounded with the double whammy of ‘retain to survive’ and ‘wastefulness is evil’ it really serves to destroy any likelihood of one being able to live a normal, effective existence. The third branch of the hoarding addiction is …. being handy.  In former times, society was far less specialised than it is today.  Ordinary people did for themselves, far more than now.  So it was normal for Mum to be a seamstress, as well as a nurse, in addition to all of the other skills required to keep a home.  And any man worth the title, was expected to embrace a whole range of skills, from repairing the family shoes to remodeling the house, growing a garden and maintaining the family car, all while holding down a job outside the home.  Being handy was considered essential to being a worthwhile individual.  My Dad taught me to want to be handy; and I am.

Like any good parents, mine did their best to pass on the life skills and values they had acquired, to the next generation …… me and my siblings.  I think all parents instinctively do their best to equip their offspring for survival in the world.  But no-one can give you that which they don’t have; and what our parents didn’t have was experience …. experience of living in a world of affluence.

The net effect of all this is that I have developed into a person who is ill-equipped to function in a world where there is too much of everything.  I keep everything.  Discarding anything at all involves an absurd mental journey where the gods of frugality and economy must be paid due homage and where every possible alternative use for every last thing, must be thoroughly thought through.  I have  a range of possessions that would have made any museum, factory, library or science lab of yesteryear green with envy.  I hang on to every last piece of ‘material’ that comes my way.  My filing cabinet, for example, holds amongst other things, pieces of cardboard and plastic, carefully saved from cereal packets and shirt boxes.  In my desk are all sorts of ‘worthwhile’ items … like magnets and glass lenses, a compass and map reading equipment.  There’s one drawer that is filled with computer software CD’s, most of which I haven’t touched in ages. In the cupboard is a button accordion (was my Dad’s) and a wind up portable gramophone, along with a lot of defunct camera and computing equipment.  In my shed, there are scraps of metal, wood and wire and sheet steel.  Motor vehicle parts and motor boat bits.  I have enough tools to build a house, or a car … or even to perform surgery if the mood struck me.

My home is a museum of my life, with evidence of every interest I ever had.  And the degree of interest is reflected in the quantity of crapobilia that remains.  And it reaches a point where I can’t work in my shed because there is no clear space left (and its a big shed!) and cleaning in my spare room is a nightmare because of all the junk.  The emotional and psychological agony of divesting oneself of anything is very real.  One additional factor of my particular disease is a deep seated fear of authority which inclines me to hang on to all manner of records … receipts and documents from the course of my entire life.

My parents views weren’t entirely obsolete.  They saw, way back then, what most of Western society refuses to see even now ….. that the world simply can’t continue to produce the goods and materials that we nowadays take for granted.  One day, society will have to stop this insane dance and the piper will have to be paid … dearly!

But in the meantime, in a post scarcity, pre-neo-frugality age of excess and abundance, those of us who carry the disease of the hoarder are condemned to bury ourselves under the endless discarded mountains of stuff that is ‘too good to throw away’.  Maybe a time will come when our descendants will be the fortunate ones … who have a head start on living in a world of new scarcity. Who knows.

On the upside, there’s always someone worse of than oneself.  I have heard of people who find themselves hoarding old newspapers and empty fast food containers.  There are folks who simply can’t move inside their own homes, for all the rubbish they have accrued.  Compared to them, I’m doing great.  All my junk is going to come in handy one of these days.

I do envy those fortunate souls who seem able to go through life, free of the hoarding bug.  They have no idea how fortunate was their choice of parents. Realising that I had a problem, I tried to teach my own children that you only own that which you control.  The truth for a hoarder is, what you control …. controls you.


Dang! This is embarrassing.  After going to the trouble of writing this, I googled ‘hoarding’ …. just to see if the post was indexed in Google ….. and I discover that my little problem IS in fact a recognised medical condition … with doctors and symptoms and everything!  Looks like its become quite fashionable with the reality TV set too.

I can only plead ignorance based on the fact that I don’t read newspapers, don’t generally watch television and would sooner crawl over broken glass than be forced to watch a so-called reality TV show.  I think they really are the opiate of the brain dead masses.

My take on this hoarding thing though, is that its primarily the result of parental conditioning, rather than some sort of mental imbalance.  Like everything, there are extremes and I was appalled at the fact that hoarding and sqalor seem to be inexplicably linked in many of the articles I discovered.  While I’m sure there are plenty of cases where squalor and hoarding go hand in hand … and might tend to exacerbate one another, I don’t think that being a hoarder means that you will be living in squalor.  Amongst my many ‘quirks’ is a hygiene fetish.  Can’t pat a critter without I need to wash my hands immediately.  Would sooner die of thirst than drink from a glass that looks cloudy, HATE using public rest rooms and having to touch the door handle to exit!

I think all that was parental conditioning too.  Thanks Mum! 🙂

Andrew Caddle 20130715



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2 thoughts on “Hoarding – A New Disease of the 20th Century

  1. I’m of the same generation as you, but my parents did not approve of “stuff” that was not essential. So, books were not permitted if they were fiction, whereas dictionaries and reference books were allowed. Only my brothers were allowed toys like lego & meccano, I got a child’s sewing machine. If one didn’t eat all the food put on the table in front of you, dessert was not available. I hated being a child and vowed that “when I grew up, I’d have as many books as I wanted, I’d buy myself Lego etc and would live on my favourite foods of cheese, chocolate and nuts”. I took the little sewing machine apart to see how it worked and put it together again, with no extraneous bits, plus it worked….. When I grew up I had a house packed with as many (mostly fiction) books as I wanted (literally thousands) and have a happy (veggie) relationship with food. Turned out I couldn’t digest the fat in meats. I enjoy being a grown up. I have control on what I buy, keep, hoard etc. I’ve got a rather fine stash of music on cd, a fantastic collection of buttons, an awesome arrangements of sewing threads (so much so that I had to purchase a 12 drawer unit to house them all, neatly colour co-ordinated) and can’t pass a fabric shop without going in to have a stroke……… One of my favourite hobbies is stumbling around on-line fabric stores and ogling….. You are not alone in thinking, “that’s worth keeping, it”ll come in useful one day”.

    • Hello GLM,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to the article. I loved your comment that you “enjoy being a grown up”. I suppose it’s true to say that I do too. I certainly love having the freedom to choose and I’ve never taken that for granted. I grew up but I rather doubt that I ever really became an adult. There is an eternal child inside me, always curious, never quite responsible, always in awe of the wonder around us and never able to accept the evil in mankind.

      As much as I lament my hoarding habit, I don’t imagine I can change now and I’m not sure that I’d want to. I still get such a thrill when one of those bits of junk actually does come in handy. 🙂

      Thanks for reading my blog.


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