The Extinction of the Pack Rat

Although I do not exhibit the same obsessive-compulsive qualities, my family is comprised of notorious pack rats. Every drawer overfloweth with random bobs and crusty old bits that may, in the delusional corners of my parents’ minds, yet be the solution to some future need. Jars of keys sit as sad testaments to decades of left-behind suitcases, cars, lockers and apartments. Pee-Wee-Herman-like, an enormous boulder of tin foil bulges the closet door forward pregnantly. The basement is full of thousands of unlabeled VHS tapes; the stairs are stacked with hundreds of romance novels that my mother always commanded me never to tell anyone she actually read.

Apparently, in a dustier by-gone era, practically everyone was like my parents. The Mercury Register Online has a great article pondering why everyone in the fifties and sixties saved practically everything: string, rubber bands, tin foil, paper bags, you name it. What’s changed between then and now? The author uses string as an example: kids used to use it for kites, parents used to use it to wrap packages. Why is string less useful to us now than it once was?

I’d like to suggest one possible answer, besides the ubiquity of tape: maybe all of us grew up and saw what happened to our parents’ houses when decades worth of obsessive collecting turned them into gigantic dusty trash heaps.

Curious demise of the pack rat [Mercury Register Online]


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  1. Josh Cohen says:

    My wife is still a pack rat. She has saved every greeting card she’s ever gotten, every textbook and notebook from college, every piece of clothing she ever owned that might someday fit her or our child…

    She forgets that her parents live in a palatial 4/4.5/3 with a massive basement and a huge unfinished attic room, while we live in a modest 3/2.5/2. What is to be the baby’s room is still full of all her stuff. And the wedding gifts we’ll never use. Her office (the third bedroom) has piles of stuff all over the floor that she says she’ll put away “when she gets around to it”. My books are all on bookshelves in there, but that’s the extent of storage that I get.

  2. Paul D says:

    Mom keeps tons of crap in her minivan. I mean everywhere. She’s done it ever since the first one we bought in 1986.

    Both kids have long since left the nest. She still insists on driving a minivan and filling it with crap.

    To this day I cannot abide a cluttered car. People who fill their cars with ATM receipts, empty Mt. Dew bottles, and term papers confound me.

  3. Jay says:

    I keep everything, but I also try to file it so that it’s manageable. So I keep all my greeting cards, but they go in a folder labeled “Greeting Cards” in an accordion file that’s also got folders for “Postcards”, “Mailed Coupons”, “Rebates”, and so on and so forth.

  4. Papercutninja says:

    I think it’s a total societal change. Our parents either were or were raised by the people that had to save tin scraps and aluminum pans for the war effort. Everything was put to use back then, so everything was saved. Coca-Cola used returnable bottles, milkmen retrieved empties and replaced them with refilled bottles.

    Now? Everything is designed to be disposable, if not recycleable. And i mean EVERYTHING, not just plastic soda bottles, or milk jugs, but stuff like a digital camera. If your Canon Digital Elph craps out, what’re you gonna do? If its more than 3 years old? You’re gonna toss it. EVERYTHING is disposable now. It’s good and bad. It prevents pack rats, but creates waste.

  5. Mary Marsala With Fries says:

    The answer to “why people did it” is simple: They lived through the Depression. A time when throwing out a can of food was unthinkable; and when saving the strings that ripped off your sock meant having thread to repair your pants with. And while we might not be able or willing to imagine a time when things were so tight that having saved an extra spoon that you can melt or file into something else that you need and can’t buy might have saved your butt, something tells me that if we don’t start thinking like that once in a while, we might have to think about it a LOT in the future. -M.

  6. Smoking Pope says:

    Yeah, but is anyone as wacky as the eBay mom?

  7. etinterrapax says:

    Yeah, it’s a Depression thing. My mom’s family saves everything. My grandfather couldn’t bear to throw out even a dead ballpoint pen. He had cans of them everywhere. I was horrified when I was unpacking after our last move and discovered that I’d started keeping them myself. Pitched the lot. I’m always battling my impulse to save everything and my knowledge that my depression, small d, gets worse when my place is too cluttered. So I have a fairly elaborate system of deciding what I am allowed to save and what I must throw out or donate. The deal is more or less that if I’m going to save something, it must replace something I would ordinarily buy, like trash bags, and that I cannot buy anything that I routinely save, like rubber bands. Everyone’s thing is different. My mother-in-law, an inveterate saver, is horrified that I throw out food containers. But how many deli trays and pickle jars can one family of three possibly use?

    I’ve found that my conscience is eased if I can find a good place to donate things. I’m always looking for electronics recyclers (who don’t charge), and it’s easy and gratifying to donate old cell phones (to domestic abuse rescue services), old eyeglasses, and old winter coats. Small libraries often take book donations for their collections or for resale. It’s good to know things go to benefit others.

    Eek, now I have to clean.

  8. danielo says:

    Yes, but does your foil ball have its own blog?