The Young Collectors Tent at the grand Smithsonian 150th Birthday Party on the Mall hasn't even opened yet, but already the people are swarming in, friends and relatives and enthusiastic visitors, and everyone is talking at once, and the noise level is getting up to four jet engines.
"I've always liked mechanical stuff," shouts Stefan Osdene, "then I visited the Edison museum in Florida where I got a chance to see a lot of appliances. I said to myself, I have to collect these. I love 'em."
Stefan picks up a 1911 porcelain-based electric toaster. "This one's in the Smithsonian," he says with forgivable pride, "and they have several models of Thomas Edison fans, too."
His own Edison fan dates from 1898 and shows the mark of the master: massive and a bit klutzy, but it works. The hand-wound armature is the size of an ankle shackle, built to last centuries. Like everything else on the table, it is polished to look like new.
I wow over a 1910 Hamilton-Beach mixer, a 1925 marshmallow toaster and a Little Wonder Whisk Broom Vacuum Cleaner, vintage 1920, two feet long including the bag.
"I get pieces from collectors, museum auctions, and sometimes from flea markets," says Stefan, 15; he has a commanding presence and is so self-possessed that he has his own business card.
"How many do you have?" I ask, surveying the dozen or so spread out on the table.
"Oh, three to four thousand."
His father says the collection is in several rooms of their Richmond, Virginia, home. The family manages to accommodate it.
"We're codependents," he adds cheerfully.
This thing of collecting, I suddenly realize: it's all about numbers. Huge numbers. The sheer numberness of numbers. The Smithsonian's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education posted notices and distributed 100,000 applications to find young people who collect things, and then invited about 60 of them to be part of the birthday party. Collecting, of course, is the Smithsonian's thing, too. The tent will hold 40 tables, but so far only 25 have been installed.
It's plenty for me.
Outside, the party scene is heating up as crowds queue for Thai or Cajun or down-home food and stand before giant TV screens to watch the dedication of the 150th Anniversary Bell. At dozens of tents and stages up and down the Mall, hundreds of presenters and performers are here to celebrate the Smithsonian's wide-ranging interests.
Numbers. What would we do without them? Certainly we believe with utter, often naive, faith in statistics these days. We believe in them probably more than we believe in anything. A fourth-grade class of Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Falls Church, Virginia, wanted to improve their sense of numbers and see what a million looked like.
"We thought we'd collect a million of something," says teacher Allyn Kurin. "We thought: Newspapers? Too big. Pennies? Too expensive. We brainstormed awhile, and finally we came up with paper dots from hole punchers." So the 20 pupils roamed the neighborhood. They raided offices and schools, and made dots with punches in their own homes. Eventually they found a machine that punched a hundred at a time.
"Well, it was the counting that was hard," Kurin says. "It went pretty slowly, one by one, up to about 200,000. Then we got the dots from the large hole-punching machine. They were stuck together in clumps, and we were forced to find a new method of counting. We determined that 16,000 dots weigh 79 grams exactly, so we started counting them by weight." Since starting the project in September 1995 the class now has well over a million paper dots. They are exhibited in a large pretzel jar and several small pickle jars.
One pupil, Anh Pham, 11, represents the class for the day. Mostly she stays busy keeping things from blowing away in the lovely cool breeze that sweeps through. Nervously, she eyes the visitors and their roving paws.
"Please don't take the lid off that jar!" she pleads.
It was boredom that inspired 10-year-old Gregory Lane of Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, to start collecting antique rulers. "My parents were always taking me to antique shops, and I got tired of waiting around." So, he now has all kinds of wood and brass rulers — for carpenters and architects and shoemakers and hat fitters. Folding rulers, and rulers with calipers and levels and sliding rods and bars.
"My oldest ruler, about 150 years old, is from Sweden," Greg tells me. "It has measurements based on the size of the king — a thumb, a hand, a cubit (the distance from elbow to fingertip), and his reach from nose to fingertip."
He goes on to tell me that he's expanding his collection to all kinds of linear measuring devices such as tape measures. "I'm really keen on getting a lumberjack's rule. You wrap it around the tree and it tells you how much lumber is inside. At least I think that's how it works." When I ask him how he hopes to find one, he explains that he has a Website. Oh.
Here is 10-year-old Shaun Plummer of Indian Head, Maryland, and his collection of plastic souvenirs from fast-food places. The table is absolutely crawling with them. How many? "I don't know," says Shaun. But his aunt, who is here with his mother and grandmother, says he must have nearly a thousand.
As you might expect, there are many proud relatives in the tent. They're the ones sitting on folding chairs behind the displays, smiling to beat the band. Shaun's mother props up a bright yellow Dick Tracy, three inches high, who has lost his footing. "Of course this isn't quite a thousand, she says. We have more at home."
By now the collections are stacked up two to a table. Charity Watkins, 10, from Dale City, Virginia, has put out a row of rocks with a sign pointing to the smallest. The sign reads: "These are rocks I started collecting three years ago. They're one of my favorite collections. The reason why I collect rocks is because they are all special to me in a certain way. I think that every rock has its own story."
Abeer Beshir Abdalla is 14 but looks much older in her elegant gown of green and gold. She collects jewelry and clothes from the Middle East, and her table is covered with silver filigree necklaces and bedouin daggers. Some pieces are incredibly delicate and are lacquered onto boxes. "My first thing was this rose water container," she says. "It was handed down by five generations of women to me. The bedouins sprinkle rose water down the aisle for the bride at a wedding."
I see some magnificent silver ankle bracelets and a belt of Arabian vermeil coins. I see an intricately decorated silver bottle of kohl eyeliner, which is made of dried rose petals and applied with a small silver pencil dipped in rose water. "The stories behind these things are what interest me," says Abeer. "I like to imagine where they came from."
I find Meg Sandstrom, 10, of Alexandria, Virginia, red-haired and freckled, standing by her display board of Russian medals. Russians love medals, she tells me: they have them for sports teams and schools and cities and all kinds of accomplishments and places. They exchange them as gifts.
She has hers divided into sports (the Moscow Olympics are very big), aviation, politics (many Lenins, a few Gorbachevs and one Kerensky, if I remember my Russian alphabet), St. Petersburg, Moscow and other cities, Egyptian figures from museums and so on. How many?
"We counted close to 500," says her mother, Betsy Sandstrom, also with red hair and freckles. "I teach Russian, and when I go to Russia, Meg gives me her orders. We hope she'll visit there one of these days."
My head is beginning to spin. Here comes 8-year-old Larry Holmes of Suitland, Maryland, both hands full of dinosaurs, on the way to his table. There stands Dan Furnback of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, beside his 2,000 hockey cards, all neatly encased in glassine. His mother says he doesn't trade or sell them: he can't bear to give up even one.
Emily Anne Behles, 10, of Baltimore has Korean artifacts, dolls, books, juice cans, shoes, chopsticks. Gayatri Mani of Lanham, Maryland, has foreign money and coins, including some pre-British Indian coins, a 1780 Maria Theresa coin and two second-century B.C. coins. Also pencils, including a painfully bent pencil that is an ad for a chiropractor.
And there are Patrick Godfrey's small model cars and Matthew Johnson's large model cars and John Monius' replica John Deere tractors. And bonsai trees by Joshua and Noah Urban from Accokeek, Maryland, including a Japanese black pine, white serissa, Japanese hornbeam and rock cottoneaster, as well as fuchsia, wisteria and juniper. And Kate Johnson's trolls, and Melissa Fox's ceramic wall vases, and Brian Fox's lunch boxes, and Anna Gatsos' magnets and Julia Rausch's wooden ice skates that surely date back to Hans Brinker or beyond.
I tell you, there is more stuff here — sheer stuff — than you can shake a stick at. What? You say you collect sticks? How many do you have?