Why Do We Collect Shells?

by Deborah Wills
There I was, thousands of miles from home standing in a crowded reception room one hundred feet above the ground in Seattle's Space Needle waiting for a napkin. The waiter's eyes had revealed his thoughts when I had asked for that napkin and if the "lids" were in the kitchen, but he said nothing and soon returned with a plastic ziplock bag for my treasures. I only took three, but I wish I had gathered them all. Were these "treasures" trinkets of gold, or silver, or a plundered table decoration? No, they were freshdead oyster shells. Do you wonder why I would want messy, just-emptied oyster shells? Well, depending on my mood, my well-honed response might be "Why not?" or "Because."

As a land-locked lover of shells, I've learned to appreciate shells wherever I can find them, be it in computers, rivers, fabric stores, magazines, the bottom of aquarium tanks, the frozen section of a grocery store, and, yes, even at fancy receptions. The thrill of my latest find was multiplied later that evening when I realized just how recently harvested those oysters had been. Attached to those shells I found a living growth series of mussels (the largest was 1" long), a variety of small, yet fascinating, limpets, and four gastropods only a couple millimeters in length each. Regardless of what else happened on that trip, nothing could compare with how euphoric I felt that night.

When it comes to this compulsion and joy of collecting, I find that I am not alone. There is something in the human spirit that drives us to know more about "what's out there" whether it be exploring inner space, outer space or cyberspace. And, history has shown us that there is also an inner need to bring something back to remind us of our journey. In a sense, this need to explore and collect may be a subconscious effort to learn more about ourselves. Well, while many of us were satisfying that need to "bring something back" from the COA convention, Andy Rindsberg posed the age old question to COA's electronic discussion group (Conch-L) "Why do we collect shells?"

I collect shells because:

Floating face down in tropical waters while snorkeling is one of the most enjoyable of physical and mental exercises. It is never boring, always exciting, and totally relaxing, but with the excitement of a treasure hunt added. I have a tremendous sense of self-satisfaction in seeing just how much of [the shell's] natural (clean) appearance I can restore. They are nature's jewels -- the colors, the shapes, they are superb examples of art to be admired and appreciated; therefore, I display them for all to see. Each self-collected shell brings a memory of a good day in my life. Any day you find a shell worth keeping is a good day. I want to pass them down to my grandchildren as works of art. I use them to inspire myself, family and friends to be creative. . . . My entire home is decorated around the soft pastel shades found in shells.

--Sylvia S Edwards

The collection, cleaning, curation, and study of shells is to me . . . a means of retaining some sense of sanity in this increasingly hurried and sometimes insane society . . . . Shell collecting is a means of personal growth and satisfaction. I do not want to sound too ethereal here, but it is not just what I do, it is who I am. And I am glad.

--Doug Shelton

I enjoy getting outdoors; finding new collecting sites or rediscovering old ones; listening to the quiet; thinking to myself; singing unheard in the woods. I enjoy seeing the fossils emerge from the sediment, each shell with more detail than could ever be described, each one different, each one once alive and with its own life story.

I enjoy sorting shells into species, and learning which type of juvenile corresponds to which type of adult. I love to examine the drill holes and breakages and encrustations, the myriad accidents that can happen to a shell. I enjoy gathering the references together and that flash of insight when I recognize a shell in an old book. I savor seeing things that have not been recorded, adding a new brick to the edifice of science, knowing that it is new. I enjoy the feeling of continuity with dead and living practitioners of the same art -- the sense of community.

And I enjoy the drawers of cleaned shells, neatly labeled, useful for science, meaningful in a way that uncollected shells never are.

--Andy Rindsberg

I enjoy mostly their beauty. There's no price tag on my enjoyment I've had acquiring them.

--Carol Boswell Simpson

. . . You see, shell collecting is an instinctive persuasion. Collecting, like eating and sleeping, is part of being human. We collect . . . because we are human. Each of us must give in to this drive. I have directed my drive to shells and, specifically, the Epitoniidae. It has nothing to do with any will on my part. It is a MUST thing we all experience. Our only free will part in it is what we choose to collect. Shunning any collecting guarantees our DNA to be quite close to Neanderthal.

--Art Weil

I wouldn't be surprised if some day the scientists working on the human genome will find a collecting gene. If you inherit one from your parents, you become a collector; if you get two, you are really in trouble -- like some of my friends who collect everything in sight . . . .

--John Wolff

Since I miss the sea so much, I started to collect shells as a means to be in touch with it between my dives. While diving I collect shells and back to Brasilia I clean, classify and store them . . . . Today, 6 years after starting this hobby, I love shell collecting even more than diving and thanks to Internet and to Conch-L I have many new friends in several countries.

--Eduardo Moreira (Brazil)

[Tucker] Abbott emphasized that conchology is relaxing. "Hobbies are . . . very necessary things for many people, and many depressed, bored or cynical individuals might be satisfied, fulfilled, deeply interested and productive if they had a hobby to use as a medium for self-expression. 'Shells don't talk back to me!' is a statement that I have heard from several professional malacological scientists" [Kingdom of the Seashell]. Abbott thought that a collector needs to be a little crazy to spend time with shells, but that shells are great therapy, not the root cause of eccentricity. Sounds true enough to me.

When I am out collecting shells, I feel close to my hunter-gatherer ancestors, and wordless.

--Andy Rindsberg

In my humble opinion there is no greater reverence we can exhibit to the Creator than to collect and cherish and pass on His greatest natural wonders . . . .


One of my greatest drives is the sense of discovery, finding new taxa, or extending the range or rediscovering lost populations or the first living specimen of a particular species or being able to observe some aspect of the life history/biology of any one species. There is also the sense of being able to look into the past, and sometimes to touch history . . . .

I have always been fascinated by the diversity shown by the whole class, not just snails. It never ceases to amaze me just how many habitats that molluscs are found in and goes to show just how successful, as a group, they really are.

Another major drive is that with the skills and knowledge I have I am capable of making real contributions to the total sum of what's known about molluscs and other groups that are directly or indirectly associated with them. . . . They are for me a tremendous way of sparking a sense of wonder in nature, and showing people from the very young to the elderly just how amazing and special the planet and the creatures we share it with really is.

As for why I started collecting I have to blame my father, and a little later my uncle (his elder brother) for they both had a great appreciation of nature.

--Stephanie Clark (Australia)

Some shell collectors can't really define what first got them interested. They "just sort of grew into it." I trace my interest directly to enjoyable boyhood memories, looking through the drawers of my grandfather's cabinets, trying to find the species in a tattered copy of Webb's Catalog, and especially picking through his many boxes of shell "rejects" and other odds and ends in the room next to the coal bin [in] his dusty old cellar!

--Paul Monfils

The thing is, I've never thought about why I collect. Or what I collect. And if I take this seriously (which I do), it requires a bit, or a lot, of self-analysis . . . examining my own feelings, I wonder if the answer . . . isn't tied up in some way in being able to control our world, rather than having the world control us. We limit or expand our collection as we see fit, we make our own rules of what we collect, we change our mind and so shift our focus to other areas. Those of us who do this merely as a hobby (as I do), identify things as best we can, and no one dares tell us we're wrong. It's close to the best of all possible worlds. We approach perfection as our collection approaches perfection.

So . . . why do I still love doing it? Don't know.

It is the beauty of the world around us, the connection we as humans make with other living things, the search for knowledge, in my case at least, for the sake of knowledge itself, the desire for immortality by finding new species; and the desire to have the young use us as role models, because, after all, aren't we just the greatest people anyway?

--Michael Penziner

I really enjoy the recent lively discussions on CONCH-L about why we collect shells. At least I don't feel that alone on this island.

--CHAN Sow-Yan (Singapore)

Now why do I collect shells? Because . . . .