NEW YORK – Think rare collectibles and a few things come to mind: Inverted stamps. Wooden head nickels. Or perhaps Faberge eggs.
But moist towelettes?
"I realize that it is kind of absurd to most people, but I enjoy it," offers collector Michael Lewis. The 25-year-old Floridian is the creator of Modern Moist Towelette Collecting, the only publication dedicated to the collection of those damp, disposable, sometimes scented paper towels.
Just consider the benefits: There are only five 1913 Liberty Heads in the world, and you'd have to be very wealthy to get enough Faberges to fill a carton. But towelettes — hey, they're everywhere. They're in bathrooms, barbecue-joint baskets and airplanes by the millions.
And at a cost of a penny or less, moist towelettes earn their place beside those priceless items not because they're rare, but because those collecting them are.
"I really don't know why I did it," Lewis said from the Orlando office where he works as a computer programmer. "I guess I just wanted to be the first at something."
Lewis first asked towelette companies to contribute to his growing collection. He decided to go out on his own after his requests were ignored.
His plans are global in scope. "I'll bring it to the masses," he said. His site, http://members.aol.com/moisttwl/index.htm, has become the hub of a moist towelette-collecting network that reaches from California to Australia.
Lewis has amassed 1,700 unique samples of towelettes displayed in customized photo albums that make him the envy of his legion of fellow collectors. If the 20 or so who frequently contribute to the site make a legion, that is.
"I just wanted to collect them," offered Emily Wassmann, 8, of Glenview, Ill. "I like them because you get to see all the designs on the packages."
Emily has been collecting moist towelettes with her father since she was 4. She now has about 200 of them, and her prize is a towelette with a 3-D design on the wrapper.
While the moist-towelette hobby might seem like a childhood fixation, it's serious business for adult collectors. Needless to say, Lewis finds other things to wipe his hands on when he goes out for barbecue.
"I don't open the towelettes they give me," he said. "They're too valuable for me to open."
He also checks out auctions on eBay, one time beating another bidder with his $5 purchase of antique towelettes from the 1960s. That price would shock Matthew Kuhl, account manager for National Towelette Company, of Cinnaminson, N.J., which makes the towelettes for Burger King's kids' meals.
"It's a giveaway product at a restaurant," he said. "Nobody wants to spend a lot of money on (it)...We make 20 million of them a month."
Though Lewis started collecting because no one else was doing it, he quickly picked up the basic principles of his new recreation. Restaurant towelettes and airline towelettes differ from each other and from casino towelettes, which in turn are a breed away from relatively rare gas station offerings.
Then there are specialty towelettes, like those used for applying sunscreen or insect repellent. There are even religious-themed towelettes and mint-flavored ones for unlucky travelers who may have forgotten a toothbrush.
Lewis' passion has left more than a few people puzzled.
"They've got to have better things to do than collect moist towelettes," says Michael Mackey, president of American Flexpac, a Green Bay, Wis.-based towelette-packaging company. "But everyone's got to collect something, I guess."
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