If the practice of taking war souvenirs isn't the oldest form of collecting, then it is certainly in the neighborhood. Organized military conflict has historically been an enterprise rich in symbols and heraldry, so collecting artifacts from a vanquished foe has been a natural part of warfare. The charming practice of displaying an opponent's severed head on a pike has fallen into disfavor among most modern cultures, but a vigorous pursuit of the foe's hats, helmets, flags, insignia, weapons, and equipment remains a constant theme, from ancient times right up to and including ongoing conflicts.
There are as many reasons to collect as there are collectors. A collector doesn't need to have a personal association with a particular battle, campaign, or individual. Military conflicts make for compelling history, and that alone can serve as the inspiration driving a collector's pursuit of artifacts. An object from the US Armed Forces can be a powerful connection to one soldier's story, our nation's history, and to a critical moment in time.
The two world wars of the 20th century are the source for most military antiques on the collector's market today. Why those events? Consider that during World War I and World War II a fair portion of the world's fighting-age population was in uniform, with military forces supplied by full-scale industrial production of arms and equipment. Add policies on taking souvenirs that were much more liberal than those in place today, plus American servicemen's ability to simply attach postage stamps to their souvenirs and send them home — the stage was set for a prolific trade in war souvenirs.
The desire for captured enemy kit was not limited to soldiers on the battlefield. During the first world war, Uncle Sam harnessed the national passion for souvenirs, sending home mountains of enemy equipment recovered from storage depots behind the front lines. Much of this material was used for War Relic Trains — traveling exhibits of captured loot that was intended to gather crowds for the purpose of selling Liberty Loan bonds. To entice sales, relics such as German spiked helmets were sometimes offered as premiums for larger bond purchases. This is one of the reasons why we often find German World War I helmets among the treasures of families who did not have any direct relative serving in that war.
The massive scope of military memorabilia from the two world wars provides ample opportunity for new collectors to join in the hobby. Collectors of all budgets can enjoy artifacts as inexpensive as $2 shoulder patches, while others spend the time and money to restore warbirds and tanks. At both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between, today's militaria collectors have the opportunity to own meaningful pieces of history, usually under far happier circumstances than when they were originally acquired!