A former IT consultant, who has collected over 3200 aeroplane sick bags says he first fell in love with them as a student 40 years ago – and his favourite ‘barf bag’ came from a NASA space shuttle.
Steve Silberberg, 60, who lives in Hull, Massachusetts, USA with his partner Madeleine Rys, 55, a former events manager, says his penchant for sick bags was a ‘litmus test’ for his relationships in the past, and he has always got on best with women who can see the funny side of his eccentric obsession.
He said: “It’s not that I would lead with it and say, ‘Hi, I’m Steve, I’m the sick bag collector.’
“But I would find that women who would shake their heads and say, ‘Why do you do that?’ were typically someone I would not relate to very well.”
Madeleine, who he had known for a while but first asked out when he encountered her on a beach walk 11 years ago, was nonplussed when Steve first told her about his collection a few months into their relationship.
“It did not turn her away and I’m glad about that,” Steve said.
“She’s amused by it but has no interest in getting involved.
“When anyone shows interest in my hobby, she thinks it’s crazy but she just accepts it and says, ‘Yes, I’m with the barf bag guy.'”
Steve who dabbled with more conventional collections when he was young, such as coins and stamps, was first inspired to start amassing sick bags in 1981, when he was 20 and was studying electrical engineering and computer science at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He said: “40 years ago, I was taking a six-hour flight from Boston to San Francisco to visit my brother.
“It was a long flight and lonely and I saw the bag in the seat back in front of me.
“And I thought, ‘Wow, this seems like a unique thing. I bet nobody else collects these.’ So I decided to grab one. And it started that inauspiciously.”
Soon, the outside of Steve’s college dorm room door was adorned with the airsickness bags from his most recent flights and his university friends began to bring him airsickness bags they had picked up too.
By the end of college 18 months later, Steve who now runs his own company offering hiking trips for backpackers, had accumulated 30 to 40 bags and had started to seek out more original models, writing to air companies and asking friends of friends who travelled far and wide to pick up specimens from abroad.
And in the late Nineties, Steve’s passion exploded with the advent of the internet.
Setting up a website in 1997 to catalogue his collection, which now boasted 200 sick bags, he realised there was a whole world of fellow aficionados out there.
Explaining why he first set up the site, Steve said: “What’s the point of having a collection if you can’t share it with the world?
“It’s a point of pride and making the website was also not a terrible way of improving my computing skills as the web was pretty new at that time.”
Within a year of being online, Steve, then based in Dallas, Texas, had found 20 other collectors – including one who lived in the same city who he met in a cafe so they could discuss their passion and trade vomit bags.
He said: “It made me think I have kindred spirits all over the world and thought it was a great opportunity to increase the size of the collection.”
These days, Steve has databased his huge collection of 3231 bags from around 150 countries, and has 50 more bags waiting to be put into his system.
At the centre of the barf bag community – he reckons around 250 people do this globally – his website airsicknessbags.com offers not only a database of his own sick bags but also contact details of around 100 ‘serious’ collectors that people can trade with in order to grow their collection.
Steve, who used to often fly around the world on business trips, admits that only 100 of his bags are from flights he has personally taken.
He mainly finds new vomit catchers by making like-for-like swaps with others.
He explains: “The age and country of origin and application of the bag can make it more rare. I also take into account if the airline is still in business and size of the fleet.
“If somebody I’ve been trading with for 20 years wants a rare bag and can only give a ‘common’ bag in return, then I may do it anyway because I’m usually quite free and open about swapping.
“But normally you would want to trade a rare bag with another rare bag,” he said.
Some bags are also available on eBay and Steve has occasionally bought from there, spending up to $35 dollars (£26) on an interesting find.
He said: “I paid $35 dollars for a five foot tall and two foot wide Virgin Atlantic bag that had been used as a marketing tool for the airline and was posted all around New York City in around 2013.”
He has also sometimes picked an airline for a flight he is making, on the basis it will help with his quest for new bags.
“Once I chose a specific Sky Air flight to Chile because I didn’t have a bag from them before,” he said.
As a result of all this effort, Steve’s collection is truly global.
He said: “I have bags from almost every country.
“There’s a few places I can think of that I don’t have, such as Burkina Faso – but I’m not really sure what their national airline is.”
And he even has bags from countries that no longer exist.
“I have a sickness bag from Ceylon from around 1966, before the island became known as Sri Lanka,” he said.
But vast as Steve’s collection is, he still has some way to go to beat the sick bag collecting Guinness World Record holder – Niek Vermeulen, of the Netherlands, earned his title in February 2012, with his hoard of 6,290 bags at the time from 1,191 airlines from almost 200 countries.
As for the value of his own sick bag collection, Steve is not sure it would be worth a huge amount of money.
He said: “For insurance purposes, I think it would cost 10,000 dollars [£7,485] to replace but in terms of what someone would pay for it, I’m not sure if it has any value at all. They’re just sick bags after all.”
For Steve, collecting the bags is not about their value – it is a labour of love.
“I thought it would be a good way to meet women but it’s not! Why do I collect? Why do people collect at all? There’s an aesthetic to it and it’s satisfying.
“It means I can focus my urge to hoard on just sick bags so I don’t hoard everything else.”
He continued: “Sadly, I can never seem to spend enough time with the bags.
“Not that I would spend all day every day – but you know, there are family obligations and work obligations that get in the way.
“I usually spend around three hours a week on the hobby, cataloguing them, scanning them, working on the website and communicating with other collectors.”
And one day, Steve would like to share his collection properly with the world.
“I currently keep them in about 30 three-ring loose-leaf binders in my closet but one day I dream of having enough space to make a museum for them.
“There’s lots of empty commercial property after Covid-19, I’d like to share a commercial property to display them.”
“There might be tourists driving past on the highway that would think, ‘Hey let’s visit the barf bag museum’,” said Steve.
Pride of place in his museum would go to his all time favourite bag – which was not designed for airsickness at all but rather space-sickness, since it is a vomit bag that was used for a Space Shuttle that launched back in 2000.
Steve acquired the bag that is made from a special kind of space age fabric and is designed to withstand the rigours of space, through a friend’s cousin who worked at NASA.
“I don’t know if the bag made it into space or not but I still think it’s pretty cool,” he said.
“It’s not made of paper and it feels like kevlar, or at least some space age fabric.”
Now Steve is due to reach further sickening heights as he will feature in 2022’s Dull Men’s Club calendar alongside other eccentrics who turn the everyday into something bizarre.
Steve is the ‘Dull Man’ for July and is pictured posing with his bags.
But for anyone tempted to take up Steve’s hobby, he has a word of warning: Barf bags have not always brought a positive reaction and, he thinks, in one instance his quirky collection even helped ruin a work relationship.
He said: “A colleague once introduced me to a new member of our team saying, ‘This is Steve, he works in IT and he collects sick bags’ and we never got on from then onwards.
“I think it was the foundation for a bad relationship!”
But Steve thinks people should see his collecting in a completely different, more ordinary way.
He said: “I’m not obsessed and I’m not a hoarder but I just like them like people like ice cream.”