Until I was 14, I spent nearly every Saturday evening wading through a wealth of antique objects in my grandmother’s small apartment in the Baltimore suburbs. With her mismatched, plentiful collection of teacups, I’d envision elaborate, imaginary tea parties. Cloaked in one of her smocked aprons, I’d peruse her jewelry box and model broaches and clip-on earrings in her oval-shaped bedroom mirror. But when she passed away, there was only one thing I wanted: the tiny Cabbage Patch Kid. It was a plastic figurine with blonde pigtails and red glasses, sitting on a stack of books. Someone had given it to my grandmother, as a joke probably, because it looked like me (or at least the Cabbage Patch version of me), and she had treasured it. She kept it on her dresser for years, and now it sits on my dresser in Cambridge.
A CHEESE BOX, a collection of fingernail clippings, and an “ugly” inflatable doll are all precious to their owners.
I see the tiny Cabbage Patch Kid as one of my most valued objects; a reminder of the ever-increasing gap between now and the time I spent with my grandmother. It’s what Sherry Turkle would call my “evocative object,” and Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes would call my object of “unexpected significance.” Turkle, Glenn, and Hayes are editors of two recently published collections of essays that examine everyday objects to which we attach personal significance. Glenn and Hayes’s Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance and Turkle’s Evocative Objects: Things We Think With are not tales from the compulsive hoarders of the world — the books focus not on eccentric junk collections but specific objects with personal meanings.
“Just as we are collectors of things, things are collectors of meaning,” writes Glenn in his introduction to Things, a book born from a drunken conversation at a dinner party with co-creator Hayes. Hayes, a New York–based designer, and Glenn — a longtime columnist for the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section, mastermind behind the fantastically philosophical, sadly defunct Hermenaut ’zine, and instigator of writerly gatherings in Boston — put the word out to potential contributors, mostly artists, designers, and writers.
“We wanted objects that nobody else would have found remarkable,” Glenn says over the phone from his house in Jamaica Plain. The pair’s call for weird, wonderful artifacts resulted in a collection of 75 love letters to the things that collect dust on forgotten shelves and elicit remarks of “What is this?” from bemused guests, yet can never be discarded. “People had objects that were like totems, that act as some kind of guiding spirit,” Glenn says. “We think of people having totems as something that’s primitive — enlightened people don’t do that. And yet here they were doing it.”
The many local contributors include writers Matthew Battles and Chris Fujiwara; artists Rosamond Purcell, Kristine Cortese, and Michael Lewy; archivist Kristin Parker, Boston magazine columnist Joe Keohane, Salon.com columnist Patrick Smith, and Boston Globe deputy design director Greg Klee. Other contributors from the world at large include author and critic Luc Sante and Baffler founder Thomas Frank. The short Things essays, which average around 300 words each, are humorous, heartbreaking, and mildly contemplative (though less analytic than Turkle’s), each accompanied by a snapshot of the object.
Included in this trove of ostensibly trivial things is a bagel burnt by Christopher Walken, a plastic pencil sharpener shaped like a TV, an electric saw designed for kids(!), a decade’s worth of collected fingernail clippings, and the “dog-chewed, ketchup-stained, Miracle-Whipped, pawed-by-a-thousand-little-hands” arm of a childhood couch. There’s a cast-off, robotic-looking hairdryer that local architect Henry Scollard spotted on Tremont Street one night in the summer of 2000. He rescued it from impending junkyard fate because, as he writes in the book, “If you’re a guy and you see something even vaguely robotic on the street, you don’t think; you act.” The robot represents Scollard’s tastes in concrete form. “I take a great deal of pleasure from an object (whether it be film, a piece of music or a consumer product) that has a big aspiration/reality imbalance,” Scollard writes in an e-mail. “Hence, the robot, which probably never really worked but was clearly the work of an obsessive mind.”