Orphan objects: new markets, new cultures

Prescription_bottle Here’s what I got from my sister for Christmas.  It’s her best gift ever.  (Click on the object to make it larger.)

I know it looks like an 25 year old prescription bottle.  That’s because it is.  It was issued on December 20, 1979 by Dr. Allman through Folkestad’s Pharmacy in Lincoln City, Oregon.  It contained Tranxene, an anxiety medicine. 

The gift is a puzzle.  My sister is saying, "What happened here?  Who was this guy?"  And it’s a good challenge because there are lots of particulars.  The patient, the doctor, the pharmacy, the place and the time are all specified.  My sister found something tagged with enough information to make historical detective work possible…but not easy. My sister sent me a message in a bottle, someone else’s message…in a prescription bottle. 

She is responding to my new hobby.  A couple of summers ago, I had found a passport for a German beautician called Erna Schonwald.  Using the internet as my new historical decoder ring I was able to access the Ellis Island website, a publication of the East Point Oysters Company in Washington, the Seattle phone book for 1923, historical details on the Cobb Medical Building built in Seattle in 1910, and the 1930 census. 

As a result, I was able to determine that Erma arrived in the US in 1923, sponsored by her brother Phillippe, a physician, who had arrived the year before with wife, children and servant in tow.  Erna went to live in Seattle where she worked for her brother as a book keeper, and lived with a woman called Ariston Schwertner.  I posted these results and actually made contact with one of Erna’s descendants.  (I am still waiting for her to take receipt of Erna’s passport.)

I think I know what happened.  My sister was at a garage sale or a yard sale. She found the prescription bottle in a pile of junk, and thought, "this will drive him crazy."  So far so good. 

What’s changed?  The internet makes each of us an amateur sleuth. There are lots of resources out there. The fact that I could find a Seattle phone book from the 1920s on line struck me as absolutely miraculous.  But there is no reason why every phone book for every year for every city shouldn’t be available eventually.  The resources are going to get steadily better.  And this means small efforts at sleuthing will bring ever greater results.  And that means that the internet will begin to satisfy the satisfaction threshhold of more and more people.  And that means that many more people will participate. And that will incent even more people to digitize phone books, and perhaps even create a sleuthing market of the kind that has sprung up around genealogy. 

That change makes for another change.  A whole set of objects should suddenly return to scrutability, as it were.  Erna’s passport that is something any good historian should have been able to make speak.   But with internet research instruments at our disposal, a vast set of objects will be capable of speech.   Passports, prescription bottles, books with plates in them, school scribblers, wallets, purses (assuming some identifiers), cell phones with data still inside, computers (assuming the same), clothing with names sewn in, automobiles, houses.  There’s a lot out there. 

And what happens then?  People would begin to restore historical details to objects, and in some cases restore the objects to owners or the ancestors of owners.  They could give them to museums.   Or they could build magnificent personal collections that attract interest from other collectors,  the historical community, and the museum world. 

Or, we can imagine a "catch and release" program, that encourages me to document my prescription bottle, tag it with the information I discover about it, and then return it to the year sale circuit.  There is something like this already in the form of Geocaching, where objects are being tagged with GPS coordinates.  I like the idea of a garage sale in which some of the objects come with data attached. 

A market will surely form, both a market for information that makes tagging orphan easier and a market for objects themselves.  Surely the better tagged an object is, the more valuable it becomes.  We can imagine a big piece of the eBay market raising on this tide.  And a culture, too.  We are on the verge of many more objects and many more people entering the curatorial world.  (Or perhaps I have that the wrong way round.)

Naturally, this raises questions of privacy.  The prescription bottle I got from my sister was once filled with an anxiety medication.  Which tells us volumes about the person to whom it was prescribed.  I have blocked out his name, because, well, maybe he doesn’t want all the world to know he was suffering anxiety in the late 1970s.  (Though, I think it’s fair to say we all were.  I carried a brown paper bag with me everywhere I went.)  Are we entitled to retrospective privacy?  Tough one. 


McCracken, Grant.  2006.  What I did on my summer vacation (or, "May I have your passport, please?")  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  August 22, 2006.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2003.  Tag, We’re it.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  January 05, 2003.  here.   

5 thoughts on “Orphan objects: new markets, new cultures

  1. Tom Guarriello

    You, my friend, are one interesting person.

    Now, in this case, “interesting” is not a euphemism for “weird,” “strange,” “Canadian,” or any of the other things that people might assume.

    No, I really mean, someone who invariably views the world from a point of view that elicits fresh insights.

    Oh, and your sister sounds interesting, too.

    Happy New Year!

    Dinner with you guys soon.


  2. Renan Petersen-Wagner


    very interesting entry! That made me think why some mundane “possessions” develop in a special one. With the history (story), the cultural biography of the object, we can understand the owner too. An old idea from Belk, Kopytoff and yours.

    But what is “new” is the idea of researching objects that aren’t anymore with their owners, they are in the world now. Revealing their stories, we can understand what happened before, and what was the “consequences” in todays life. As you said, maybe we are going to have a horde of new genealogists.

    And with google you can discover lots of things too (I have done with my two last names to understand a little bit of my ancestors). It made everything easier.

    very interesting!

  3. erin

    Your post takes the “amateur sleuth” fact of current culture to the storytelling realm > we are all constructing a larger circumstance of events as we see it on an individual basis: a “catch & release” phenomenon. We are all contributing our part (and opinion) when we TAG something. Why is it that our opinions become valuable? When did this switch get flipped?

    It seems there has been a reversal of validity in culture (no?). Society no longer appreciates the company/brand telling us what it is. We want to decide (curate) for ourselves what it means; and in addition, we expect the same company/brand to be transparent with its information.

    Sorry this has been a tangent from your pill bottle from Lincoln City (I’m an Oregon coast girl myself). I think your sister’s gift of adventure is an awesome one. You get to “choose your own” as you find this bottle’s story. Your summation centered around the question of privacy. ???

    In a time of transparency, is privacy even of concern? And, if we get to choose our own TAGs of validity, what does this ‘wiki’ world of entry mean to the future of history?

    you’ve got me thinking… 🙂

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  5. Bob

    People such as myself, who collect old letters and “postal history” have found the web to be an amazing resource. We are now able to research the people who sent and received the letters. In the past, it was much more likely that an item we purchased was simply “anonymous”. The historical aspect opens up even more for us than before. Many people collect these paper items because they “tell a story”, something that other collectables may not offer.

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