Introducing the Junk Drawer Time Capsule

As a writer, I am most noted for historical works–though as I and the world get older, history becomes more “wait–I was there” memory. My next novel, for example, is set in 1985, making it the first book I’ve written set in an era in which I actually lived.

The thing is, “history” is as recent as yesterday. And like yesterday, it has memory and feeling and life beyond that of a date or time or place recorded in a record or newspaper. It lives, somewhere, in someone’s memories … and if those memories were written down or spoken aloud–or commemorated in some way or shape or form–we who were NOT there, who did NOT share that particular bit of history-as-memory–can kinda sorta participate in it, too.

Advertising Poster, 1936

I’ve always been fascinated with history because I am fascinated with people. I want to know what someone thought and felt, what they experienced, how they enjoyed and how they endured. I try reach a point where I feel as though I recognize and understand that human truth, whenever it took place, and then write it so that my readers understand it, too.

One of the major tools I use to “channel” the past is by examining what it left behind–a sort of latter-day archaeology. Archaeology was a focus of mine while earning a Master’s Degree in Classics, and I’m one of those academics who support archaeology as an overall more trustworthy record than the written one. Writers have always embellished and propagandized … but pottery fragments rarely lie because they were not purposely placed or arranged. “Time capsules” buried fifty years ago don’t reveal the past–they reveal how the people in control of those capsuled wanted people in the future to remember the past. 

So, starting today, I’ve decided to document some of the ephemera that I use for inspiration. This is stuff, mostly inexpensive originally, that survived the ravages of time without any certain purpose or agenda. I have traveled with some of these pieces and used them in talks, lectures and book signings, as I believe in the power of physical touch, of interaction with an object, to better understand and literally feel the connection we all have to what has come before us, whether it was a century, a decade or a week ago. Each piece invites us to use our imagination, our sense of empathy, our sense of communication. Each piece causes us to reevaluate our view of the past and our position in the system that created it. Each piece captivates us, challenges us and ultimately enriches our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. The “junk drawer” says more about human psychology than a metric ton of self-help books. Pouring through it can also be fun as hell.

So are you ready?

Up today is Gay Bobbie Pins from Gay Products in Atlanta. That’s a giant flip off to you, Chick-Fil-A …
I’d date these from the 1950s-early 1960s, based on the line drawing and the two-color printing. Plus, a dime for bobby pins was not that cheap, considering you could buy a burger for a quarter in the late ’50s. I can’t remember where I found them–probably at a flea market or estate sale. They’re also not used but, very importantly, they were KEPT. No one threw them away despite the fact that whoever originally owned them did not find them useful.

The answer as to why may be on the back. [NOTE TO TREASURE HUNTERS: ALWAYS EXAMINE THE BACK OF ANY “JUNK” YOU FIND]. In pencil at the top: “Cheer up — Do your hair! David”

Now things really start to get interesting. Did David write this contemporaneously? Or did he find an odd survivor of the past and write it at a later date? My view is that this is a contemporaneous note for a few reasons–one, he probably bought these because of the “gay” label as an effort to cheer up someone,  and two, bobby pins haven’t been used to “do hair” in a very long time, and three, the idea that “doing hair” is undoubtedly a method of cheering up someone–presumably a woman–speaks to the era.

Still, I find David fascinating. He bought this for someone he cared about … who was it? He doesn’t address the person by name. That casual lack of address makes me think a wife or girlfriend. Why was she in need of cheering up? Why did he think “doing her hair” would fix whatever the problem was? My imagination runs amok with these bobby pins … I can see David as gay or straight, involved personally or not, a co-worker or a husband. I don’t see him as a brother, though that’s still possible, of course.

And then we are left with the indisputable fact that these bobby pins were kept, unused, for at least fifty years. Was it because they were a gift from David? I’m presuming he gave them to a young woman–who was she? What was their relationship? Why did she not use them–were they a treasure because they were a gift from him? Or was it all just an accident of time? What do you think?

Novels have been created around much less … such is the power of the junk drawer time capsule.

Until next time!