The Handbag’s Tale

Medieval or modern, handbags reveal their bearers’ secrets more than they hide them. An Object Lesson.

by Julie Schulte

From chatelaine to reticule to designer bag, the handbag has always offered both freedom and yoke. It encapsulates a fact about its owner, and reveals that fact as much as, or more than, it conceals her belongings.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Seductive Nostalgia of the Picnic

Once seen as an escape from the city, a meal among the trees and meadows is now a journey to the past. An Object Lesson.

by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Once upon a time, every meal was a picnic. Then people got roofs and things.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

How the Diving Bell Opened the Ocean’s Depths

The simple device ushered in a new age of exploration—and burst many ear drums in the process. An Object Lesson.

by Bryce Emley

Once people realized that trapped air contains breathable oxygen, they took large pots, stuck their heads inside, and jumped into the nearest body of water. In the 2,500 years since, the device has been refined and expanded to allow better access to the ocean’s depths. But that access has not come without human cost.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Welcome, Please Remove Your Shoes

Around the world, slippers are used to keep the outside out of the home. An Object Lesson.

by Margarita Gokun-Silver

The slippers represent the hero’s indifference to life outside his home. But they also symbolize the domestic space, the feeling of leaving the worries of the world at the door, and the safety and comfort that only one’s abode can offer.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Still-Misunderstood Shape of the Clitoris

Can a 3-D printed model of the organ change views on female sexuality? Yes and no. An Object Lesson.

by Naomi Russo

The clitoris really isn’t that confusing. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. Nonetheless, acknowledging the shape, size, or even existence of this essential body part has not always been par for the course—even in the medical profession.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

How the Chili Dog Transcended America’s Divisions

The national dish is really a fusion of immigrant fare. An Object Lesson.

by Christina Olson

The chili dog became a food laced with regional pride. It is one way that Americans identify themselves, a way to claim local citizenship. It’s ironic that a food descending directly from homogenization—a food that had to change itself to fit in—is now the same food regional fanatics hold up as uniquely local.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

How New Orleans’s Favorite Mardi Gras Cocktail Was Saved From Extinction

No one knows why Ojen became so popular in the city, but it has long been the party liqueur of choice. An Object Lesson.

by Anna C. Griggs

New Orleanians are famous for their boozy traditions: lax open container laws, the Go-Cup, and drive-thru daiquiris shops (to name but a few). They often despair in the disappearance of even the most minor culinary tradition. In Louisiana, to lose a tradition such as Ojen often means losing entire communities and ways of life.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Hidden History of the Laundry Chute

Stains, smells, secrets, thieves, dead bodies, and even a radioactive towel have all found their way down one. An Object Lesson.

by Sarah Minor

A laundry chute is a mythic domestic space. It’s an unwatched door to nowhere, the open throat of an old home. Its reputation has as much to do with convenience as with the early recognition that a house is not solid through and through. The laundry chute is a place where stains and embarrassing odors go to be erased, and dropping linen down the chute is a mnemonic for forgetting those embarrassments, for making such accidents invisible. Most of a laundry chute is sealed behind walls, and this covert quality draws people to encounter such items that laundry chutes are built explicitly to contain.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Heirloom Art of the Sewing Machine

Even after automation, sewing remains a craft that’s passed down through generations. An Object Lesson.

by Jocelyn Heath

Unlike humans—who produced natural variation by virtue of training, oversight, preference, or simple idiosyncrasy—the sewing machine could achieve uniformity, evenness, and consistency because its construction “trained” it to repeat endless copies of the desired stitch length. Previous generations would have seen the machine as lacking the care and precision of hand sewing; haste made waste in that the quality couldn’t equal that of a one-of-a-kind piece. But was the machine’s work inferior?

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The Camera Technology That Turned Films Into Stories

A modest invention that prevented celluloid from tearing helped make modern cinema. An Object Lesson.

by Henry Giardina

Before film was art, it was machinery. It took years for film to get the kind of legal protection that the other, more prestigious arts enjoyed. In the early days, it was technology, protectable only by patent. As a result, film, as a product, was strange and vulnerable, subject to duping, sabotage, and all kinds of strange patent traps set by Thomas Edison to keep independent filmmakers from gaining power.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

A Short History of the Tomboy

With roots in race and gender discord, has the “tomboy” label worn out its welcome? An Object Lesson.

by Elizabeth King

If culture’s understanding of girlhood is not exclusive to being “girly,” is a tomboy a tomboy anymore, or just one way of being a kid?

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The Social Advantage of Pockets

Who can use a pocket, and what it can carry, has historically depended on the person doing the pocketing. An Object Lesson.

by Clare Mullaney

Pockets help determine who gets power and who is deprived of it. If “to pocket” means to put away, the pocket emerges as a site of both preservation and defeat. To trace who has pockets and who is denied them makes us consider to what extent being a subject means having things, and being able to access them.

 

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Will Humans Run Out of Fertilizer?

It helped people spread and multiply. Now critics worry it's destroying the planet. An Object Lesson.

by Alex Fitzsimmons

There is also a fundamental criticism of fertilizer. It is rooted in the belief that people are not part of nature, but a blight on it. The more people on the Earth, the more the Earth suffers.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Why Skee-Ball Doesn’t Change

A century after its creation, the game is still a perfect balance of skill and chance. An Object Lesson.

by Richard Klin

Skee-ball has survived so long not because it is special, but because it is ordinary.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Tar Balls, the Beach’s Fossil-Fuel Flowers

Globs of black goo occur on beaches both naturally from ocean seeps and artificially from oil spills. An Object Lesson.

by Robin Tricoles

Is there a difference between tar balls that originate from natural seeps versus ones that originate from spills? It depends.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Toxic-Waste Drum Is Everywhere

Created by a globetrotter, the 55-gallon barrel became one of the best-traveled inventions in human history. An Object Lesson.

by Rebecca Altman

Even today, more than a century after its invention, the drum remains as integral to chemical manufacturing as it ever was. And yet, as the go-to strategy for waste management, it is a technology that ought to have been abandoned by now, relegated instead to the stuff of kitsch collectibles and candies.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

Three Millennia of Safety Pins

The tiny tool has held up Roman togas and decorated punk rockers. Now, it’s a symbol of support.

by Rina Caballar

As a tiny object of dissent, the safety pin has returned to its punk-rock roots as a symbol of opposition. The safety pin’s origins as a fibula highlight class differences, but its current use to signify solidarity emphasizes support for marginalized communities. The safety pin has always offered a way to hold clothing together. Now it transcends that utility, promising to hold people together too.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

When Typists Were Feared as ‘Love Pirates’

At the turn of the century, some women sued stenographers for seducing their husbands. An Object Lesson.

by Matt Jones

What is most interesting about the love pirate and the enabling wife is that they both perpetuate the same mythology: Women are guilty, some of wanting too much and some of not doing enough.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

There’s No Erasing the Chalkboard

Blackboards will endure as symbols of learning long after they’ve disappeared from schools.

by Kim Kankiewicz

By the end of the 1990s, whiteboards outsold chalkboards by a margin of up to four to one. Even digital whiteboards—computerized display boards with interactive features—outsold chalkboards by the turn of the millennium. Since then, chalkboards have all but disappeared from schools. Why, then, do they remain such potent symbols for education? Perhaps it’s because of what they represent: the idea of stable knowledge in a rapidly changing digital age.

Read this essay at The Atlantic

The Global Cost of Electronic Waste

Computers, phones, and other digital devices increasingly are made to be thrown away—which is bad for both consumers and the environment. An Object Lesson.

by Syed Faraz Ahmed

Electronics have always produced waste, but the quantity and speed of discard has increased rapidly in recent years. There was a time when households would keep televisions for more than a decade. But thanks to changes in technology and consumer demand, there is hardly any device now that persists for more than a couple of years in the hands of the original owner.

Read this essay at The Atlantic