I kept my minivan reasonably clean (Nicole might beg to differ on the definition of “reasonably”), but I needed to empty it entirely when I sold it last month. As I dug deeper into the various pockets and drawers of what seemed a veritable high chest on wheels, I began to realize that there were quite a lot of things in my car. Some I added over the years. Others ended up there seemingly of their own accord. I’d driven this car for five years, through three degrees, several jobs, two states of residence, and a period or two when it was the only home base I had during short term gigs and temporary housing. I’m not saying I ever lived in it. But I probably could have.
The rear axle of my minivan took a beating during my move to Delaware, when the car was fully loaded.
I was midway through emptying the minivan when I came across two parking tickets from Tiffin, Ohio, dated 2010. I was attending Heidelberg College that year, and I lived on a street where territorial neighbors called the police on any car left parked on the curb for more than three days. Thankfully, I managed to get those tickets waived, and then I tucked them into my glove compartment and forgot about them. When I found them again, I paused.
What was I thinking? Here I was, a material culture scholar and lapsed archaeologist, about to purge a time capsule of artifacts and ephemera without even documenting it. This was practically the King Tut’s tomb of twenty-first-century American automobility! Looking it over reminded me of the conversation between the two British Egyptologists who first peered into the dark sepulcher of King Tut.
“Can you see anything?” asked my inner Lord Carnarvon.
“Yes,” responded my inner Howard Carter, “Wonderful things!”
Like King Tut’s tomb, the contents of my car were not average or very reflective of my contemporaries. Most people I know (and I know some strange people) don’t have embossed bricks, British regimental coat trim, or Sears, Roebuck catalogs in their cars. But to each his own, right?
Moreover, material culture scholars seek the unusual as often as we look for the normal and mundane. We ask how people, common or elite, strange or unremarkable, used things in their everyday lives. Wouldn’t it be great to know what an eighteenth-century sailor, especially an abnormal one, carried in his sea chest? Or what a wealthy Philadelphian in the early republic stocked in her carriage? Sometimes we get glimpses of these accoutrements in historical documents such as probate inventories taken upon death, advertisements seeking the return of stolen goods, and insurance settlements. But most often, we have to fit together bits and pieces from archaeologists, archivists, and curators to guess what such people lived with and what these things meant.
Besides, even though the individual objects in my car were quite peculiar, I suspect that most of my contemporaries own many things (in their cars and their homes) that fall into the same basic categories. So I went about taking an inventory of just what sorts of things I had in my car and what these objects meant to me.
The complete contents my minivan at the time I sold it.
I had functional things and some things now obsolete. Road maps for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and other states and cities seemed pitiably defunct next to the Garman GPS I acquired a couple of years ago. I had a little bit of cash and a fair amount of coins, not to mention some Chinese money and a fake $20 bill from a board game. I had an EZ-Pass, an expired parking pass, a Mackinac Bridge commuter card, and gift cards for Starbucks, Panera Bread, and an oil change. Moisturizer, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, sunglasses, and spare glasses. A CD player with a cassette converter for the minivan’s stereo system, a phone charger, and a set of spark plugs for a different car.
My minivan contained quite a few sentimental relics. I had the box of cassette tapes my father assembled about a quarter century ago that is a time capsule in itself. I had a small stuffed Santa Claus doll that my mom bought as a pity purchase at a yard sale (the sort of sale where the only way you can escape with your conscience intact is to spend a dollar on something) that had been with me through two cars (since he was left in the car we drove to that yard sale). I had a small strip of regimental “lace” trim from the uniform of the King’s/8th Regiment, which we portrayed when I was a historical interpreter at Colonial Michilimackinac. I had a strange faux-ivory hair comb and a bag of airline peanuts related to jokes I only hazily remember from college. I had an embossed brick I stole from the firepit behind that house in Tiffin. Wedged deep in a crack in the floor were a few antique buttons from a memorable trip to a country auction where I bought a box of buttons, put them on the backseat of the minivan, and later watched and listened as they flew everywhere when I slammed on my brakes to avoid a collision.
I had some things that even I will admit were quite weird. The canvas portion of a reproduction Civil War wall tent. The bases to a metal display system for art and antiques. Two strange wrought-iron hooks that were my first attempts at blacksmithing. A killer little piece of folk art a friend made back when Bluetooth phones first appeared that he dubbed a “fork phone.” Thanks to the addition of a small wire loop, you could wear your fork around your ear and eat with it!
I had clothes. Hats, gloves, pants, t-shirts. And other essentials. Toilet paper, a towel, drop cloths, and plastic sheeting. Ropes, bungee cords, zip-ties, WD-40, tape. I grew up in northern Michigan, and I still carry far more snow emergency equipment out here in Delaware than necessary. Two folding shovels, two ice scrapers, candles, and hand warmers.
In case I got stuck somewhere in that rather unlikely mid-Atlantic blizzard, I carried a veritable toolbox: a hammer, a saw, knives, pliers, flashlights, and a roll-up first aid kit full enough to handle just about any emergency and including, among other things, fishing equipment, an outdoor thermometer, and a compass.
What was I thinking? What did all these things mean?
On one hand, maybe I was just a slovenly car owner. But there was hardly any outright trash in my car. Most everything had a reason for being there, arcane though these reasons were. The truth is, these things probably say even more about me than I can say about them. And the beauty of material culture is that you can come to your own conclusions about my things.
Here’s one version, the scenario as I imagined it. My trusty minivan had finally found a snowbank too high to overcome. But not to worry. While I was eating my candle-roasted trout with my fork/phone and checking the temperature outside, I would be considering my next order from Sears, Roebuck, circa 1902. I could recline in one of two collapsible chairs under the canvas of a reproduction Civil War tent. Who cared when the snow cleared? I had a few granola bars, a wildflower identification book, and enough vintage Meat Loaf cassettes to last quite some time…
Wonderful things, indeed.
About the author: Tyler Rudd Putman is a Ph.D. student in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. His research interests include material culture, historical archaeology, and military history. You can read more about his work on his website, here, and his blog, here.