Rosamond W. Purcell | Essays

Taking Things Seriously XII


On a sunny morning in the early 1970s my neighbor, the small shrill widow of a minister and professor of theology at Harvard, dragged me into her house and opened the drawer of her late husband's desk. Choose, choose anything, she said. From a miscellaneous collection of stuff I took this wedge of brown bread with a label: "Bread given the prisoners at Saar-Alben; and by one of them to me at Luneville Nov. 19, 1918."

I had never held such a venerable piece of food. The label is always slipping off the diminished lump — but it is the label that evokes ideas of war, capture, suffering, and anticipated salvation either from prison or, because the bread was given to a minister, in the sight of God. Or perhaps the prisoner was simply offering up evidence of the miserable food he had endured. I have no idea why the widow selected me (almost a stranger) to have this bread, but I have kept it as a talisman of the transitory itself — a contradictory talisman, really, for bread is a daily deal, it comes and goes. And it must be fresh. But this bread is antique.

I don't know that I have always made the right decisions in my efforts to preserve it. About ten years ago, observing its surfaces shrinking as if it were being undermined, I sealed the bread in a plastic bag with a few preservative crystals. Tiny black beetle corpses fell out of the air holes. Then a new kind of hole, like bomb craters, appeared on all sides of the bread, including the darker, smoother crust. The poison that had killed the beetles now threatened to tunnel the bread into nothing. So I sprayed it with a toxic varnish. It survives today as a symbol, though as food it is fit for neither man nor vermin.

This short essay is excerpted from Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, a book by Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes in which they and other writers discuss the importance of objects in their lives. This is the twelfth essay in a series to appear on Design Observer.

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Comments [3]

I also have a piece of antique bread. Not so antique. It is only from February 1, 1980. It was given to me by my fiancé at the time, not to eat, but as a symbol of luck and prosperity when I arrived to study and get married in the old country. It's a small loaf that has a thimble filled with salt (long gone) in one end and a pfennig in the other.

Bugs have never gotten to it. Though the luck (salt?) has run out. I never was admitted to the art school, the marriage is over. I wonder what someone will do with it when they go through the China cabinet and find it. It's funny because it sits above the shelf with the waterford crystal champagne glasses that I had given my then husband for the millenium. His boss had given him one set when he got laid off, and I completed the set with the other five designs. I had them all signed (etching) by the designer, but the store would not sign let the designer sign the ones from his boss (prosperity) because I did not have that receipt. Maybe someday it will be a story for the antique roadshow... about the glasses, not the bread. The glasses brought prosperity to my exhusband. He got the house and kids and eer more important work. (If I add “after I did much of the homework” would it sound bitter or just ring true?) The bread even still has the original paper doily and bakery sticker, though. What to you do with a talisman that never worked out the way it was planned?

yea, antique roadshow... either that or a video still for the song...

You left your glasses behind, someone said you were doing fine.
bittersweet malady

I am constantly torn between the feel good ethos of downsizing, and trying to live a more spartan life without STUFF, and the ostensibly human need for collecting stuff, archiving memories, and memorializing events both great and small in my personal and professional life. Whenever I do part with something, the time capsules of Andy Warhol spring to mind. To some, just boxes of junk, to me a wonderful archive of a time and place, of a person. Does the junk that clutters my life mean anything to anyone else? Probably not, frankly most of it means nothing to me. Until I come across a long lost treasure trove of personal detritus which does indeed bring a smile to my face.

What a wonderful book idea. I am going to run out and get it pronto. And then put it away for posterity.
Mark Kaufman

This a great idea for a book. I am constantly collecting objects and ideas. Sometimes you will be amazed at what becomes significant.

Thanks for sharing!
Peter Sulivan

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