MATERIAL WORLD

We All Have a Rosebud in Our Pasts

Like Charles Foster Kane, all of us have owned objects, some fancy, some humble, that embody the past and keep it alive for us, says a historian who told New York City’s history in 101 objects.

A rusty remnant of New York’s original grid plan hidden in plain sight in Central Park. A vintage subway token. The only surviving ticket to Lincoln’s 1860 seismic speech at Cooper Union. A pink Spaldeen High-Bounce. A black-and-white cookie. Winnowing down countless artifacts to compile A History of New York in 101 Objects was challenging enough. But suppose you played the same parlor game with your personal life. What would you choose?

A preserved corsage from the high school prom? A Beatles concert ticket? A game-winning football? A grandchild’s first tooth? Some childhood totem, like a stuffed animal . . . or a sled?

What was your “Rosebud” moment?

And what about Rosebud? Not the sled, the bicycle. Before Charles Foster Kane mumbled the enigmatic secret to Citizen Kane on his deathbed, the sled had mutated from a beloved two-wheeler of the same name that was stolen one day from outside a library where little Herman Mankiewicz had parked it. The bike became his Rosebud, his abiding heartbreak over the consequences of a juvenile indulgence: as punishment for leaving the bicycle unattended, so the story goes, his parents refused to buy him a new one.

Kane’s own metamorphic Rosebud moment was even more powerful and subliminal. “He was snatched from his mother’s arms in early childhood. His parents were a bank,” Orson Welles wrote shortly before the film was released in 1941. “In his waking hours, Kane had certainly forgotten the sled and the name which was painted on it,” he wrote. But in his subconscious, Welles concluded, “it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother’s love which Kane never lost.”

How to rekindle a dying man’s subconscious with a snow globe at the conclusion of the film to conjure up a little boy’s sled last seen at the very beginning? Welles and Mankiewicz cast Kane as an incurable collector, a hoarder of “objects of art, objects of sentiment, and just plain objects”—objects, Welles said, that “represent the very dust heap of a man’s life.”

Thanks to Neil MacGregor and the British Museum and BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects, material culture—the discipline of exploring personal or public history through a circumscribed, if arbitrary, number of objects—is becoming a popular parlor game on subjects ranging from New York City to birdwatching and the Beatles.

It’s one way of warding off information overload, of reducing infinite factoids to digestible—and fun—lists. In a virtual world, it revives the relevance of authenticity. And in a materialistic society, it is a reminder that ordinary artifacts—“just plain objects”—have value, too (by 1996, though, the hardwood Rosebud sled that Arthur Bauer, a 12-year-old film club enthusiast at Brooklyn’s P.S. 217, had won in a contest 54 years earlier, sold at auction for $233,000).

Bauer literally had a Rosebud moment, but may not have had a figurative one. While the sled eventually enriched his heirs, history has not recorded whether the sled ever insinuated itself in his life the way Rosebud had with Mankiewicz and Kane, or, for that matter, with Welles. Decide for yourself: Bauer became a helicopter pilot. That got me thinking again about whether objects, compared to people and events, ever play as formative a role in people’s lives as they do in history.

John F. Peto’s Ordinary Objects in the Artist’s Creative Mind, painted in 1887 when he was 33, offers a revealing visual memoir of the ordinary artifacts that melded the young artist’s personal and professional life. Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment has been described by the filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson as “a curation of a life through objects,” including the Tarot cards whose numbers she adopted as the names of her most popular perfumes.

And what about the curators of material culture themselves?

Neil MacGregor’s Rosebud moment was a case of living culture: a pot of yogurt (which may make it more Proustian). In the late ’50s when he was 10, he was sent alone by his parents to a seaside town south of Bordeaux to experience Europe. “Yaourt, dessert agreeable et sain,” was the first French phase he learned, MacGregor told Simon Schama in the Financial Times recently, and he returned to Glasgow and rediscovered it at a deli whose owners were German and Jewish and, where, Schama wrote, “the boy MacGregor became heart and soul, a cosmopolitan” on “the threshold of a life that would be devoted to the exploration of cultural paradox.”

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His colleague at the British Museum, Dr. Jeremy Hill, who curated the 100 Objects book, opted for the word processor. “As a dyslexic,” he said, “the spell checker has transformed my life.”

Richard Kurin was a 19-year-old anthropology student in India when he experienced his material culture epiphany. Kurin, who edited the Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, found a beautifully hewn wooden loom reverently worked by an elderly woman. “I always visualized history,” he recalled, “but her spinning native cotton with that wheel transported me into it.” The wheel eventually wound up inventoried, “utterly devoid of its emotional significance” in a museum. But the memory endured. “I’ve now spent the better part of four decades working on the connection between people and artifacts and artworks that express and represent their experience,” he told me.

As a 5 year old, Susan Weber visited the Smithsonian’s dollhouses and remembers knitting rugs for her own reproduction Queen Anne version, and visiting auction houses, antiques dealers and flea markets with her mother, a collector. “The whole miniature world appealed to my child’s sensibility,” said Weber, who is a professor in the history of decorative arts and the founder and director of the Bard Graduate Center in New York.

At the New-York Historical Society, Louise Mirrer, the president, was captivated by “The Egg,” the oval-shaped IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which introduced the future to her and her teenage friends on their first unchaperoned trip by public transportation. “The ‘Rosebud’ moment was realizing how we would only know whether that ‘future’ was true when the future was history,” she said. Her colleague, Valerie Paley, the society’s historian and vice president for scholarly programs, cherishes her grandfather’s worn World War I scrapbook, which he would explore with her as a child.

What’s your childhood totem? What was mine? More hokey than the inspired objects recalled by the curators: A frumpy teddy bear. It did teach me an early respect for history—the prototype was created in 1902 not far from where I lived by the Russian Jewish proprietors of a candy store in Brooklyn. (Unfortunately, I later learned, too, that while the live bear that inspired the teddy bear was personally spared by Teddy Roosevelt, who deemed it unsportsmanlike to shoot prey already cornered by fellow hunters, it was killed anyway to avoid further pain.) My bear is still wearing the flannel suit tailored for him by my grandfather, an immigrant pattern-maker who worked in Manhattan’s garment center.

When I was in the first grade, I wrote a poem about him, which was published in the East New York Savings Bank’s “School Bank News.” My first byline. I thoroughly enjoyed the accolades. And, who knows, maybe that’s why I became a journalist instead of a big game hunter.

Sam Roberts, the Urban Affairs Correspondent of The New York Times, is the author of A History of New York in 101 Objects, just published by Simon and Schuster.