Brain Pickings

Sentimental Value: Shopping for Human Stories on eBay

by

What social psychology has to do with Victorian romance and the official White House gift wrapper.

Since 2007, Emily Spivack has been scouring eBay posts to uncover the remarkable secret stories people share about their things. The project, aptly dubbed Sentimental Value, is as much a fascinating exercise at the intersection of digital and analog anthropology as it is a vicarious journey into the lived and unlived lives of others. Today, I sit down with Emily to chat about the impetus for the project, the most curious stories she’s dug up, and the fundamental psychology of sentimentality.

q1

The mandatory question: What inspired Sentimental Value?

I’ve been working on projects about how clothes function in society for a while, so Sentimental Value came out of that interest. I’ve also been into vintage clothes since I was a teenager, obsessed with their one-of-a-kind-ness. I’m fascinated with the little clues left behind about the garment’s former life — a rip in the knee of a pair of jeans, a handwritten name in a shirt, a lingering smell of perfume.

Victorian travel dress a newly wedded bride intended to wear to meet her husband until he was killed in a horse and buggy accident

I started looking for vintage clothes on eBay and noticed that I’d occasionally find interesting stories people would share about the garments they were selling. I started collecting them, using the site like most people, only instead of hunting down things, hunting down the stories about those things — the provenance of the article of clothing, a story about wearing it, or the reason the seller is giving it up.

I was drawn to the idea of eBay as a place that’s indirectly become a repository for sharing stories and memories. I loved how eBay could offer an unexpected window into strangers’ lives. So, with Sentimental Value, I’ve been working to cull the best stories from what’s been posted.

q2

What are some of the more interesting sentimental treasures you’ve excavated over the course of the project?

It’s hard to pick — there are all sorts of elements that make for a good story — the story itself, the way it’s told, the actual object, the photos… Over the past few years, though, I have seen some specific themes and patterns emerge amongst what I’ve posted.

For example, there are tons of stories about relationships, like this guy who was selling sneakers with air pockets slashed by an ex-girlfriend. There are people who share transformational life experiences, like this woman, who was selling a gown she was once levitated in. At times, I learn something completely new, like the fact that these earrings had been owned by the official gift wrapper for the White House during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. Or there tend to be loads of wedding-related stories, like this one about a drunken bridesmaid mishap.

Sequined gown worn by a woman who believed to have levitated in it.

I appreciate learning about the historical provenance of an item, especially when you get to see a photo of the garment actually worn by the owner, like this dress, which had been worn by Ann Schofield in 1903 when she was presented to the King and Queen of England. Occasionally there’s a celebrity tie-in, like these sunglasses that were touched by Michael Jackson. Or some stories I’m just drawn to purely for the way the story is told, like this handmade Vash the Stampede costume.

q3

There’s a certain notion that digital platforms are completely devoid of the sentimentality we tend to associate with analog objects and keepsakes. Yet Sentimental Value seems to be an experiment in the opposite. What insight has the project given you into the ever more hotly contested question of whether or not technology is making us shallow and dehumanized?

With Sentimental Value, I found affirmation that the attachment I feel towards certain pieces of clothing (that had been, for instance, handed down to me, purchased on a trip, worn on a certain occasion) were echoed in the stories people were openly sharing on eBay.

Earrings worn by the official White House gift wrapper for presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson

I love that this online platform, based on transactions and consumption, has indirectly become a trove of stories, albeit ephemeral ones. I really appreciate eBay as an anonymous marketplace where hundreds of millions of people all over the world are buying and selling goods alongside the rich storytelling by-product that has evolved from it. People are craving an online space to share memories. As a result, they’re finding ways to make digital platforms, like eBay, less sterile or shallow, incorporating personal elements into what might have once been relegated to an offline context.

q4

We tend to think of sentimentality as highly personal, confined to the individual. And yet platforms like eBay, and certainly networks like Facebook and Twitter, are making it highly social. Do you think there’s any ‘sentimental value’ lost in broadcasting these intimate stories to the world? Is there any found?

The reasons we hold onto things (or get rid of them) are usually quite personal. As we continue to feel more comfortable putting more of our lives online, we wind up sharing those stories publicly with less hesitancy.

K-Swiss sneakers worn by Suge Knight, a.k.a. Big Suge, founder of iconic rap label Death Row Records

I think there is significant value to airing those feelings in a public forum. It provides an outlet to more easily document our attachment to the objects in our lives , something that’s often lost generation-to-generation. It allows us to process why we hold such an attachment to certain objects. It turns the sensation into less of a solitary experience and instead, into one that can be more community-driven and interactive.

This may be idealistic, but I like to think that perhaps, with this increasing sense of fondness expressed online and in open spaces, people will become less interested in fast, disposable fashion, feel less inclined to buy the newest, coolest, fanciest ‘thing’ and instead hold onto the object that’s already been imbued with a different kind of value.

q5

What’s next for Sentimental Value?

For about a year, I’ve been buying quite a few of the items with more unique provenances that I’ve posted on Sentimental Value with the intention to put together an exhibition or gallery show. One of my favorites pieces that I now own is a 1920s gown with blood splatter from a mob-related murder. I’ve also collected a rayon blazer owned by a woman who sold her clothes to join a nudist camp, a pair of K-Swiss sneakers that belonged to Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and a Victorian travel dress that a newly wedded bride intended to wear to meet her husband until he was killed in a horse and buggy accident. The garments will be shown alongside their stories.

Rayon blazer owned by a woman who sold all her clothes to join a nudist camp

I’m also working on creating a Sentimental Value book. I’m excited about working in that format as I’ll have the opportunity to organize the stories by common themes, draw connections that are more difficult to make in its current online format, and add perspective by distancing the anecdotes from the proximity of the platform from which they’ve been culled.

Ed.: You can follow the project on Facebook for a delicious feed of found sentimentality.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Share on Tumblr