Brain Pickings

Sentimental Value: Shopping for Human Stories on eBay


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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A Peek Inside the Notebooks of Great Creators, from Architecture to Advertising to Street Art


What Brazil’s favelas have to do with field science and Milton Glaser’s creative process.

The nature and origin of creativity is the subject of many a theory. But, rather than theorizing about it, wouldn’t it be great if we could just lift the lid of a great creative mind and see just how the machinery works? Well, we sort of can — by way of great creators’ private notebooks and sketchbooks, which offer a trip to as close to the creative process as we can get. After last week’s rare look at Michelangelo’s, here are five cross-disciplinary favorites, spanning everything from street art to field science.


Steven Heller is easily today’s most prominent and prolific design critic. In 2010, he partnered with the SVA’s Lita Talarico on an ambitious project: Graphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers, which offers a rare glimpse of how today’s most acclaimed designers think and create. The project features 110 designers, including icons like I ♥ New York logo creator Milton Glaser, Design Observer co-founder Michael Bierut, typography maverick Oded Ezer, the amazing Marian Bantjes, negative space master Noma Bar, 2010 Guggenheim Fellow Amy Franceschini, and my personal favorite, Stefan Sagmeister.

Noma Bar

Stefan Sagmeister

Milton Glaser

Sara Fanelli

Tim Lane

Paul Cox

Images courtesy of Monacelli Press via Flavorwire

Flip through the goodness here.


In Street Sketchbook: Journeys, Tristan Manco takes a rare peek inside the sketchbooks of 26 of the world’s hottest new graffiti artists. From Brazil’s iconic favelas to Tokyo’s backalleys, it reveals both globe-trotting adventures and rich internal landscapes in 227 large-format pages and lush double-spreads of pure creative genius.

Full review, with more images, here.


I firmly believe science is a creative discipline, so no look at the creative mind is complete without a look at the scientific mind. Field Notes on Science and Nature offers exactly that thought beautiful reproductions of pages from the journals of the world’s greatest field scientists. Twelve essays by professional naturalists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, botany, ecology, entomology, and paleontology contextualize the doodles, drawings and marginalia with equal parts infectious curiosity and affectionate enthusiasm.

'Meriwether Lewis's journal notes of the Eulachon fish (Thaleichthys pacificus), made on February 24, 1806, while Lewis was near Fort Clatsop, Oregon.'

Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

'A typical notebook page detailing the thoughts and events of a day doing fieldwork at Olorgesailie, Kenya, with a personal note near the end of the page about the joy of being alone with rocks.'

Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Paleontologist, in the essay 'Linking Researchers Across Generations'

'Page from a field notebook made in New Guinea on the food webs of aquatic animals known as phytotelmata that live in plant containers, such as tree hollows and bromeliad tanks.'

Roger Kitching, Ecologist, in 'A Reflection of the Truth'

'Ink and watercolor drawing of a red sea fan (Swiftia sp.)'

Jenny Keller, in the essay 'Why Sketch?'

Kirstin Butler’s full review here.


In 2009, creative academics and researchers Glenn Griffin and Deborah Morrison set out to investigate the minds of the advertising industry’s greatest creative thinkers in a series of experiments, analyzing the “process drawings” of these top creative professionals — artwork that answered the deceptively simple question, What does your creative process look like? The results, illustrated with a Sharpie on what Griffin and Morrison call a “process canvas,” were published in The Creative Process Illustrated: How Advertising’s Big Ideas Are Born — a fascinating glimpse of the routes leading creatives take to finding and catching ideas.

Original review here.


Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists is the second gem of a book artist Julia Rothman — a voyeuristic visual journey into how artists doodle, brainstorm and flesh ideas out. The lavish volume offers a rare glimpse inside the minds and hearts of favorite artists like visual poet Sophie Blackall, happiness-designer Tad Carpenter, nature illustrator Jill Bliss and many more, showcasing stunning full-color images alongside profiles of the artists, who discuss their sketchbooks and how they use them.

The recent full review, complete with more images and an exclusive Q&A with Rothman about the project, here.

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Altered Focus: Exploring Burma’s Political Regime via Skateboarding


What human rights have to do with the human desire to glide on skate ramps.

In 2009, four British blokes — James Holman, Alex ‘Pas’ Pasquini and Ali Drummond — set out to explore an unseen side of Burma, officially known as Myanmar, though an uncommon lens: skateboarding. The result was Altered Focus — a wonderful cross-genre documentary that captures everyday life in Burma through locals’ reactions to skateboarding. The film remixes archival footage of protests with skateboarding scenes across the cities of Yangon and Mandalay, exposing the complexities of the political regime and civic life in Myanmar through the seemingly simple vehicle of skate culture.

It’s not uncommon for people to come away from a trip to Myanmar thinking, ‘Yeah that place wasn’t so bad, people were smiling all the time, everyone seemed happy, I don’t know what all the fuss is about’. Well there rightly is a lot fuss and you won’t find the reason behind all of it from a trip to Bagan or Inle Lake. All one needs to do is take a short mo-ped ride out of one of the small towns around Mandalay and you might well come across people in chains digging up the road and officials with whips. Forced labor happens in Myanmar everyday but generally not in the places the government will let you access easily, if at all. You can still find it though if you stray only a little off the path. However incomplete this film may be, I hope we will at least be able to show people a side of Myanmar they didn’t already know about.” ~ Ali Drummond

The beautiful 19-minute documentary — filmed on DVCAM and Super 8mm, which gives it a warm glow appropriately akin to that of Locals Only — is now available for free online in its entirety, an absolute treat that will make you uneasy, make you smile and make you see this misunderstood culture with new eyes.

If this gave you the urge and urgency to dig deeper, you won’t go wrong with Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience — the engrossing and fascinating story of the Nobel laureate celebrated as one of the world’s most notable political activists against tyranny and genocidal violence.

HT The Daily What

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The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time


What the second law of thermodynamics has to do with the meaning of life.

Several weeks ago, we took at look at What Is Time? — Michiu Kaku’s BBC documentary, exploring the nature and origin of the all-permeating phenomenon, and earlier this week Stephen Hawking’s iconic A Brief History of Time joined this list of 10 essential primers on (almost) everything. But the world might be ready for a compelling new voice to unravel and synthesize the fundamental fabric of existence, and hardly anyone is better poised to fill these giant shoes than Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll.

In From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, Carroll — who might just be one of the most compelling popular science writers of our time — straddles the arrow of time and rides it through an ebbing cross-disciplinary landscape of insight, inquiry and intense interest in its origin, nature and ultimate purpose.

This book is about the nature of time, the beginning o the universe, and the underlying structure of physical reality. We’re not thinking small here. The questions we’re tackling are ancient and honorable ones: Where did time and space come from? Is the universe we see all there is, or are there other ‘universes’ beyond what we can observe? How is the future different from the past?” ~ Sean Carroll

Sample Carroll’s entertaining and enlightening storytellng with his excellent talk from TEDxCaltech. (And, on a related note, don’t miss TED’s freshly launched platform for TEDx talks, showcasing over 2,000 talks by some of the world’s greatest thinkers and doers.)

From entropy and the second law of thermodynamics to the Big Bang theory and the origins of the universe to quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, Carroll weaves a lucid, enthusiastic, illuminating and refreshingly accessible story of the universe, and our place in it, underpinning which is the profound quest for understanding the purpose and meaning of our lives.

We find ourselves, not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon, flourishing for a brief moment as we ride a wave of increasing entropy. [P]urpose and meaning are not to be found in the laws of nature, or in the plans of any external agent. [I]t is our job to create them. One of those purposes — among many — stems from our urge to explain the world around us the best we can. If our lives are brief and undirected, at least we can take pride in our mutual courage as we struggle to understand things much greater than ourselves.” ~ Sean Carroll

Sitting at the relentlessly fascinating intersection of cosmology, theoretical physics, information theory and philosophy, From Eternity to Here comes as a fine addition to this running reading list of must-read books by some of this year’s TED speakers.

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