'Brief Histories of Everyday Objects' Ponders, What's Up With the Toothbrush?

by Megan Volpert

26 October 2016

In comic form, Brief Histories of Everyday Objects puts everyday objects under clever ideological scrutiny.
 
cover art

Brief Histories of Everday Objects

Andy Warner

(Picador)
US: Oct 2016

Andy Warner’s Brief Histories of Everyday Objects is a more exciting read than one might initially expect. But go ahead and judge the book by its cover, with the title in a jauntily slanted modern font perched atop a picture of the Queen Victoria contemplating a red and yellow toothbrush set against a dusty purple background. Picador might have done well to give Warner color on the inside pages, too. Fortunately, Warner’s writing and drawing are both utterly up to the task of turning everyday objects into colorful stories.

Taken in totality, the contents are evenly divided between objects in private and public spheres of life. From the bathroom to the bedroom closet to the living room to the kitchen, each section has between four and six objects. Public sector chapters on the coffee shop, the office, the grocery store, the bar and the great outdoors are arranged the same way. With just four pages devoted to each object, Warner cherry picks historical anecdotes and compresses them into every panel in the strip with verve. On the last page for each object, the bottom half concludes with “briefer histories” that arrange miscellaneous interesting footnotes to the main stories that sometimes add closure and sometimes reopen one’s curiosity about those objects.

Most of the objects themselves are truly “everyday”, such as toilets, microwave ovens, velcro, shoes, ballpoint pens, paper bags, and traffic lights. Others are slightly more whimsical, such as kitty litter, yo-yos, instant ramen, billiard balls, and roller skates. The slant on these stories is quite progressive, yet told in language that adults and eighth graders alike can appreciate. Of the 45 objects in the book, the stories of more than half of them focus on innovators that are female, of color, or of national origins other than the United States. Sarah Breedlove: inventor of shampoo and America’s first female millionaire, the daughter of ex-slaves. Lizzie Magie: feminist anticapitalist who designed the original Monopoly board game. Sure, you may know silk and tea come from China, but did you know that the yo-yo comes from the Philippines?

Perhaps the origin stories of the razor and the Slinky are already well-known, but even so, Warner finds fresh avenues of delight in relating the sordid tales of their marketability. It’s wise of Warner not to get sucked into a narrow definition of what constitutes the history of an object. Beyond mere invention, these objects have proliferated to become part of our everyday lives. As such, our interpretation of them is inextricably bound to the evolution of advertising and sales, to the pioneering of international trade routes and to the business of politics. Warner doesn’t shy away from sarcasm directed at the evils of colonialism, misogyny and money-grubbing, often depicting how minorities and oppressed people triumph over ugly circumstances for the betterment of all our everyday lives.

Each of the objects can be read about independently from the others in a nonlinear fashion, but there are hidden additional delights for those readers that opt to go cover to cover. There’s a running thread that references the “tiny lady brain” of female inventors. There is a “join the club” thread about inventors who went broke by failing to properly patent their work before it was stolen out from under them. Some of the generic “citizen” characters in England and China recur in different anecdotes with stacked punchlines from a previous bit of a different history. The index (yes, there’s an index!) is useful for following these—it lists helpful stuff like the Dutch (two pages), the Nazis (six pages) and Texas (two pages), but also hilarious stuff like “derring-do, acts of” (five pages), “gender, antiquated views of” (five pages) and “small things, unreasonably giant versions of” (three pages).

The words and pictures are doing different work; Warner doesn’t waste an ounce of space on unnecessary repetition unless it will further the jokes. Though these histories are factual and often underscored by violence or greed, the pace remains quick and the tone remains light—Warner usually opts to treat injustices as self-evidently bad and therefore dismissible; he never appears to be simply glossing the difficult parts of the story. Many of the characters make openly disapproving faces behind the backs of fat cats in the foreground. They show frustration with closed-minded business practices by cursing at management in classic #$*%ing style. The rectangular captions serve the story, the dialogue bubbles serve the punchlines, and the drawings themselves are full of sight gags. Sometimes Warner draws himself into the panels and metatextually comments on his own irresistible puns or the lameness of something that has occurred in the story.

The entire book can be read cover to cover in about 90-minutes with fair attention to detail, but Brief Histories of Everyday Objects is also dense enough to be worth savoring. Keep it next to the bedside table and reach for it for just a few minutes at a time. The success of its humor may tempt readers to skate past its worldview, but the true joy of the book is that Warner’s casual brevity on behalf of a more progressive commercial milieu sounds some pretty uplifting notes amidst all the avaricious shenanigans.

Brief Histories of Everday Objects

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