The little vintage box: A decluttering case study

For half the year, the stuff of my surroundings is a combination of minimalist and rescue/DIY hacks. During the other half I’ve got too much of nearly everything, with second and third string players for most positions. It’s a weird hybrid, a side effect of living in temporary digs in Valencia alternating with an old house in New England, complete with an old barn full of stuff.

It also means that I have different ways of doing things depending on where I am. For example, in my “other life,” I’ve got three or four wooden cutting boards, one reserved for onions and garlic. In Valencia, I’m likely to cut open the aseptic package that the milk came in and use it for the onions and garlic for a few days until I decide to cut up another empty milk box.

But wherever I am, it can sometimes be hard for me to pitch things I no longer need. To illustrate, here’s a case study, my internal wrestling about what to do with a little box. It came to Spain with me as the case for hair elastics, barrettes and bobby pins. I don’t know how I came by it in the first place, but it’s quite old. I’d guess it might have been made in the 1940s or 50s.

It originally held a “certified clinical thermometer” made by Eisele and Company, Nashville, Tennessee. It has extensive directions inside the lid, including this line: “The proper way of shaking down the mercury column is to take the instrument between the index finger and thumb and give the arm a full downward swing, ending with a snap of the wrist. Two or three swings will usually be sufficient to place column in position for further use.”


If I were in New England right now and I no longer needed it for hair elastics, I could put it with my stash of little boxes (yes, I have a stash of little boxes). Because we’re packing up everything in this year’s Valencia apartment in preparation for our imminent departure, there’s no reasonable place to stick it, and I’m having a different internal conversation. Here are some of the lines from that conversation, all said in my voice*:

It’s kind of amazing that this box is still around–it’s probably the oldest thing in this apartment.

I don’t remember where it came from, but I’ll bet it has an interesting story behind it.

I’ve seen things just like it in museum displays.

It’s a handy size.

This would be great as a theatrical prop.

What might I need this for in the future?

Doesn’t really make sense either to haul it back to the US or to find space for it in our few stored things here.

I like a box with a little history.

Some of you are probably saying, enough already with the thermometer box! Just throw it out! You’ll be glad to know that it’s headed for the recycling. But before it goes, it gives me this chance to think about how that decision gets made. It’s like I’m looking for a way to acknowledge its age and its journey, to recognize whatever value it might have, to help it find continued utility. I think these aren’t bad impulses in themselves. But I recognize that any choice I make to do one thing (spend time contemplating a 70-year-old thermometer box) means that I can’t be doing some other thing, and the list of things more deserving of my time and attention is a long one.

So while I’m headed in to recycle my thermometer box, tell me: what kinds of conversations do you have about stuff you’re keeping that you probably need to pitch?


*I don’t go through this kind of dialog all the time, or even often, but none of these statements is really a stretch.

[Images: El Guapo]




3 thoughts on “The little vintage box: A decluttering case study

  1. How well I remember the mercury thermometer my Mom used for us. If one broke, we would play with the little round balls of mercury. Nobody knew then that it was poison! Fortunately, my siblings and I are still ticking, and we now have digital thermometers (which don’t work nearly as well as the old mercury one)! I don’t know if I would have been able to throw out that box…..

    • And it’s probably best that I didn’t read your comment until the box was already recycled, or I would have wondered where I could tuck it away so I could bring it to you, and then you would have been saddled with the clutter!

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