What’s Your Function?

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Is the Sanka Ashtray primarily an example of a promotional item, or tobaccania? Is the Elvis Chocolate Tin primarily a container, or a novelty item? Why did we name the Spotted Dogs Figurine and Mule Figurine the way we did if they’re primarily novelty items, not figurines?


Is the Crumb Sweeper an example of tableware, kitchenware, or houseware? Is the Tin Ark a religious item, a handicraft, or a decoration? Why is the Smiling Mug a novelty item, the Halston Mug a promotional item, and the Cat Mug tableware?


Does it dignify the Rainbow Sand Animal too much to describe it as a handicraft?

We asked these and many other knotty questions of the 100 objects from Significant Objects v1. What was the object’s original intended use, purpose, role? What is its quintessence? If we had a filing cabinet for pre-Significant objects, how might we label its drawers? It was far from easy, but we feel fairly confident that each of the 100 objects from SO v1 can be tagged with a single function, from the following list:

This is not to suggest that, for example, the Pabst Bottle Opener is not simultaneously a promotional item, a tool, and kitchenware. But it is one of these things more than the others, we’ve determined.

Let’s see if you agree, readers. Check out the following table, which is sorted according to Adjusted Sales Rank. How’d we do? And if you agree with our assignment of functions — can you spot any patterns in the data?

Rank (adj.)ObjectExposition TypeAuthor
1Russian FigureDescriptionDoug Dorst
2Indian MaidenSequence R.K. Scher
3Wooden AnimalSequenceMeg Cabot
4"Hawk" AshtrayClassificationWilliam Gibson
5Pink HorseDescriptionKate Bernheimer
6Metal BootClassificationBruce Sterling
74-TileClassificationToni Schlesinger
8Cape Cod ShoeSequenceSheila Heti
9Duck TrayClassificationStewart O'Nan
10Wooden MalletClassificationColson Whitehead
11Fish SpoonsSequenceMark Doty
12Fake BananaSequenceJosh Kramer (Center for Cartoon Studies)
13Cow VaseSequenceEd Park
13Missouri ShotglassClassificationJonathan Lethem
15Kneeling Man FigurineClassificationGlen David Gold
16Rhino FigurineDescriptionNathaniel Rich
17Rainbow Sand AnimalSequenceSloane Crosley
18Meat ThermometerClassificationNicholson Baker
18IdolSequenceAndrew Ervin
20Felt MouseSequenceMeghan O'Rourke
21Bird FigurineDescriptionSung J. Woo
22Ziggy HeartClassificationTodd Levin
23Geisha BobbleheadSequenceEdward Champion
23BBQ Sauce JarSequenceMatthew J. Wells (Slate Contest Winner)
25Ireland Cow PlateClassificationSarah Rainone
26Necking Team ButtonClassificationSusannah Breslin
27Rope/Wood Monkey FigurineSequenceKevin Brockmeier
28Rooster Oven MittClassificationVictor LaValle
29Motel Room KeyClassificationLaura Lippman
30Jar of MarblesClassificationBen Ehrenreich
31Smiling MugDescriptionBen Greenman
32Marines (Upside-Down) Logo MugClassificationTom Vanderbilt (Design Observer)
33Maine Statutes DishClassificationBen Katchor
33Halston MugClassificationMimi Lipson
35Seahorse LighterClassificationAimee Bender
36Hand-Held Bubble BlowerClassificationMyla Goldberg
36Creamer CowSequenceLucinda Rosenfeld
36JFK BustDescriptionAnnie Nocenti
39Mr. Pickwick Coat HookSequenceChristopher Sorrentino
39Round BoxSequenceTim Carvell
41Amoco Yo-YoSequenceMark Sarvas
42Miniature BottleSequenceMark Frauenfelder
42Penguin CreamerClassificationSari Wilson
44Cigarette CaseSequenceMargot Livesey
45Chili Cat FigurineClassificationLydia Millet
46Alien ToyClassificationNomi Kane (Center for Cartoon Studies)
47Ocean Scene GlobeClassificationStephanie Reents
47UnicornSequenceSarah Weinman
49Crumb SweeperSequenceShelley Jackson
50Praying HandsDescriptionRosecrans Baldwin
50Elvis Chocolate TinClassificationJessica Helfand (Design Observer)
52Sanka AshtraySequenceLuc Sante
53Tin ArkClassificationRebecca Wolff
54Windsurfing Trophy/StatueClassificationNaomi Novik
55Pabst Bottle OpenerSequenceSean Howe
56Spotted Dogs FigurineSequenceCurtis Sittenfeld
56Santa NutcrackerSequenceKurt Andersen
58Foppish FigurineDescriptionRob Baedeker
59Kitty SaucerClassificationJames Parker
60Piggy BankDescriptionMatthew De Abaitua
60Mule FigurineDescriptionMatthew Sharpe
62Nutcracker with Troll Hair (or something)SequenceAdam Davies
62Grain ThingDescriptionJoanne McNeil
64Dome DollSequenceJason Grote
65Popsicle-Stick ConstructionSequenceSara Ryan
65Golf Ball BankSequenceTodd Pruzan
67Blue VaseSequenceLauren Mechling
68Candyland Labyrinth GameSequenceMatthew Battles
68Pen StandClassificationLizzie Skurnick
68Military FigureClassificationDavid Shields
71Dilbert Stress ToyDescriptionBetsey Swardlick (Center for Cartoon Studies)
72Uncola GlassSequenceJen Collins
72Choirboy FigurineSequenceJ. Robert Lennon
74Star of David PlateSequenceAdam Harrison Levy (Design Observer)
75Lighter Shaped Like Small Pool BallSequenceRob Agredo (SmithMag Contest Winner)
76DeviceClassificationTom Bartlett
76Cracker Barrel OrnamentClassificationMaud Newton
76Sea Captain Pipe RestClassificationMichael Atkinson
76"Hakuna Matata" FigurineClassificationJennifer Michael Hecht
76Ornamental SphereClassificationCharles Ardai
81Cat MugClassificationThomas McNeely
82Wave BoxClassificationTeddy Wayne
83Toy ToasterClassificationJonathan Goldstein
84Flip-Flop FrameDescriptionMerrill Markoe
85Thai HooksSequenceBruno Maddox
85Small StaplerSequenceKatharine Weber
87Duck VaseDescriptionMatthew Klam
88Fred Flintstone Pez DispenserDescriptionClaire Zulkey
89Basketball TrophySequenceCintra Wilson
90Toy Hot DogClassificationJenny Davidson
91Umbrella TrinketSequenceBruce Holland Rogers
92Toothbrush HolderSequenceTerese Svoboda
93Coconut CupSequenceAnnalee Newitz
94Swiss MedalSequenceKathryn Borel Jr.
95#1 Mom HooksSequenceRachel Berger (Design Observer)
96Clown FigurineDescriptionNick Asbury
97Kentucky DishSequenceDean Haspiel
98Porcelain ScooterSequenceTeddy Blanks (Design Observer)
99Hawaiian UtensilsSequenceStephen Elliott
100Bar Mitzvah BookendsSequenceStacey Levine

Top Ten objects: 2 human figurines, 2 toys, 1 tobaccania, 1 novelty item, 1 decoration, 1 souvenir, 1 houseware, 1 tool. Which suggests that FUNCTION, on its own, is not a good indicator of significance-potential. Seems all the more likely, then, that narrative plays a key role in adding significance to an object. However, here are a few possible patterns I’ve noticed:

* all animal figurines are in the Top 50; no other object-function is as popular.
* decorations, novelty items, souvenirs, and toys are polarizing functions — there are about as many of each type in the Top 25 as in the Bottom 25.
* there are more souvenirs in the Top 25 than any other single function-type; however, within the Top 25, souvenirs don’t rank particularly high.
* houseware, kitchenware, and tableware seem more or less equally un/inspiring to potential owners.

Readers, what’s your take on the data?


Joshua Glenn is an editor, publisher, and a freelance writer and semiologist. He does business as KING MIXER, LLC. He's cofounder of the websites HiLobrow, Significant Objects, and Semionaut; and cofounder of HiLoBooks, which will reissue six Radium Age sci fi novels in 2012. In 2011, he produced and co-designed the iPhone app KER-PUNCH. He's coauthored and co-edited Taking Things Seriously, The Idler's Glossary, The Wage Slave's Glossary, the story collection Significant Objects (forthcoming from Fantagraphics), and Unbored, a kids' field guide to life forthcoming from Bloomsbury. In the '00s, Glenn was an associate editor and columnist at the Boston Globe's IDEAS section; he also started the IDEAS blog Brainiac. He has written for Slate, n+1, Cabinet, io9, The Baffler, Feed, and The Idler. In the '90s, Glenn published the seminal intellectual zine Hermenaut; served as editorial director and co-producer of the pioneering DIY and online social networking website Tripod.com; and was an editor at the magazine Utne Reader. Glenn manages the Hermenautic Circle, a secretive online community. He was born and raised in Boston, where he lives with his wife and sons. Click here for more info.

9 thoughts on “What’s Your Function?

  1. I would like to know how many of the objects have a well-known and widespread phobia associated with them, as I feel there may have been a strong coulrophobic element in the relatively poor performance of my clown figurine. Once this is taken into account, I feel confident that Kenny would be in the top ten.

  2. Pingback: Houseware or Novelty? Cast your vote! | Significant Objects

  3. We’re actually working on narrative tags to try to capture story types, or story elements. We haven’t quite done, but we’ll be scrutinizing that data soon.

  4. They need to have a single function in order to make an easily intelligible table like this one — but I’ll be the first to agree that objects can have more than one function.

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