By: Tim Carvell
January 4, 2019

One in a 2018–2019 series of posts reprinting stories originally written — by 12 HILOBROW contributors and friends — for Josh Glenn and Rob Walker’s 2009–2010 anthropological-literary experiment SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS. See below for more info about this ongoing project.


On December 17, 1948, the Humboldt twins entered the world, Jerome screaming, Luke laughing. This pattern held. Jerome grew up to be as petulant, difficult and miserable as Luke was cheery, optimistic and polite.

Their father, Max, owned the Humboldt Tiny Decorative Box Corp., the main employer in Ossipee, N.H. He grew to hope Luke might one day take over the business. After all, Luke loved crafts — at the age of nine, he’d papier-mâchéd a doghouse in a perfect replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wingspread House. (The doghouse remained sadly unoccupied, as Jerome’s cock-fighting ring had placed the family on the ASPCA’s “watch list.”) But at his wife Sheila’s urging, to avoid the appearance of favoritism, in 1969 Max willed the business to both boys.

This was a horrible mistake. Not six months after drawing up the will, Max died from what is known in the decorative-box trade as “varnish lung.” (The coroner tactlessly described Max’s lungs to Sheila as “the shiniest I’ve ever seen.”) At the time, Luke was in Ecuador with the Peace Corps, teaching tribal children appliqué and découpage. And so it fell to Jerome to lead the company.

To everyone’s surprise, Jerome leaped at the opportunity. Far from lacking interest in the family trade, he’d quietly written a manifesto, “On the Morality of the Small Box,” arguing that tiny boxes were a means to liberate the world from falsehood — and any box that failed to do so was “a plywood sin.” He swiftly redesigned the company’s wares, banishing all forms of decoration; the factory soon produced only severe black boxes, adorned with 9-point Courier declarations: “Love is a precursor to sorrow.” “Joy fades.” “Pets die.”

The boxes were a disaster. Within six months, business had tapered off to zero, and the payroll dwindled to one: Jerome. Ignoring the pleas of the townspeople, Jerome persisted, drinking heavily and hand-making his grim boxes late into the night.

What happened on Christmas Eve, 1970 was, Sheila insists, an accident; out of deference to her, let us say that it was. That night, Jerome accidentally fell into the hydraulic laminator, having accidentally disabled its safeguards. The machine swiftly rendered his body into a shiny oblong disc of viscera. Horrifically, his body was found by none other than his brother, who tiptoed into the factory early Christmas morning, hoping to surprise his father and share tales of his Ecuadoran glitter co-operative, only to find his brother’s pressed corpse.

Such an event might have broken another man. But Luke worked through his grief, throwing himself into designing his brother’s coffin. To accommodate the corpse’s unusual shape, the container was necessarily round, and he decorated the lid with a tender photo of Sheila cradling Jerome. (A photo, Sheila later confided to friends, snapped moments before Jerome bit her.) But the night before the funeral, the casket remained maddeningly incomplete. Then Luke’s eyes lit upon the inscription on one of his brother’s boxes: “To one person, you may be the world, but to the world, you’re only one person.” And he realized that it needed but a slight tweak. In what became number 3 on Small Box Monthly’s list of the 100 Most Significant Moments of the 20th Century, Luke Humboldt reached for the paint. He wrote: “To the world, you may be only one person, but to one person, you may be the world.”

The next morning, as the casket was lashed to the roof of a hearse, an onlooker muttered, “Now there’s a box someone might buy.” And Luke — looking out upon the unemployed citizens of Ossipee — knew what he had to do. That very evening, he started producing small replicas of Jerome’s splendid coffin. To you, this may be just one small box. But to Luke Humboldt, this box contains the world.

ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE: Ben Greenman on SMILING MUG | Dean Haspiel on KENTUCKY DISH | Doug Dorst on RUSSIAN FIGURE | Kurt Andersen on SANTA NUTCRACKER | Matt Brown on CRUMPTER | Chris Adrian on KANGAMOUSE | Nicholson Baker on MEAT THERMOMETER | Rachel Axler on FORTUNE-TELLING DEVICE | Sean Howe on PABST BOTTLE OPENER | Susannah Breslin on NECKING TEAM BUTTON | Tim Carvell on ROUND BOX | Susanna Daniel on SHARK AND SEAL PENS


SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018). 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE . ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.

CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: UNBORED CANON by Josh Glenn | CARPE PHALLUM by Patrick Cates | MS. K by Heather Kasunick | HERE BE MONSTERS by Mister Reusch | DOWNTOWNE by Bradley Peterson | #FX by Michael Lewy | PINNED PANELS by Zack Smith | TANK UP by Tony Leone | OUTBOUND TO MONTEVIDEO by Mimi Lipson | TAKING LIBERTIES by Douglas Wolk | STERANKOISMS by Douglas Wolk | MARVEL vs. MUSEUM by Douglas Wolk | NEVER BEGIN TO SING by Damon Krukowski | WTC WTF by Douglas Wolk | COOLING OFF THE COMMOTION by Chenjerai Kumanyika | THAT’S GREAT MARVEL by Douglas Wolk | LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE by Chris Spurgeon | IMAGINARY FRIENDS by Alexandra Molotkow | UNFLOWN by Jacob Covey | ADEQUATED by Franklin Bruno | QUALITY JOE by Joe Alterio | CHICKEN LIT by Lisa Jane Persky | PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | ALL MY STARS by Joanne McNeil | BIGFOOT ISLAND by Michael Lewy | NOT OF THIS EARTH by Michael Lewy | ANIMAL MAGNETISM by Colin Dickey | KEEPERS by Steph Burt | AMERICA OBSCURA by Andrew Hultkrans | HEATHCLIFF, FOR WHY? by Brandi Brown | DAILY DRUMPF by Rick Pinchera | BEDROOM AIRPORT by “Parson Edwards” | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | COMICALLY VINTAGE by Comically Vintage | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA by Lynn Peril | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | MONSTOBER by Rick Pinchera | POP WITH A SHOTGUN by Devin McKinney | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | ANNOTATED GIF by Kerry Callen | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | NOMADBROW by Erik Davis | SCREEN TIME by Jacob Mikanowski | FALSE MACHINE by Patrick Stuart | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | UNBORED MANIFESTO by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen | H IS FOR HOBO by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators