Jules Bouy, Wastebasket, ca. 1930.
This week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art released some 375,000 images into the public domain, granting unprecedented digital access to a wide swath of its collection. This is a boon. “Wikipedia’s hundreds of millions of users from around the globe will now be able to experience the Met’s greatest treasures,” said Wikimedia’s Katherine Mahler, “no matter where they live.” And there are treasures. Fourteen kinds of Tiffany glass are there. This Paul Klee drawing of a chicken and a pig—it’s so there. You can search acres of immaculate Pre-Raphaelite tresses.
There is also, I’ve found, this iron wastebasket by Jules Bouy.
It is the only wastebasket in the Met’s collection.
Want to see it in person? You can’t. It’s not on display. This is an online-only wastebasket.
Bouy, who died in 1937, emigrated to New York from France before World War I. Though he’d trained as a metalworker, his firm, Bouy, Inc., did all kinds of design. The Met holds twenty-seven pieces that testify to the breadth of his talents—benches, tables, desks, trays, a shellacked mantelpiece worthy of a chain-smoking railroad scion. Some of Bouy’s furniture can still be found for sale, including this indomitable art-deco console, yours for twenty-two hundred dollars.
But my several minutes of Googling—variously with and without quotation marks, and up to page eleven—have failed to yield much information on this wastebasket. We know, from the Met, that Bouy made it sometime around 1930. The museum received it as a gift from Juliette B. Castle and Mrs. Paul Dahlstrom, who had presumably found an alternative trash-deposit solution, in 1968.
Who can say why these things speak to us? I clicked and clicked and there it was, stark and plain and entirely incapable of holding my trash. It is a handsome wastebasket. Lean, striated, with those vaguely municipal squares cut out of it, as if it were designed not for the home but for the take-all-comers street corner. A small child could pass an aimless afternoon in there. You can imagine, as I did, the ungainly iron wastebasket making its way to the museum through the heady melee of that year, 1968: maybe, while protests erupted at Columbia, a pair of workmen were easing the wastebasket onto a handcart; maybe the wastebasket lay in the back of some inconspicuous box truck sitting in traffic as riots took hold after the death of MLK Jr.; maybe, most ironic of all, the wastebasket was appraised, sold, burnished, shipped, and installed all while the city’s garbage men were on strike.
The wastebasket itself has been on strike for decades now. You couldn’t get to it even if you wanted to—for all its beauty, it lacks one of a wastebasket’s essential features, accessibility. It hasn’t held a good piece of waste in years. Nothing can be discarded into it; it can’t do what it was designed to do. Do it a favor and bring it one step closer: save the image to your desktop, wastebasket.jpg, and then drag the file slowly, languorously into the trash.
Dan Piepenbeing is the web editor of The Paris Review.
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