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July 13, 2014 - July 19, 2014

Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection


During my tour behind the scenes in the storage area of The Magnes, Curator, Dr. Francesco Sagnolo, opened a drawer containing Tzedakah boxes.  

Drawers in the storage area of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and CultureHow did he know that these small tin boxes would be my favorite objects of the day.

drawer of Tzedakah boxes at The Magnes CollectionThese tzedakah boxes 
are printed tin used to collect coins for charity. 

Once even a humble tin Tzedakah box enters a museum collection, it is documented and stored with reverence.  


Tzedakah boxes are often called "puske" boxes in Yiddish. The boxes have little value as an object, or materials, yet are very hard to find. They document a time and place when a penny, nickel or dime was collected for charity. Coins would add up to significant donations in another time.

While these are not religious objects, they often have sentimental value or even serve historical documentation.(Starting with the box on the far left in the above photo...)


This Tzedakah box from The Magnus Collection (above) shows an early map of what is now called Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon. This is an area we hear about every night in the news. The box carries historical perspective from about the 1920's before borders were designated by international negotiations and modern maps. It portrays a concept of Israel before it even existed as a nation. 

Sometimes Tzedakah boxes were for a specific organization -- kind of like a special savings account set up for donations.

This green tzedakah box (shown below) with Hebrew lettering says:
 "Tzedakah (alms) in memory of Rabbi Meir Baal Hachayim, Hungarian "kollel" [religious community study room], [...] Jerusalem". (Translation from Dr. Daniel Viragh)

The Tzedakah box
(shown below) is from Vienna, Austria. 


The coin slot opening at the top was equipped internally with linked chains to make more noise when the coins were placed in the box.  


Usually Tzedakah boxes were humble materials such as painted tin, brass or copper.  The cylindrical box (left- created 1801 - 1900) has a clasp and loop for a small lock. Even more than a century ago, it was necessary to keep honest people honest.

Humble objects and modest materials can communicate values and meaning beyond the intrinsic materials themselves. 

I had completely forgotten about the little blue tin Tzedakah box of my childhood until 1997 when vague memories of tin boxes surfaced for a new direction in my work... this is THE next post. 

PS. I will be lecturing at The Magnes Collection on Wednesday, October 29th for a short lunch time lecture and discusion. Please consider coming. Admission is free. 

Museums Save Ordinary as Extraordinary

Museums often collect the once ordinary that has become extraordinary and revealing. To imagine that something that would have been casually used everyday, never considered special or unique, perhaps even considered temporary or disposable, has survived 50 or 100 years or more is amazing. 

On this table in the background (at the top of the photo) the staff at The Magnes were laying out items for an upcoming exhibition.


These plates (in the photo below) connect to food. The plate above (left) says 'milk' and the plate below center says 'meat.' 


Labeled plates may seem odd to us since most people use different china patterns to remember which is the milk or meat plates to keep Kosher. The staff explained that these plates were from a restaurant where they didn't want to take a chance that the plates would be mixed up. But even more extraordinary, they actually had their original plastic wrap so that everyone would know they were clean.

Imagine plastic wrap lasting decades!

The Magnes even had old spice tins ready for the next exhibition.  While not valuable in the terms of a purchase price, a tin from Horowitz Margareten (a Kosher spice company) is almost impossible to find. 

I love spice tins....and have used them to construct some of my work.

Below is another utilitarian and pedestrian object from the past. Typewriter-Underwood-Manual-Hebrew-Yiddush

High tech in1923, but out dated since, this Underwood typewriter with lettering for Yiddush and Hebrew somehow avoided reclamation for scrap metal for 90 years. 


The typewriter is creatively used to display information in the exhibition at The Magnes Collection. 


In the above photo, Dr. Daniel Viragh, Post Doctoral Fellow at The Magnes, describes how he and his students searched the archives of The Magnes Collection at the Bancroft Library.

Hundreds of hours went into research of personal papers, letters and newspaper clippings from the 1940's and 50's. Ephemera that somehow survived 60+ years and now serves to offer insight in research. I wonder what will happen in the future when personal papers no longer exist, and everything is on the "old" computers hard drive, lost forever.

This is why museums like The Magnes Collection of Art and Culture provide such a valuable role.

Saving and collecting objects representing former times can become extraordinary if they have survived to share their history.  That is what The Magnes Collection is all about.

Your work could become part of a museum collection, especially if it represents something in our contemporary culture or captures a theme of our times. 

P.S. Tomorrow I will share some ordinary objects that had a significant impact on my work.