What is All This Stuff? The Beauty of Knick-Knacks

A look into the mesmerizing world of cluttered homes.


Sidney Lin

Just across from a wall of family photos, an assortment of colorful ornaments decorates this particular shelf at my grandparent’s house.

If you’re more efficient than most, you may have already finished your 2023 cleaning. After all, there’s nothing like starting the first few months of a new year with a fresh start. It’s a tradition to rid yourself of junk that seems to take up so much more space when laid out that you start to ask yourself how it will even be possible to stuff these items back into the drawer in which they were kept, just five minutes ago. It’s more than a universal experience to think to yourself, ‘What is all this stuff?’

In the last three years, our lives have been completely turned upside down, due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Ironically, while stuck at home for months at a time, a sole source of solace for many has been at all costs avoiding turning their houses upside down. In simpler terms, this is the obsession with keeping their homes tidy, minimalist, and organized, with every appliance in its place, every wall left harmoniously blank –the slate wiped clean. 

While in quarantine, there was nothing like flicking on the T.V. to Netflix and seeing Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s cheerful face. Behind that smile, you worry that she is judging you and the mess you’re somehow living in. You resign to your self-pity and continue to watch, wondering How hard could cleaning all of that up be? When we have an absolute lack of control regarding the chaos around our city, our country, and our world, at least we can control the chaos inside our homes, right?

Before one decides to go down that rabbit hole, let’s look towards the opposite end of the spectrum: knick-knacks, tchotchkes, ornaments, mementos, trinkets, bits, bobs, and even thingamajigs. Whatever name you call them by, these decorative objects are defined by a purpose of well… nothing! From a glance, they are impractical little pieces of clutter that plop themselves around one’s rooms, taking the shape of dolls, figurines, miniatures, stuffed animals, or porcelains. It is an assortment of anything that could fall into this category.

Here is an intricate and miniature tea set, just one knick-knack in my mother’s collection, which was gifted to her from her own mother. (Sidney Lin)

However, these baubles may mean something more than simply the decorative intentions with which they were created. Rather, this meaning lies in the memories we put behind them. Willa Nawaday ’25 said, “When my mom was giving birth to my little sister in the hospital, my nanny and I bought a little stuffed unicorn. It still decorates our apartment, and it really means a lot to me. It’s definitely something with a lot of sentimental value.” 

Personally, for as long as I can remember, my grandparent’s tiny Manhattan apartment has been a place of wonder. While that fascination was attributable to many things, one of the features of their home that always struck me the most was their knick-knack shelf. Almost floor to ceiling in length, it was as if a mini-museum case displayed their lives within a single glass cabinet. Picture frames stood there too, with an endless cluster of oddities right alongside them. More than anything, each tchotchke, the small decorative objects without purpose, seemed to interact with one another, like a little town; a community of decor rather than just isolated items. Unfortunately, the personal history and stories behind much of those specific doodads have mostly been lost to time, but this overarching sentimentality for the physical little things lay the groundwork for the collections of decor amassed in my own home today. Here is a brief peek into some personal favorites.

Above the fireplace

This is a miniature piano music box, another knick-knack of my mother’s. This music box has been in her family since she was a little girl, and I too have continued to marvel at its place on the mantle since I was young. (Sidney Lin)

A miniature wooden piano that plays a whimsical tune as its lid is cracked open. This piano has moved from home to home ever since my mom was young, originally gifted to their family from my great-aunt in Switzerland. The child-like wonder of this knick-knack is even still preserved in the tiny plastic rifle from my uncle’s old G.I. Joe figurine, which still hides beneath the piano’s lid.

A ceramic tiger, celebrating the year of the tiger, in 2010. This was one of the first things to make it onto our mantle.

A vintage glass milk bottle, smoothly engraved with the lettering of the Alex Campbell Milk Company. This artifact-like object was first taken in by us when discovered within our house while undergoing renovation, years ago. Not only does it serve as a marker of the late 1800’s, but personally, a marker of when we first moved in during the early 2010’s as well.

A small, wooden, and brightly colored plane, from an early trip to Mexico years ago.

Upon my windowsill

Over the years, a love for amassing knick-knacks was passed onto me by my family. Here is a small plot of trinkets that lie on my windowsill, all acquired from various places and people. Each object has a different little backstory. (Sidney Lin)

Exactly three miniature origami paper cranes, hand folded by my aunt. These blue and gold, polka-dotted birds have been sitting quietly in this spot and on this exact windowsill for more than a decade. 

A tiny wooden shoe (a clog, in fact), handed to me one day by my best friend back in the third grade. 

A plastic brown Snoopy figurine, given to me by my mom in kindergarten. The bright red butterfly on his nose now glows only faintly.

A miniature catapult, metallic and die-cast, gifted by my 6th grade Latin teacher. While it once functioned as a pencil sharpener, it now functions as nothing more than sweet memorabilia.

A three-dimensional shining bear charm, made from almost crystal-like woven seed beads, adorned with her very own dress. This memento first came into my ownership from my grandmother in early elementary school, along with a collection of other similar animals.

There is also a miniature hanger for these beaded creatures to live on, which are wire bent and star shaped.

It’s more than clear that each and every one of these “dust collectors” truly tells a story. And these are only a fraction of what could be uncovered with just a closer look. A single object is capable of physically bottling up the essence of the moment you received it, and nothing compares to the feeling of picking one up allowing yourself to be transported again. Journalist Adam Rhodes from the Chicago Reader sums this up perfectly, as he writes, “I feel at home among the clutter, with mere inches between picture frames, prints, shelves, and knicknacks. Each item, each print, each doodad and whatsit has a story, a memory, and a place.”

In collecting these things, we turn our homes into a museum, a sort of walk-through art gallery of our lives. We should feel lucky to have the privilege of  calling these items our own. Important is an understatement when talking about the value of cherishing the physical embodiments of the places we’ve been, the people we love, the values we hold, and the memories we hold even closer. 

And sometimes, even for trinkets whose stories have been lost in the backs of our memory, displaying them anyways is equally as vital. It is proof of, and undeniably shows that, we did indeed live to our fullest — with real human nature embedded between our walls. It humanizes where we live for everybody who steps into our homes and provides an immediate sense of warmth and curiosity.

Bare countertops and a calculated system that determines how many objects should hang from our walls may stay in place for years to come. However, adorning corner to corner with objects that are documents of our character is how we pave the way further towards being able to cement our lives in history.

Now, this is by no means a plea to grab at everything you see or undergo any sort of maximalist transformation. Instead, we should simply seek to turn our houses into homes and provide them with a sense of not only being a place we live in, but love too. Ergo, we should consider adding another synonym to our list of knick knacks, tchotchkes, and trinkets. Now more than ever, treasure works too.

However, these baubles may mean something more than simply the decorative intentions with which they were created. Rather, this meaning lies in the memories we put behind them. Willa Nawaday ’25 said, “When my mom was giving birth to my little sister in the hospital, my nanny and I bought a little stuffed unicorn. It still decorates our apartment, and it really means a lot to me. It’s definitely something with a lot of sentimental value.”