Because We Can | Newberry

Because We Can

I am used to seeing the occasional oddity arrive at the Book Fair. Sometimes people ask first, as in the case of these bags of shredded currency (like I’m going to turn down a cash donation) and sometimes they are a complete surprise, like this collection of pens with life-affirming quotes on the side (perhaps so you have something to think about while writing those checks to the tax folk.)

And it is handy when a person sends the item in a display case. First, this alerts me to the fact that the hockey puck or pig postcard is a special item. Second, it gives me a way to display the collectible myself when I put it out for sale.

So when I got a handy Lucite display case with a can of soup inside, it was not completely astonishing. I could see the soup can was not new: the label had an old-fashioned air to it. AND I don’t believe they make “Frozen Oyster Stew Soup” any more. The case was one which came with a small bracket for setting up a card as label. There was, however, no card, though I opened the case to look for one. This also made it possible for me to see that the can itself was genuine, but had been opened and emptied. (It isn’t that I mind myself: it’s just reassuring the rest of the Book Fair folk that we are not unleashing as plague upon the world.)

So I figured this was a neat little oddity to display on the collector’s table, and went about arranging a few more items which had come in that day. I had noticed a dark streak on the label, but attributed this to age.

It was only a day or so later that I looked more closely at the can, and realized the streak was there deliberately, and seemed to begin with the letter A. Yes, as you probably deduced paragraphs ago, this can of Campbell’s Frozen Oyster Stew Soup had been given its case because it was signed by Andy Warhol.

Mr. Warhol, of course, painted those iconic paintings of Campbell’s soup cans. Many people are familiar with his Cream of Tomato, but some people feel his Chicken Noodle has more real feeling. In any case, he painted every single flavor available from Campbell’s at his time, including Frozen Oyster Stew Soup.

What may be less well known was that he was in the habit of autographing any can of Campbell’s soup someone brought to him. It fit in with his theories of Art and Society: the fact that a person could buy a can of soup for nineteen cents, have another person scribble on it, and turn it into a Work of Art tickled his funny bone. He signed LOTS of soup cans over the years. The literature is filled with sad stories of what followed. Not everyone had the foresight to empty the soup can afterward. Perhaps they felt the original soup itself was collectible. One sad soul is selling a signed can of Chicken Noodle soup with a label that has changed color in several places: the soup leaked through the seams of the can as time went by. A museum has what’s left of a can of Cream of Tomato which exploded. (I was taught from my early days to check cans of tomato soup to make sure they hadn’t started to bulge. Perhaps Andy was responsible for this information going public.)

But our can is empty and has been so for a long time: the only real sign of age is a touch of rust here or there inside the can, perhaps from water drying inside it after it was washed. I am grateful for the foresight of the collector. It makes life less interesting if I am not escorted out of the building for possession of a dangerous food item.

Although it might make me famous for fifteen minutes.

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