Humanity has been meaning to clean out its junk drawer since 1824. That, at least, is when the charming poem "Articles Found in a Kitchen Drawer" first appeared in a London magazine, and the inventory remains recognizable even today:
A rusty bent skewer, a broken brass cock, Some onions and tinder, and the draw'r lock; A bag for the pudding, a whetstone and string, A penny-cross bun and a new curtain-ring:— A print for the butter, a dirty chemise, Two pieces of soap and a large piece of cheese; Five tea-spoons of tin, a large lump of rosin, The feet of a hare, and corks by the dozen;— A card to tell fortunes, a sponge and a can, A pen without ink, and a small patty pan...
Sometimes, though, drawers do turn up something better than old rubber bands and disused phone chargers. There's the occasional fortune in Spanish gold—and maybe even a Nobel Prize or two—to be found.
DRAWER #1: A Millennium-Old Runic Enigma
No matter how old the junk in your drawer is, you're unlikely to top one family in the French village of Auzon. A visiting professor in the 1850s discovered that they possessed the pieces of a peculiar old broken sewing box of heavily carved whalebone, some of which they'd simply tossed into a drawer. Now displayed in the British Museum, it's proved to be very old junk indeed: more than 1000 years old, in fact. Dubbed the "Franks Casket," the carvings on it are a dizzying mix of verse in Old English runes and Latin ciphers. Its panels depict Roman and Germanic mythology alike, along with a Christian Adoration of the Magi thrown in for good measure. Although the lettering dates it to 8th century Northumberland, the meaning of its enigmatic artwork has had scholars arguing for more than a century.
But how did it wind up in a junk drawer? It appears to have been looted during the French Revolution from the shrine of Saint-Julien in Brioude, where nobody had taken much notice of it. And until one of the family's children naughtily removed the silver hinges and fittings, the box had done perfectly good household duty—not at holding an ancient mystery, but at holding thimbles and spools.
DRAWER #2: Newton's Golden Guinea
Auctioneers aren't necessarily thrilled when you ask if coins you found in an old drawer are worth anything. Chances are, they're not—and that's what Gorringes Auction House staffer Leslie Gillham was about to explain in 2012 to an anonymous local retiree in the Kentish town of Tunbridge Wells.
"She gave me two silver crowns and I thought 'shame you haven't got any gold coins,'" he explained to the Kent News afterward. "Then she produced the 5-guinea piece, which made my eyes nearly pop out of my head."
The coin, found in her late husband's handkerchief drawer, was a rare 1703 Vigo 5-guinea piece. Only 16 are known to exist. Though a guinea was traditionally worth about £1 and minted from West African gold (hence the name), Vigos were struck from gold captured in 1702 from a Spanish fleet in Vigo Bay. The haul was modest—4500 pounds of silver, and a mere 7.5 pounds of gold—but the Royal Mint, then overseen by Isaac Newton, used the handful of Spanish gold to mint a special run of guineas to "Continue to Posterity the Remembrance of that Glorious Action."
As to how one appeared in a handkerchief drawer, the widow hadn't a clue. It may have already been there when she inherited the bureau from her parents, because her husband didn't collect coins. His spouse certainly gained some modern coinage, though: The guinea sold last December for £296,160 ($476,871).
DRAWER #3: Radioactive Fame
February 26, 1896, began inauspiciously for Henri Becquerel. A professor of Physics at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, Becquerel was inspired by the recent discovery of X-rays to experiment with some photographic plates—namely, to see if uranium salts emitted X-rays after exposure to sunlight. There was just one problem: The sun wasn't cooperating. Paris was overcast, and Professor Becquerel dejectedly wrapped up his plates and the uranium and shoved them together into a desk drawer. The plates, he figured, would at best show "very weak" images. But when he finally developed them a few days later, he was stunned to find that "silhouettes appeared with great intensity." Despite sitting in a dark desk drawer for days, something exposed the film. The logical explanation was that the uranium itself was emitting radiation even without any external excitation—an unheard-of phenomenon.
Carefully controlled follow-up experiments by Becquerel proved his hunch right—and inspired Marie Curie and her husband Pierre to research what Marie would dub radioactivity. The "failed" experiment in a Paris drawer brought worldwide fame: In 1903, Becquerel and the Curies were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize.
DRAWER #4: F. Scott Fitzgerald's Lost Years
Authors, Ernest Hemingway once mused, were best advised to meet Hollywood studios at the state line: "You throw them your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell back the way you came." But his fellow Lost Generation icon F. Scott Fitzgerald spent years in the 1930s writing for studios, where the Great Gatsby author was paid handsomely to write one ill-fated script after another. Visiting Metro Goldwyn Mayer's offices in 1985, University of Nebraska assistant professor Wheeler Winston Dixon found their basement contained desks still stuffed with Fitzgerald's notes—"they had the actual legal pads there, intact," Dixon recalls in amazement. Among their boxes of castoffs, he discovered Fitzgerald's six-page outline for the ending of his famously unfinished script to Infidelity, a 1938 Joan Crawford vehicle that got scrapped for portraying, well, infidelity.
These days the notes are safely archived at the University of South Carolina, far from MGM's basement—and Dixon is now a Professor of Film Studies at University of Nebraska. Fitzgerald's screenplay and concluding notes remain something of an undiscovered treasure, Professor Dixon insists: "I still think to this day, if you gave it to a really good screenwriter, it'd be a brilliant script."