Rob Walker | Essays

No. 1 Object


Number One Hand protoypes from 1978, via Designboom.


If you are determined to think only serious thoughts over the course of this long weekend, I encourage you to read no further. If, on the other hand, you share my interest in preposterous, popular objects, then keep going. Because what is on the other hand at the moment is a giant foam “Number One” glove.

You know about these things. You may even know that one of them was involved in the instantly (and I assume fleetingly) notorious Miley Cyrus VMA performance a week ago. And as the media staggered into the final throes of wringing every last drop of online traffic and offline attention from that spectacle, some desperate soul resorted to seeking the opinion of The Guy Who Invented The Giant Foam Finger.

Several years ago — before it was hot! — I confessed my bemused fascination with the Number One Hand. In fact I jokingly suggested that the American flag ought to be replaced by a red-white-and-blue Number One Hand. (As a backup plan, I wished my old blog Murketing.com had its own Number One Hand, and a reader indulged me, digitally at least.)

The occasion for that earlier musing was this history of the Number One Hand, published on Designboom and attributing the invention of the object to Geral Fauss, a former high school teacher who was said to have dreamed the thing up in 1978. The occasion for this musing is a Cyrus-fallout story that gives credit to someone else entirely: Steve Chmelar, who Fox News reports “created the original ‘No. 1 hand’ as a way to support his high school basketball team at the Iowa state championships in 1971.”

A Wikipedia entry on the matter — flagged for its dearth of sourcing — says that Chmelar created his Number One Hand in papier-mâché form (there are pictures on Wikipedia). It’s not clear if Fauss was aware of that when he envisioned the same symbol in foam form seven years later. According to Fox, Chmelar “believes it was his creation that inspired the digit we all know today.” Let’s just agree that success has many fathers.

In any case, the alleged hook for Fox’s interview comes down to this comment Chmelar is quoted as having made concerning the Cyrus episode: “She took an honorable icon that is seen in sporting venues everywhere and degraded it.”

I became aware of all this by reading an E! Online item (look, it happens) that seemed to arch its brow at that “honorable icon” bit. I have no opinion about Miley Cyrus’ antics, and I’m not sure I would sign on for “honorable,” but there’s no question that the Number One Hand is an iconic object. It’s not iconic despite being absurd, it is iconic because it is absurd.

As objects go, the Number One Hand is garish, tacky, embarrassing, a blunt-force-trauma idea made physical: I cannot imagine a more concise manifestation of pure devotion intertwined with unapologetic provocation. It is a prop from some satire of mindlessly loutish crowd behavior, injected into reality, and embraced on a mass level. In short, the foam number one hand is so dumb it is, for me, impossible not to love.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Product Design

Comments [1]

OK Rob, no serious thoughts. How about . . . a game of Operation just the tip?
Carl W. Smith

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