Tucked in an MSU office, the Moist Towelette Museum is an ode to quirk and connection

By: - December 31, 2021 7:02 am

John French, the Abrams Planetarium’s production coordinator who doubles as the founder and curator of the Moist Towelette Museum. | Anna Gustafson photo

The origin story of the Moist Towelette Museum, a space of eight packed shelves tucked into an office at Michigan State University’s Abrams Planetarium in East Lansing, is something of a tale of quirk and friendship — and the birth of the internet.

“I started collecting them back in the ‘90s — I was working in a planetarium in Pittsburgh at the time, and my colleagues and friends found out I collected them and started sending me all these towelettes,” said John French, the Abrams Planetarium’s production coordinator who doubles as the founder and curator of the Moist Towelette Museum. “We had just gotten the internet then, and I remember looking stuff up on AltaVista — it was amazing the stuff you’d find — and I typed in ‘moist towelette’ and didn’t get anything. I said, ‘I want to be the first one to have a moist towelette collection on the internet.’” 

To see the museum online — and find a recipe for a do-it-yourself towelette — click here.

By the time French was ready to post his collection online, he discovered others had already beaten him to the punch. So, French, who worked at planetariums in Pennsylvania and Texas before moving to Michigan in 2002, amended his course and launched a museum.

Ultimately, his collection of towelettes has soared to more than 1,000 packets from around the world. He’s had a woman who worked in a moist towelette factory in Turkey send him packets, as have people from Beijing to New York. His oldest towelette packet, given to him by a friend of his mother, is from 1963; others are from a sumo wrestling match in Japan, Russian Railways and the Hard Rock Cafe in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. There’s even one that’s meant to wipe away radioactive contamination.

The office shelves the towelettes call home are something of a chaotic jumble of color and nostalgia — for example, the “Finger Pinkies Secretary’s Hand Cleaner,” encased in slightly faded pink packets, boasts of its ability to clean typewriter ribbons, newsprint and carbon papers.

“It says it’s an ‘ideal companion around the house,’” French said, reading the package. “So, you know, if you’re hanging around the house watching Netflix, you can hang out with a moist towelette; it makes a great companion.”

There’s even a “celebrity wing” of the museum, which consists of the one used towelette in French’s collection. That towelette, meant to clean automobile grease, was sent to him by Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of National Public Radio’s “Car Talk” program.

By the time French was ready to post his collection online, he discovered others had already beaten him to the punch. So, French, who worked at planetariums in Pennsylvania and Texas before moving to Michigan in 2002, amended his course and launched a museum.

In the midst of an office filled with everything from NASA paraphernalia to ukuleles — French plays them and, mid-interview, broke into song, the lyrics of which went something like, “this is a moist towelette theme song” — the packets sit beneath a sculpture carved from Spam.

“I call him Spam tiki; he’s kind of the guardian of the Moist Towelette Museum, and he is carved out of a block of Spam,” French said. “Somebody gave me him when I was living in Texas, so he’s probably 30 years old by now.”

Thanks to being regularly listed in “weird museums you must check out” compilations in national and global media — French has a copy of a New Zealand paper that urges its readers to check out the Moist Towelette Museum — this ode to packets of cleanliness continues to grow as people from all corners of the world send him towelettes. Television programs have also featured the museum, including the Food Network program, “Unwrapped.”

“They went out and bought some chicken wings and filmed me wiping my mouth with a moist towelette,” French said. “Other people have told me since then, they’ve seen me in other shows when they have to use it as B-roll.”

People have sent him so many packets that the curator has to pick and choose which ones to display — after all, his office also has to accommodate his regular work. In addition to making and running Abrams Planetarium shows, French creates the planetarium’s monthly “Sky Calendar” publication — which “shows what’s up in the night sky” and is mailed to some 4,000 people. 

 

“It’s been going on for 50 years,” French said of the calendar. “I was told back in the early ‘90s, we had about 14,000 subscribers, but, like so many other print media, people don’t do it anymore.”

Like nearly every cultural institution in the country, the Moist Towelette Museum has been hit by the pandemic and it’s still not open to the public. The planetarium shut down last year, and French himself was furloughed. He’s back at work now, though he continues to do some work from home. Still, he said, if someone really wants to see the museum, they can contact him and he can likely accommodate them.

And, until the public can fully return, French continues to get letters from people around the world — so many that he has a bin dedicated to displaying the letters in the museum. Plus, he likes to remember those who have come by over the years: people from New Jersey to California who have signed the guest registry list that asks visitors their name, where they’re from, and what they like to collect. The collections people have written about range from antique wedding cake toppers to their own stash of moist towelettes.

As for French, his collections span far beyond moist towelettes.

“This isn’t a physical collection, but I really enjoy going to the high points of different places — I’ve been to the highest point in Pennsylvania, the highest point in Michigan,” he said. “I go to each state and try to go to its highest point. I birdwatch and keep a list of all the birds I see. I consider those collections.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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