Does every detail in a story have to mean something? Does it all have to come with a story behind it? Or can some things just be?
At the moment, I'm wearing a t-shirt that reads The Chorus, from my time in Romeo and Juliet. I like the shirt. It fits, is a nice shade of gray, and reminds me of some good times. On the other hand, I can't sing, so it might be considered misrepresentation, depending on what kind of chorus one thinks of.
But, if I put a shirt like this on a character, I wonder, would I need to explain everything that ties back to it, or could I just let it go as a small character detail? It could say a lot about the character if one wanted to trace things all the way back to the source, but it could also say a bit without any tracing at all. Maybe it would say enough without the history.
I recall at the beginning of the movie Juno that the character is using a phone shaped like a hamburger. It's never really explained how she came by such a phone or why. It's just a detail thrown out there that shows, in case you didn't get it from the rest of the movie, that she's sort of a quirky girl. (Actually, the phone belonged to Diablo Cody. She brought it in, because they couldn't find one.) I think we, as viewers, got plenty from the item without any explanation.
On the other hand, in the television show West Wing there is a goldfish on C.J. Cregg's desk since the first season. If you hadn't been watching from the beginning, you'd only know that C.J. had a pet fish (which often had items in its bowl that foreshadowed things to come in the episode). What you wouldn't know was that the fish was a gift from Danny, a guy who was into her in a big way and whom she was into. Knowing the origin of that item told you more about the character, from Danny liking her, to her liking Danny enough to keep the fish for years, to her liking goldfish crackers.
In my writing, I give the details that I think are interesting or important to the story. So I try to find a medium between nice-detail-with-no-important-back-story and detail-with-a-past. I think the details with a past are useful, because they can be a good way to pass on info. However, detail without a past has its place, too, as the reader needs to know what's going on around the character and get the feel of the area, even if it doesn't all have deep, special meaning.
How do you feel about giving items history? Is it too much detail, or is it interesting, or is there a balance?