When It's All Going Down the Tube, What Stuff Sticks Around to the End?

Will it ever come to scenes like this? Men facing hardships of the Great Depression line up for a free dinner in New York City in 1932.
Will it ever come to scenes like this? Men facing hardships of the Great Depression line up for a free dinner in New York City in 1932. (Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Among the last things to go in the Depression was -- lipstick.

"It was not particularly expensive, but it was a prized possession," says Jeremy E. Adamson, director for collections and services at the Library of Congress. "You feel bad anyway, but you make yourself look a little bit better. It says, 'I care about myself.' Those little things are terribly important."

A lot of little things are going now, in the free fall. So are a lot of big things. But in times past when lives dropped precipitously from comfortable to collapsed, some of the last things people let go of were the little things that announced who they were -- Grandma's silver tea set, a gold watch that hasn't worked for 80 years, photos, recordings, souvenirs from the St. Louis World's Fair -- some of it with monetary value, some just clutter there's no sense taking with you now that you've lost the house.

Except you try.

"If you look at old family homes, the last things likely to go are things like threadbare old Persian carpets," Adamson says. "They marked you as belonging to old family tradition. In present circumstances you may be miserable, but it says you have some sense of self-worth.

"If you are an absolute refugee, how do you hold your head up? How do you tell other people around you that you were once worthy and could be worthy again?

"The last thing to go is the mask that you present to the outer world. When the mask goes, you're just another bit of ectoplasm in a sea of unhappiness."

Our last things are who we are.

* * *

In the economic collapses of the 1800s, "the last thing to go was the piano," says Scott Sandage. "It was the thing that symbolized a warm and close-knit home, a family -- a domestic life for a family that had achieved respectability." Sandage, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, is author of "Born Losers: A History of Failure in America."

Cultural historians have been markedly derelict in studying last things, Sandage says. "One of their mainstays is consumerism. They've always studied desire, display and accumulation. The idea of losing things is something they haven't quite gotten around to -- the whole area of disgrace, dispossession and loss."

For much of that territory, we must look to writers.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company