washingtonpost.com
Last Impressions
When It's All Going Down the Tube, What Stuff Sticks Around to the End?

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.

"Beckett seems to me the writer of last things par excellence," e-mails Alan Friedman, professor of English at the University of Texas. "In 'Endgame,' for example, seeds will never sprout again, and a series of announcements reveals that there are no more bicycles, pap, nature, gulls, tide, rugs, painkillers and coffins. At the end, the blind and immobilized Hamm throws away his gaff (the stick with which he has propelled himself), his toy dog (which has been a source of some comfort) and his whistle (used to summon his servant)."

In "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck chronicled those fleeing the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in Model T's for a dream called California:

"When everything that could be sold was sold, stoves and bedsteads, chairs and tables, little corner cupboards, tubs and tanks, still there were piles of possessions; and the women sat among them, turning them over and looking off beyond and back, pictures, square glasses, and here's a vase.

"Now you know well what we can take and what we can't take. We'll be camping out -- a few pots to cook and wash in, and mattresses and comforts, lantern and buckets, and a piece of canvas. Use that for a tent. This kerosene can. Know what that is? That's the stove. And clothes -- take all the clothes. And -- the rifle? Wouldn't go out naked of a rifle. When shoes and clothes and food, when even hope is gone, we'll have the rifle. . . . An ax, too. We had that ax forty years. Look how she's wore down. And ropes, of course. The rest? Leave it -- or burn it up. . . .

"The women sat among the doomed things, turning them over and looking past them and back. This book. My father had it. He liked a book. Pilgrim's Progress. Used to read it. Got his name in it. And his pipe -- still smells rank. And this picture -- an angel. . . . Here's a letter my brother wrote the day before he died. . . .

"How can we live without our lives?"

What Gives Us Dignity?

Even those with very little had possessions of great meaning. Pocketbooks are what Deborah Willis remembers of the post-World War II world. Especially the ones of her mother's generation, the women now in their 80s. "The pocketbook held all of the secret charms: the beauty products, the money, the memory, the keepsakes, the letters. It was both the content and the pocketbook that had respect and high regard. No one could go in it. It was their secrets and their hidden stash."

Willis is a MacArthur fellow and a curator of African American photography and culture.

"They're fancy. The older ones from the '40s, they're a clutch with a little arm strap -- about 5 inches by 8 by 9. They're small. Intimate. These hold the moments they desire, and feel desired. It is part of that memory. It created their persona, their sense of importance. It possessed all the aspects that created the mask."

"Those things that we believe give us dignity are the last thing to go," says the Library of Congress's Adamson. "Then you drop into the abyss.

"My great-grandmother in the 1880s came to Canada and married a redcoat," a British officer, he says. "They went out to the Manitoba prairies, and she presumed there was some kind of house out on his 'ranch.' But along the Red River, the issue was oh, oh -- not a lovely mansion on the verdant prairies. It's a sod house. One of her great distresses, when she washed the children's clothing and put them on the riverside bushes -- wolves would come and steal them.

"She was of English extraction. London was the epicenter. She made her children understand that they were not just prairie dogs. Those things that came with her were the talismans of culture. Some silver. Forks and knives. Linen table cloth -- the accouterments of what would have been in society a structure."

The abyss, nonetheless, looms. "A woman I know who endured the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz . . . told me a story about how she and a friend started a library in the ghetto," e-mails Beth Cohen, author of "Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America."

"It was wildly successful because people were hungry to read anything they could get their hands on. That is, until a particularly severe winter when heating sources were scarce and patrons started returning books with missing pages. Pretty soon they weren't returning the books at all and the makeshift library had to close down."

When a Piano Isn't a Piano

The cheery news is how distant most of us still are from last things. Is too much being made already of comparisons to bad times past? How many of us are close to discovering what our bottom dollar looks like?

What might be today's equivalent of the family piano, that last thing to go in the proper home of the 19th century? We have so few family-togetherness hearths. Especially ones that send messages of being cultured, and caring about the accomplishments and upward mobility of the children.

"The klunkiest and I'm certain incorrect thing would be the big-screen TV," ventures Sandage.

"Might well be the computer," he tries again. "That's the object in the house today that separates the middle class from the lower class -- not the television. And the computer is linked to children's performance in school."

What if you gain some sense of self-worth or power from being a hedge-fund manager, the Library of Congress's Adamson wonders.

Is your "piano" the BlackBerry?

'Conspicuous Dispossession'

There is a peeling-the-onion element to this "last things" process. One layer at a time, you decide some things are not as important as you once thought, and you let them go, until you're down to the last pieces of the mask you present to the world. Frequently you are surprised.

You already know what goes first if you've started ironing your own shirts. Or gone back to your natural brunet. Or switched from Banana Republic to Forever 21. Or wondered about cutting your Viagra tab in half.

It's easier to think about what goes first.

"In times of economic despair, instead of conspicuous consumption, you see conspicuous dispossession," Sandage says. "Maybe you get rid of the SUV. It's hard to sympathize with people who continue to practice extravagance. You can't be declaring bankruptcy and still be driving a Mercedes."

But what goes last is the deeper question. You know this isn't bottom yet. But you'd sure like to know where it is.

Last things involve excruciating choices over time. They are not at all the snap decision of what you grab on your way out of a burning building. Or the luck of what you might salvage from a natural disaster like Katrina.

Last things involve volition. They are choices you make to avoid stigma.

"In times of widespread economic despair, there is still an individual struggle to escape the stigma that is associated with failure," Sandage says. "It goes as far back in American history as I've looked. Americans succeed. The whole idea of America is if you work hard, you can get ahead. If you are willing to improve yourself and work hard, the lives of your children will be better. That is the fundamental meaning of America. If you can't accomplish that, then it's got to be your fault.

"Flood, wars, fires, genocides -- those are all very different," he continues. "None of them carry this individualized stigma. It's very strange, this stigma. We all believe it to a certain degree. 'I worked hard to get where I am.' If I can't do it, I feel like a loser. Failure is the worst crime an American can commit. Every decision about what to keep or get rid of is implicated in the awareness of that stigma."

Last things involve our calculations about avoiding this stigma, maintaining standards, whether we be aristocratic Southerners rendered impecunious by the Civil War or owners of 6,000-square-foot houses in Howard County.

What will people think?

'I'm Letting Go'

The following recently appeared on eBay:

"everything I own furniture, jewerly, family heirlooms: I have medical issues and need $ to take care of myself"

The seller, redbettle81, writes:

"I offer all of my belongings for sale. Everything complete. I have 40yrs of furniture, professional tools, household items, clothes, family heirlooms, etc. You can imagine this is quite a bit. . , However I will not sell my Miniature Pincher (Jack) he is dear to me. You can have everything you want and dispose of the rest or take it all for keeps, no matter. I was an electronic security expert for many years and have fallen on hard times with damaging high blood pressure, heart attack, etc and can no longer work. I made mistake many years ago of not saving so now I pay the price of facing living on the street at 51yrs old. Family is non-existent so I fend for myself and like it that way. I some things thatare collectibles and some that are in new condition. I will be happy to forward picture of items soon as I get a camera. Thanks for reading this message."

Marty Calhoun of Dickson, Tenn. -- redbettle81 -- says he didn't get any bidders. Just some people sniffing around, whom he sizes up as con artists.

His situation, he says, is that "after years and years of having everything -- house, furniture -- you don't really need this stuff. You just sit around and look at it."

He's already sold his father's gun from World War II. Far more painful, he's sold the Harley. "I just want some kind of fresh start out of life," he says. "Things are going down. It's hard to explain. But I'm letting go."

Everything's in storage, and he's living in a one-room place with "a cot, a dog, a TV. Got a laptop. Bunch of crates with clothes in them. Gonna try and keep the dog forever. He always wags his tail. Always there for me. Dog's good to me. Love the dog.

"I lay here and think what did I blow all those tens of thousands on. You just think so much about life when you start selling things. Reflect back on everything. You don't need this.

"You just let it go. Let it go."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company