Lipstick And Pocketbooks: When Things Are More Than Just Things

The Washington Post knows that times are tough. To commiserate, Joel Garreau takes a look back at historical "last things."

Last things are the objects that we loathe to let go, that remain long after it became apparent that serious scaling back was necessary. They are the luxuries that somehow feel essential. These are the objects that announce our place in the world, that are intricately tied into our sense of personal worth. During the Great Depression, a common last thing was lipstick. Jeremy E. Adamson, director for collections and services at the Library of Congress, says lipstick was terribly important to many women because was their way of telling the rest of the world "I care about myself." "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," Adamson says.

In the economic crash of the 1800s, one of the last things to go was the family piano. For many wealthy families, the piano was the ultimate symbol of their culture and wealth - it was what separated and defined the upper class. For many, the last things are as small and seemingly insignificant as lipstick:

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."

As a MacArthur fellow and curator of African American photography and culture, Willis knows well the importance of holding onto these little things:

"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."

Garreau notes that most Americans have yet to reach the last-thing phase of the recession. Most people are still finding out what goes first, a much easier process to handle. After reading dozens of silly recession trend pieces that advise shopping in your closet and giving up lattes, there is something refreshingly honest about this look into our final things. Garreau suggests that for some the last thing will be the computer, for others, the blackberry. For Marty Calhoun, the last thing is his dog. Calhoun recently put all of his possessions up for sale on Craigslist, with one exception: "However I will not sell my Miniature Pincher (Jack) he is dear to me." Sadie has already posted on some of the Jezebel's "necessary luxuries", a phrase that is somewhat similar to the idea of a last thing. Her question, like Garreau's, remains: when serious cost-cutting is necessary, what will be the final thing we can't just give up?

When It's All Going Down The Tube, What Stuff Sticks Around In The End? [Washington Post]

Related: Simple Pleasures: What's Your "Necessary Luxury?"

[Image via Life Archives]