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The main concept: lessons from my grandmother’s lipstick on the significance of the past.


After my grandmother passed away, I secluded myself in her bathroom. I chose one of her many lipsticks from the cosmetic cabinet and examined its partially used red tip. In an instant, I was transported back in time. I reminisced about all the mornings I stood beside her, mesmerized and curious, as she applied the vibrant color to her slender lips. I not only thought of my grandmother, but also her friends, neighbors, and other French women from her generation. It reminded me of a specific concept of femininity. During that era, it was uncommon for women to leave the house without wearing lipstick. It was a matter of attitude and respect. A way to conform to the standards of “proper women” who considered it a top priority to look beautiful and polished. Those small tubes made of metal, black plastic, and mother-of-pearl not only represented my grandmother, but also silently conveyed the expectations placed on middle-class women in France during the second half of the 20th century.

There are many ways to recount history. It can include stories of battles, wars, and conquests, as well as treaties that shaped borders and economic changes that impacted the world. Often, history is depicted as a series of extraordinary events involving extraordinary individuals, often focusing on the powerful, the victors, and primarily men. While there may be exceptions, this is typically the approach taken. We memorize names and facts, visit monuments, and present our past in a rigid and detached manner, almost as if it were as lifeless as the materials used to represent it. As a result, we tend to view the people who lived in the past – those who dreamed, laughed, suffered, hoped, and loved – at a distant and abstract level.

On the other hand, objects serve as a sensory connection between ourselves and our ancestors. They are the complete opposite of monuments, as they are not grand or prominent in public spaces and do not overtly represent significant historical events. Instead, they are ordinary items that are easily reproduced and may seem insignificant, making it difficult for us to see their value and significance. We often overlook the messages they have to offer from the past because we do not know how to interpret them. It is a pity, as with a little effort and a closer examination, these objects can provide us with unexpected understanding of past eras and bring history to life, as mentioned by Neil MacGregor in his influential work, A History of the World in 100 Objects.

This holds particularly true for the role of women in history. There could be several reasons for this, such as women being frequently equated to objects and therefore seen as insignificant. Additionally, both women and objects have been marginalized in historical narratives, leading to their stories being ignored and unheard. However, it is important to recognize that the objects found in antique shops, flea markets, warehouses, and museums provide valuable insight into the experiences of women.

For instance, let’s consider the hatpin. In the early 1900s, as women began venturing out into bustling city streets and occupying public spaces as much as men, society faced a previously unknown (or at least unspoken) problem: public harassment. Men, unaccustomed to sharing their space with women, felt entitled to inappropriately touch them. However, women refused to be confined to their homes and found an unlikely weapon in a popular fashion trend of the time: the hatpin. Newspapers from that era are filled with accounts of women bravely defending themselves against attackers using these accessories like swords. They were hailed as courageous and even heroic. However, when the suffragettes took up this issue as one of many examples of inequality, the narrative shifted. The focus was no longer on women’s safety, but on men’s – leading to many cities prohibiting the use of long hatpins.

An incredibly poignant illustration is a petite fabric pouch from the 1850s, famously known as “Ashley’s sack”. Discovered some years ago at a flea market in the United States, at first glance it may seem unremarkable. Measuring just 83 by 40 centimeters and made of slightly discolored cotton, it appears to hold little significance. However, woven into its fabric is one of the most heartbreaking tragedies of history: the inhumane practice of slavery and its devastating impact on families. This is evident in the stitched words on the bag: “My great-grandmother Rose / mother of Ashley gave her this sack when / she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina … ” In 1920, 70 years after the event, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered these words, going on to describe how Rose filled the sack with nuts, a braid of hair, and her love before giving it to her child as they were torn apart.

This object serves as a tangible reminder of the tragic experiences of enslaved individuals and their offspring, depicting the heartbreaking reality of families being separated and sold to various locations across the nation. Despite its unassuming appearance, it symbolizes the fate of countless parents and children. According to the sack, Rose and Ashley were never reunited.

There are countless examples that demonstrate how objects can provide us with insight into past societies. They serve as markers of different eras and illustrate the shifting attitudes and trends of those times, much like layers in geological formations. For instance, if my grandmother had been born a few decades earlier, her collection of lipsticks would have conveyed a completely different message about her. In the 1910s, women wearing red lipstick were not seen as conforming to societal norms like they were in the 1950s. Rather, it was a symbol of the suffragette movement and a bold statement of female empowerment. This was a time when women were beginning to demand equal rights and their voices were becoming increasingly powerful.

Annabelle Hirsch wrote the book titled A History of Women in 101 Objects (published by Canongate).

Further reading

Neil MacGregor’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects” (Penguin, £16.99) presents a comprehensive account of world history through a collection of 100 objects.

Philippa Gregory’s book “Normal Women” is available for £15 from William Collins.

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles (Profile, £25)

Source: theguardian.com