Jessica Helfand | Essays

Gone, Baby, Gone (Things, Part II)


Things, as we all know, connect us to the world we inhabit. Big or small, expensive or insignificant, our attachments to other people and places begin with things. As infants, we navigate by smell and touch; with the social and verbal awareness that comes later, we progress to more quantifiable values — size and price and look and feel — the stuff of conspicuous consumption. And yet, evidence abounds to suggest that the enduring emotional value we place on our prize possessions is rarely the stuff of logic.

So what happens when our things go missing?

From July 19, 1977 to February 28, 1981, the security staff at New York's Roosevelt Raceway kept a fastidious record of lost property. The result — 152 pages of wayward mittens, misplaced wallets and hundreds of personal items — is as much a record of the social history of a generation as anything I've come across in a long time.


There are the wallets — sometimes called billfolds — believed to reside in overcoat pockets or ladies purses, and often described with their contents — credit cards from now-defunct department stores like Alexanders and Ohrbach's. There are the eyeglasses — sometimes called spectacles — characterized by their size, tint, and yes, designer signature — Sassoon, for example. There are the countless garments, most, though by no means all of them jackets and coats. (There is at least one report of a lost shopping bag containing two pair of boy's boxer shorts and another, logged in merely as "the loss of underwears.")

And then all at once, in between the umbrellas and the car keys and the ankle bracelets, there is the poignant report of a set of missing false teeth (in a green purse, in case you were wondering) a detail that one can only imagine was intended to help differentiate them from all the other missing teeth found that day. (There were none.)

Teeth, however, don't even begin to describe the oddities reported at Roosevelt's track, flea market and casino — where, on March 20, 1978, someone reported a lost box of Girl Scout cookies and a book entitled Physics for Career Education. Several weeks later, a Mineola man claimed to have lost $2,350 sometime between buying a pretzel and the top of the 10th race. (The plot thickens!) Elsewhere, there are missing baby clothes (who takes a baby to the track?) and wedding rings, a birth certificate, a blue and orange flowered plastic bag, mimeographed copies of important files, and a woman's imitation fur coat: "Right pocket contains a lot of keys and left has lipstick." You couldn't make this stuff up.

Which leads us to the descriptions furnished by the patrons, at least one of whom possessed a rather extraordinary capacity for recall. Miss E. Leung of Tudor City lost a brown leather bag with corduroy grooves and a metal clasp. Fair enough. But when asked to describe the contents of her bag, Miss Leung had this to say: "Driver's license, check books, credit cards (about 11) and keys (2), address books, cosmetic bag, wallet with about $35 cash, tax exempt card, ball pen, package of cashews, package of pistachios, two bus tickets to Lakewood, New Jersey, date book and private mail." According to the log, the bag was never recovered, leading one to wonder: might its owner have fared better by going for a less-is-more approach — just reporting a missing wallet and, say, some nuts?

In all likelihood, Miss Leung probably responded as many of us would, guided by the assumption that greater detail is an asset — at once a reflection of one's capacity for memory retention and a potential catalyst for an item's recovery. Indeed, from the perspective of those recording the lost items, one can not help but linger on the descriptions themselves, detailed yet oddly dispassionate, almost scientific in their tone. Others are weirdly cryptic and punctuation-free: "Black mans rain hat size 7 ½ left in security office by unknown." (Was the man black or was the hat black?) Occasionally, a concerned officer attempted a drawing of a piece of jewelry, a poignant characteristic of a book otherwise notable for its inventive spellings. (On the typographic front, at least one of the security scribes adds circles over his or her lowercase 'i's.) Found items were stapled to government-issue green domestic return receipts — postal form 3811 — with copies returned to the relieved patron. Though most were lost belongings, the occasional "stolen" item typically enlisted the involvement of a higher-up, a sergeant or in one instance, "The Chief."

And then there is this entry, recorded at approximately 4:00 pm on October 26, 1980. While the officer on duty did not attempt a sketch, the verbal description offers an unmistakable glimpse of the physical, um, form of one patron's loss. "Carol Thaler of Great Neck lost beige pocket book shaped as a pig," notes the officer. "Please mail if found."

To be sure, we can mourn — or mock — the accidental loss of a teddy bear or an umbrella or yes, even a diamond-encrusted faux-crocodile watchband. Who are we to judge those who felt it necessary to travel to a racetrack in possession of these trinkets, these totems of meaning and value and love? Today, we can track missing packages as easily as we can trace missing people, but apart from the digital facility with which we navigate our world, the relative value of the missing thing (or, I suppose, the missing person) remains as personal — and as idiosyncratic — as it ever was.

Looking back, the Raceway staff were, by all indications, a meticulous crew, a group of men and women who took their jobs seriously and served with pride — without judgment, without gratitude, without, let's face it, computers. Back then, in the macramé age — a generation or two before the luxuries of spell-check — a small group of people performed a tedious, yet highly necessary task. Today, their long-ago due diligence provides us with a written record of an entire demographic.

Which begs the question: where are all the other lost and found logs, and what might they illuminate about us — about who, and what, and where we were at a different time and place? The story of lost property is the story of material culture cut through a different lens, a world characterized not so much by things but by the absence of things: a world in which what we acquire has as much resonance as what we abandon; a world in which one man's hat is another man's heirloom. The lost-and-found ledger reads like a script — character driven, conflict-rich and full of truly bizarre detail — but more striking still than this is the fact that it's an intensely visual record with essentially no visual data. Dramatic and oddly captivating, it's a distinct part of social history — and maybe a key part of design history — that's been long lost. In an age in which things continue to occupy a central role in our understanding of contemporary culture, documents like these also deserve, quite frankly, to be found.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History

Comments [9]

I like this item very much, Jessica!
Josh Glenn

Fascinating article here! Sometimes, these record books pop up in old item shops (antique stores) and thrift shop bins; they are gems waiting to be found. I agree that (at least for me) what is most interesting is the tedious aspect of the self-made catalog or index that has been lost due to the digital age but is nevertheless still of interest.
John Merigliano

This is a wonderful look into the crannies of the past. most of them forgotten. I imagine the other "Lost and Found" books of the world would offer an as intriguing and amusing journey into the psyche of an establishment's patrons.

Thank you for sharing this with us. I have been interested in these types of books/journals for a little while now; this article is refreshing and gives me a new way to look at my work. I am interested in the way we look at information from the past and what it means to us now. I have been making art out of these types of materials, each piece I work with is a look into that culture but more importantly it is an intamint look into the personal characteristics of the author. Thank you again for sharing

A gift for you:

Thanks for being a daily inspiration of mine!
Design for Mankind

There is something I find oppressive yet compelling about things, lists, lists of things. I return to the subject again and again. Is it for comfort? Graphic inspiration? Historical interest? All of these.... I'm not so much a collector as a diffuse acquirer: flea market paintings, 19th century paper ephemera, antique shoe lasts, mysterious wooden tools, pieces of bone and horn, hotel silver... and on and on. Each item, at time of purchase or discovery, feeling like an imperative.

A while ago I came across a description of the Japanese tradition of Harikuyo which seems to acknowledge the "stories" that inanimate objects can become imbued with:

"the Festival of Broken Needles. Harikuyo is a solemn rite of respect and thanksgiving [held on February 8] in which the worn and broken sewing needles used in the previous year are retired to a sacred resting place."


It sounds like Harikuyo is a product of Shintoism and the belief that even the smallest/most random objects (I think even manufactured objects) have a spirit. It changes the way you look at the material and the natural world. If everything has a spirit, then every object has a story and deserves respect.

This is such a beautiful article! Thank you for the great read.

I wonder about the uncanny relationship between the one who loses h/er object and the one who finds it. We're never the same person we were before our object is reclaimed...we may even actively choose to let our object remain lost...
curated object

A beautiful article. As for the question in your last paragraph, lost and found ledgers might possibly be found in the corporate archives of institutions or government agencies.

Try this: search www.worldcat.org for "lost and found" and limit the format to "archival material." There are a couple of false hits, but the search also turns up archival collections where listings of lost and found items are most definitely present. One of the first entries is this gem, the Lancaster PA Police Dept.'s records of lost and find items between 1913 and 1921.

Is this too practical a response to such a thoughtful post?

Jobs | July 21