Rob Walker | Essays

The Right Stuff

Alberto Monti, from The Burning House.

You might remember George Carlin’s famous routine about houses, and stuff: “That’s the meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. … If you didn’t have so much goddamn stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time!” It’s pretty clear that we no longer merely keep our stuff in our houses while we go out looking for more stuff, per Carlin. Now some of us also photographically document selections of our stuff, and put that evidence online. I’ve written earlier  about online projects, such as A Collection A Day, and Things Organized Neatly (and so has Alexandra Lange), but I’m thinking about this  because of a couple of Tumblrs I’ve been eyeing lately: The Burning House and Everyday Carry.

At first glance these share the same orderly aesthetic as those earlier examples, but each deploys it in very specific, individual, contexts. What’s on view here is meant to be profoundly personal stuff.

Ryan Skanes, from Everyday Carry 

Possibly, as Carlin put it, a houseful of stuff prevents us from just walking around all the time. But everybody just walks around some of the time, and Everyday Carry is devoted to stuff hauled along even then. While reminiscent of the longstanding What’s In Your Bag? Flickr pool, Everyday Carry has a much more distinct flavor. The site explains:

Everyday Carry, or EDC, generally refers to small items or gadgets worn, carried, or made available in pockets, holsters, or bags on a daily basis to manage common tasks or for use in unexpected situations or emergencies. In a broader sense, it is a lifestyle, discipline, or philosophy of preparedness.

The site consists of pictures and lists submitted by readers, and it’s weirdly addictive. As that mini-manifesto suggests, “everyday carry” is not quite the same thing as mere batch of objects that any random person might happen to carry on a daily basis. Rather, a proper Everyday Carry reflects a mindset that frankly tilts toward the survivalist. So there are no frivolous jumbles of Altoids tins and rubber toys here. Instead submissions feature lots of tools, gear, devices, and a disconcerting number of weapons.

And let’s get the terminology straight. Nothing pictured is a “collection.” It’s a “carry,” or a “loadout.” Knives (quite popular) tend to be identified by specific make, assuming an audience highly conversant in this particular product category. Sometimes there’s a gun, too. Sometimes there’s a more esoteric tool — something to pick locks with, say. Often there’s a smartphone. And a great pen.

The result is an elevated notion of “stuff”: Here are things meant to be used; necessary things; things to deploy smartly as one leaps into action. The arrangements and photography are often slick and careful, and at times vaguely dramatic. As this post on BoingBoing observed, looking at these pictures makes you want to “gear up,” like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando. But what I really enjoy is the almost-always-upbeat assessment of the gear submissions by the site’s editor, sometimes including a tip or suggestion.  “Nice, here’s a more tactical loadout without being too cumbersome.” “I can tell you put some thought into the carry while minding a budget too.” “Clean loadout, except maybe I’d try to slim down the wallet so you can more easily carry the credit card-sized lock pick set.”

And so on. It’s quite charming.

Dan Opalacz, from The Burning House

The premise of The Burning House, meanwhile, is that the place where you keep all your stuff is now on fire; what will you save? “It's a conflict between what's practical, valuable and sentimental,” the site asserts. “What you would take reflects your interests, background and priorities.”

That premise is one that I like, and that I’ve used as a rhetorical gimmick myself when trying to make a point about the way people really value objects: When push comes to shove (the hurricane on the way; the burning house) nobody stands around considering which of their possessions enjoyed the most robust branding campaign, or won the highest praise from the design press.

Or so I’ve tended to argue. But some of the entries on The Burning House make me wonder. Someone, for instance, includes “Grenson x Albam city brogues (you never know when you’ll want to look sharp, house or no house).”  Someone else includes a “Polo suede-elbowed shirt.” The very first post on the site includes multiple conspicuous brand references: “Ralph Lauren Alligator Belt,” “Vintage Woolrich Horse skin hunting gloves,” “Rolex Submariner Date with Zulu Ballistic Nylon Band,” “Oakley Razor Blades.” What the site offers very little of, with its quick-list format, are personal reasons for saving this or that object — stories, in other words. I’m prepared to believe someone finds a suede-elbowed polo personally meaningful, but why? Ultimately a lot of the stuff pictured these little displays is perfectly tasteful, but the result doesn’t seem like self-portraits. Instead — and this is true of Everyday Carry, as well — they seem like performances. Entertaining as they may be, I’m not sure I believe any them.

In fact, I find it hard to resist thinking of these sites as offering up prompts for outright fiction. I imagine a character from The Burning House darting away from the flames with armload of designer clothing and vintage collectibles, and bumping smack into a geared-up denizen of Everyday Carry. “There goes most of my stuff,” the former would mutter, dazed before the heat and crackle of the blaze. The latter just nods, and surveys the scene evenly, hand in pocket, fingering a really gorgeous knife, before asking: "So, that's your loadout?" 

Josh Morris, from Everday Carry

Thanks to Calvin Ku of RISD for putting that Carlin routine back in my mind.

Comments [10]

You said exactly what I've been thinking since this sort of thing became popular. Sometimes its people wanting to show off their expensive things, or other times its people wanting to create a cool persona through the objects they own. Also I don't think its cool to carry a knife or gun, even if it does match all your expensive designer accessories!

Anyway great article Rob!

Everyone packs their iPhones, but no chargers!
Well written piece Mr. Walker. I spent an hour getting lost in these "stuff" blogs.
Consider it tweeted.
Jonathan Caplan

Great article Rob!

For EDC purposes, think of it as a pocket dump - you aren't going to see many iPhone chargers hanging out of the back pocket of a pair of Levi's.

And while the guns may be admittedly excessive, knives are pretty normal in the south where I live. Its probably more rare to see someone without one in their pocket in these parts. It wouldn't be very healthy to get the tail off of that roadkill raccoon with your teeth, now would it? ;)

nice read, hippie ;-)

pocketknives are made for pockets. my little swiss army (name-drop!) goes where I go, just like my paw did with his Barlow (again!) though, if my house was on fire his (now my) razor-honed Buck (!!) muleskinner would be in the box..

hi to miz e.

rico in n.o.
Rick Olivier

Thanks all on this. Brad: What your note makes me wish is that the EDC posts revealed the location of the person submitting. That would be interesting. I'm a born, bred, and current southerner myself, and not only do I not carry a knife, but when I look at these "loadouts" I do not think "ah ha, the South."

Then again Rico's comment -- thanks for dropping by to call me names, sir! ha ha; send me some tips about Airstreams, bro -- suggests the muleskinner connection that had not occurred to me. (More serious side not to R.O.: Best to you & yours and E hollers back.)

Point is the connection between geography and crucial possessions isn't something I'd thought about. But I am now...

Rob Walker

It's a funny thing how differently people regard knives - at least three mutually incomprehensible worlds there. I've seen a similar split in discussions over on Boing Boing or Cool Tools. One person will see a little 1" or 2" blade pocketknife, and wonder out loud "Why is he so paranoid that he needs to carry a deadly weapon around with him daily?" Another might look at the first's response and wonder as I do, "How do you even cut string or open a package if you don't carry a knife with you daily?" A third (always an American) will look at the same knife and ask "How could you possibly defend yourself with that? Why aren't you carrying a [bigger knife|handgun]?"

I enjoyed your critique of these sites. I love the idea of a well-curated "carry" of items selected for usefulness, efficiency, and economics of space. But often the photos on EDC feel more like materialistic people using expensive gadgets, status symbols, and brand identities to definine themselves.

On knives - a small pen knife to open letters, cut string, and open a beer bottle is one thing. But on EDC, the "why is he so paranoid?" criticism is about excessive weaponry. Larger blades, multiple blades, titanium fighting sticks (?!?), hand guns - excessive preparedness for people not living in Baghdad. Also, knife fetishism that reminds me of kids I knew in 8th grade who got in trouble for bringing ninja throwing stars to school.
Ryan Biggs

Who are these people? Unless they are all warriors or creative warriors I don't think I can reconstruct many of them from what I see. It may be a self-selected group, some of these pocket contents look suggestively arrayed to communicate a lifestyle more risky less socially bound than most of us really live. And where are the women?

But hey, it is very entertaining. And perfect for the suggestive, personalized but very on-stage disclosure of blogs.


Thanks for the feedback, all. More good comments over at Boing Boing's post about this:
Rob Walker

Thank you for sharing these sites. I've always been fascinated with curated collections of people's things, why people choose what they do, how it relates to identity, etc. These collections in particular are purposefully curated based on sentiment, values, desires, interests, etc. in, as you put it, a sort of performance, and that is intriguing to me.

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