Growing up in Louisa – Packaging!
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
Last week, when I was writing about some of the ‘old ways’ to wrap meats and buy foodstuff from the grocery stores that dotted our little community, I used the word ‘poke,’ to signify what we now call a bag. Made of a heavy brown paper, that would later sport handles and advertising, the evolution of packaging began as far as I knew. Thinking about that, I now see how things have changed in my lifetime. For example, we often bought a carton of Coke’s, which meant six classic-shaped glass bottles (8 oz) in a cardboard holder. The packaging was saved and returned to the stores with the empty bottles so they could be cleaned and used again. Today the word is to recycle but we did more of that in my childhood than we really do today, and at a lower cost.
A case of pop, (another archaic term), was a flat, wooden tray with advertising, which held four of the cartons, or 24 bottles. The term ‘six-pack’ didn’t come into vogue until those little plastic sleeves were invented that hold the bottles (and cans) together without the use of the cardboard carton. My goal is not to confuse but rather to demonstrate that the way we buy things has changed a lot over these three or four generations.
According to some light research the earliest containers consisted of animal skins, woven baskets and for the more advanced civilizations, pottery. Those handy items served mankind very well until the dark ages, or perhaps even the renaissance, when cloth sacks and iron pots were added to the mix. It would be centuries before rudimentary glass jars were added. As time went on the inventiveness of man improved the products so that they became a great deal fancier than before, not to mention more functional. At the same time, there were more uses for crafting containers for utilitarian purposes such as men’s and ladies purses to carry coins. Snuff bottles and little lidded broaches provided for smelling salts for those weakened by the horrendous smells of the day. We were not yet using garbage cans or containing our waste, so even the streets were piled with sewage and fly-infested debris. Out of necessity man developed better ways to avoid the stench and plagues that followed.
The potters and glass-blowers went to work to perfect their craft and provide for improved standards of living. Basket weavers competed for highly stylized storage that were used in barter or storage. The folks of the world began collecting these items and began a search for the unique creation that continues to this day. Man had almost always chiseled rock, and made wooden caskets to hold precious artifacts including the bodies of loved ones, but as metals were refined with new alloys mankind invented containers of iron, bronze, tin, gold, silver, and steel. (Some of them have four wheels!)
The major change that the post Columbian’s saw was the creation of paper in various forms to include cardboard. Finally, the 19th century gave birth to the stronger, corrugated cardboard that had such strength that this inexpensive product could be used to provide protection in shipping. As ice boxes were replaced by refrigerators the new appliances came ‘boxed’ and ultimately served for playhouses for us children. I spent hours running into a box, crawling though and running out the other end. The girls played ‘house,’ and the boys turned them into imaginary fighter planes, or army tanks. When these large appliances were brought home the neighborhood kids would line up to play until the well-worn and limp package gave up its useful life. Even after they were essentially ruined some were nailed to the inside walls of cabins and outbuildings to reduce the wind blowing through the chinking.
It was after WWI, I think, when plastic began to hit the scene. At first, the products of this new synthetic material began to appear in jewelry, appliances, and finally in nearly everything. Some thought it was a ‘cheap’ substitute for polished metal or wood, but new uses multiplied. Plastic wrap came out and stretched over the casserole to keep it fresh while chilling in the refrigerator. This replaced many of the uses for the aluminum foil and waxed paper that granny kept stored in the Hoosier.
Not to quit, just when we thought plastic would take over, another form appeared. Styrofoam was a less expensive away to mass-produce shapes that would contain, preserve, insulate, protect and serve even as a vessel for our hot coffee. Paper plates were nearly replaced, except for those fancier designs we wanted colored, or stenciled.
The glass jars that we and our parents used to put up pickles, sauces, beans, pig’s feet, and root beer, got a new competitor during the war years. Tin canning facilities popped up everywhere. The tin cans were used not only for sardines, and condensed milk, but even vegetables that could be sent to the troops overseas. They didn’t break when dropped and kept food in a good state for a long time.
As the war wound down, the grocers now found that the wholesalers had an array of canned goods, with paper labels that had pictures of the products printed labels to identify its contents. Of course some of these early paper labels fell off, forcing the store owners to discount the ‘take a chance’ or ‘grab bag’ so to liquidate the unknown inventory. We’d take the cheaper stuff home and be surprised at what we bought. Some surprises were good, some not so good.
Yes, we used to get us a ‘poke’ of something, or a package, or a tin. When I think of words used that meant one thing back then, but now have a much broader meaning. Things came in bags, boxes, packages, envelopes, casts, barrels, kegs, and cans. Stuff was kept in tanks, bottles, drums, and even basins and bins. There are jars, caskets, cases and crates and these things are made of glass, metal, paper, plastic, stone, Styrofoam, or maybe still, skin.
I have a large suitcase that is in its original box from perhaps the forties. It is alligator, made by a major New York company and was sold by a store in Manhattan. It is nearly pristine, but would be costly now if it could be bought at all today. I guess some collector would love it, but I don’t know any. I see the faux alligator shoes and purses around and know there are restrictions on the use of the real stuff, but I’m sure this ‘grip’ predates the restrictions. Anyway, we still use skin. In biblical days wine was kept in goat skins, but the scripture tells the reader never to ‘reuse’ one. I suppose they either leak or give a bad taste to the wine. Anyway, I won’t use one twice.
The bottles we used to buy that were of glass are slowly being replaced by plastic. I discovered this the hard way once. I dropped what I thought to be glass to see it bounce on my tile floor. Great! No glass to sweep up and no liquids splashed everywhere. It was a good thing for me, but I worry about whether it is really safe for long-term storage.
Yes, I miss the glass Coke’s but I admit the cans and plastic bottles are easier to handle and store. I really suspect that the glass is better environmentally. It is made from natural elements, making it more sustainable, I would think. It can be reused or repurposed. Plastic isn’t bio-degradable, so those worrying about the environment ought to push for the return of glass, use of paper bags, etc.
Bread used to come in a waxed paper sleeve and later into cellophane. Often, when first opened it torn making it difficult to keep leftover bread from drying out or growing mold. The wrappers now made of plastic are not so easily destroyed and can be used to keep the bread fresh, and perhaps to use for other things once the bread is consumed.
While I’m at it, I have to mention that the shrink-wrap of products is not user friendly at all. It’s not just tamper proof and child proof, but it is also adult proof. Someone gave me a flashlight that was in a plastic bubble. I still have it and will one day take a chain-saw to it, but for now it’s filling up a drawer somewhere. Give me a break. I mean, do screwdrivers really have to be protected from contamination? Packaging has moved from making things convenient to making things inaccessible.
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