Memories Demonstrate Changes
few weeks ago I wrote about my memories of the corner grocery stores. I recalled how a heavy white waxy paper was used to wrap meats before it was taped closed and given to customers. The butcher paper was clean having been pulled from a large roll and torn to fit the particular need. Today, that concept is foreign as meat is now placed on a Styrofoam tray and wrapped in a transparent plastic wrap. Anything else would be considered unsanitary. We now expect everything to be as nearly as possible untouched by human hands. Styrofoam, (more about this one, later) cellophane, and plastic are preferred, and the butcher had better wear aprons, hair-nets, and gloves. While there’s little doubt that we have benefited from more modern practices, we still have outbreaks of contamination of various products that have resulted in illnesses and death. I’ve come to expect a recall a week.
Consider how our poor forefathers suffered by having to drink raw milk that had several inches of butterfat floating on top. Discounting dairy farmers, only a few today remember ‘the good stuff.’ Rather, our milk is thoroughly homogenized (blended) and (thank goodness) pasteurized. In many cases it has been skimmed free of most, if not all, of nature’s rich cream. We can still buy processed butter, but over the years we have been taught that substitutes are better for us. For a time I believed that, but in my reading of studies that bit of wisdom is called into question. It is rare that over time anything that substitutes nature’s products by providing that which is unnatural will be found out later as a fraud. They may even be found downright bad for our health. The ‘snake oil’ folks just have a little more credibility, but they may still be wrong.
Not everything that is sold as progressive, is. There’s little doubt in my mind that some of today’s products were developed more for marketing advantages than the health of the public. The regulations are developed to put governmental controls on products that ultimately drive the local farmer to sell to large cooperatives. Yes, good has come through quality standardization efforts, but as a tradeoff, prices are controlled as well. Small, local dairymen find it harder, or impossible to sell their products any other way. We benefitted from the controls, but have lost the products that tasted so good. Ice cream that was made from the local herd of cows is gone. Only a few lucky ones remember.
I remember milking time that came twice a day, every day. Cleaning the parlor and washing the teats before applying the milking machine, and then stripping the final bit into a clean bucket, was something I had a chance to do a few times. Sure, I was the guy who had to run with a shovel when I saw the cow lift her tail which was a sign she was about to dirty on the clean milk parlor floor. I was the one in charge of cleaning up the mess. There was a trough in the concrete floor and a water hose would help in sending it all to the pool where it would be dried and later applied as fertilizer. The pump would send the warm product to the milk house where it would be cooled and tested to insure no antibiotics were present. I remember the big milk cans that would be filled and made ready for pickup, but later they were made obsolete by the big, shiny trucks that would pump the milk directly from the milk house. I remember when a local farmer could lift two full milk cans onto a flatbed truck at the same time. It was all I could do to lift one off the ground. Hard work builds muscle as well as character.
Many of the words we used back during our school years have changed. It was common to use the word ‘poke,’ for the word ‘bag.’ In those days they were made of a heavy brown paper, which in the early days had glued on paper handles. Those handles tended to break off just about when the customers were about halfway home. That week’s groceries was suddenly spilled on the sidewalk or in the street. The canned goods were dented in some cases, but the glass items often were broken. I heard some special words about that time that I used later, when in similar circumstances.
The cost of these paper bags were part of the groceries ‘overhead,’ but it wasn’t long before a wise -person began to print advertising on the bags. That, and removing the glued-on handles went to lower the cost of bags for the grocer. At this time, more and more products than ever were sold in ‘tin’ cans. The pickle barrel, once a standard in the stores, was replaced by pickles in glass jars. Even beans, which once were sold by the bushel or the peck, came canned and ready to heat. The evolution of packaging had really begun. There is little doubt that some of this arose from marketing considerations, but also from the war years when rations had to be shipped to our troops around the world. Life was changing and it seemed as if it changed nearly every day. While we finally moved to those nuisance plastic bags, a movement is gaining ground to go back to paper for environmental reasons.
Consider how life has changed in nearly every area. It is easy to see when looking at the food industry. For example, we sometimes bought a carton of Coke’s in case we had company. This meant we had six classic-shaped glass bottles (8 oz) in a cardboard holder. Part of the price was a deposit which would be reimbursed when the empty bottles were returned to the store. This allowed the bottling plant to clean and refill them. I remember always looking at the bottom of the bottle to see were that bottle originated. Many had ‘Louisa, Ky’ on them so had come from our own bottling plant on Clay Street. Many came from other cities and towns including some that came from very far away.
Today we try to recycle but we did more of that during my childhood than we really do today, and at a lower cost. I was well into high school when the first canned drink with a ‘flip top’ was sold. I remember tearing off the tab and dropping it into the drink so not to litter the ground. I had to be careful not to ingest it while finishing off the drink. There were no deposits or returns on those cans, nor was there any effort to recycle the metal.
A case of pop, (another archaic term), came off the truck in a flat, wooden tray with appropriate advertising. These held four of the ‘six pack’ cartons, or a total of 24 bottles. The term ‘six-pack’ didn’t come into vogue until those little plastic sleeves were invented that held the bottles (and cans) together without the use of the obsolete cardboard carton.
I’ve read that the earliest containers consisted of animal skins, woven baskets, and pottery. Those handy items served mankind very well until the renaissance, when cloth sacks and iron pots were added to the mix. Then, along came tin and steel. Glass houses showed up even before Columbus, and were part of early American development. Glass blowing was an ‘on fire’ trade. (Sorry, couldn’t resist) 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 snuff bottles and little lidded broaches that provided for smelling salts for those weakened by the horrendous smells of the trash-laden streets. Alas, we humans were not yet using garbage cans or making any effort to contain our waste, so 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 was 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.
An important change was the creation of paper in various forms to include cardboard. Finally, the 19th century gave birth to stronger, corrugated cardboard that had such strength that this inexpensive product could be used to provide protection in shipping by wagon, trains, ships and finally trucks and airplanes. The old-fashioned and barely functional ice boxes were replaced by self-cooling refrigerators.
Many new appliances arrived in boxes that ultimately served as playhouses. I spent hours running into tunnels we made with those wood reinforced boxes. They became pretend tanks, cars and planes. Girls used them to play ‘house.’ I remember how excited we were when a neighbor purchased a large appliance. We were quick to claim the boxes for play, keeping them until they were well-worn and limp. Even then the flattened box made a good sleigh for sliding down hills. Even after they were essentially ruined some were nailed to the inside walls of cabins and outbuildings as insolation from the wind blowing through the chinking. The worst thing we could imagine was for a storm to soak the cardboard, making our ‘fort’ unusable.
It was after WWII, I think, when plastic began to hit the scene in mass. At first, the products of this new synthetic material began to appear in jewelry, appliances, and finally in nearly everything, including late model cars. Some thought it was a ‘cheap’ substitute for polished metal or wood, but new uses multiplied. I was a teen when plastic wrap came out. It was promoted on TV as the perfect answer for housewives to stretch it over last night’s 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 old Hoosier cabinet. What a change we saw when we went from the ice box with its clabbered milk, to TV dinners in those aluminum trays! We knew we were of a more modern generation.
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. The general use of crocks to season kraut, pickles, and in some cases, white lightning, diminished. 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 of freshness for long periods.
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 on the labels to identify its contents. Of course some of these early paper labels fell off, forcing the store owners to discount the unlabeled cans as a ‘grab bag’ liquidating unknown inventory. We’d take the cheaper stuff home and be surprised at what we bought. Some surprises were good, some not so good.
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. There are cities and states that are outlawing Styrofoam claiming that it is carcinogenic and does not degrade in landfills. There goes my take outs and doggy bags!
Yes, we used to order up a ‘poke,’ of something, or a bag or 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, casks, 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, or Styrofoam. We loved someone ‘a bushel and a peck,’ but I no longer see any ‘peck’ baskets at farmer’s markets.
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 was 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, cellophane. A big goal was to prevent leftover bread from drying out or growing mold. The plastic wrappers used today can be used to keep the bread fresh, and perhaps to reuse for other things once the bread is consumed. I sometimes pack a lunch in an old wrapper. I guess instead of ‘brown-bagging’ I’m ‘clear-bagging.’
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.
I remember the threat that meals would be reduced to small pills that would contain all the necessary energy to sustain life. I wondered about the loss of pleasure such as having a full stomach not to mention missing the tastes of a well-prepared dinner. Really? One pill would devastate family meals and further reduce the natural bonding that comes with communing. So far, with heavy lobbying and marketing efforts of the food industry, I see few signs of eliminating the availability of yummy, tasty products. Thank goodness! As to thinking ‘green’ or sustainability, we were miles ahead of the current generation. firstname.lastname@example.org