An archaic word that was often used back in the day came to my mind recently. We hardly ever, and maybe never, see the ‘old ways’ once used to wrap meats and package foodstuff at home or at the grocery stores. The expression that shocked me into waking up was the word ‘poke.’ Most people today wouldn’t connect that word to what we call ‘bags’ today. Plastics were not yet something that were produced to package goods. Instead, the containers were made of a heavy brown paper. The paper bags today tear easily, but back then very few sacks would rip and break open. It was rare and usually the fault of the one toting the bag. After a while bags, or pokes, became more sophisticated. They had strong twisted twine handles and sometimes carry the name of the retailer with colorful imprints of the merchant’s logo. It was a time when the evolution of packaging had only just begun. In those days I may have been just a young kid, but packages later became my toys, so they were important to me. The brown paper and the butcher paper both made canvasses for my drawing or painting.
We have seen on Antiques Roadshow play stores, kitchens, and salesmen’s samples that features products we remember seeing at the corner grocery, but are long gone today. I’ve heard of family that didn’t have flower, corn meal, honey, and other staples that were in bags waiting for an excuse to be used. My vote was for pies, cakes, and cookies! Twinkie wasn’t on the shelves nor were their wrappers. With patience and a growing girth we prospered as meals and desserts became faster and easier. My earthly container has proved to be flexible over the years.
Many things along that line have changed in our lifetimes. For example, when our family occasionally bought a carton of Coke’s from our corner grocery store it meant that we would be given a package containing six classic hour-glass shaped bottles (8 oz.) in a single cardboard holder. This was the first ‘six-pack’ I ever knew. After enjoying the sweet drinks, the holder and empty glass bottles were saved to be returned to the stores. This enabled the bottler to clean and reuse them again. Since this method increased profit and helped with environmental controls an incentive was developed by requiring a deposit for the bottles. The customer would then be credited when they were returned to the retailer. Come to think of it, we also returned the glass milk bottles by setting them out on the front porch to exchange with the milkman. Today the public is encouraged to please ‘recycle’ when possible, but we did more of that in my childhood than we do today. It was our way of life.
Cases of pop (another archaic term meaning soft drinks), were delivered to the stores in flat, wooden trays painted with company logos and other appropriate advertising. These cases held four cardboard cartons of six bottles each, or a total of 24 bottles. Later they developed those little plastic sleeves to hold the bottles (and cans) together without the use of the cardboard carton. Today those kinds of plastic devices are the scourge of good environmental practices and have been found in oceans all over the world. Reports of fish and whales losing their lives by swallowing or being trapped by plastics are rampant. Sea creatures have suffered as these non-biodegradable objects are casually tossed from vessels into our rivers and byways. Please understand my dear reader that my goal is not to preach at you but rather to point out how things have changed over these recent three or four generations.
According to my light research the earliest containers consisted of animal skins, woven baskets, hollowed out bowls, and for the more advanced civilizations, glazed pottery. Those handy items served mankind very well until the dark ages or the renaissance, when cloth sacks and metal pots were added to the mix. It would be centuries before rudimentary blown glass jars were added. It was our time when those became the mainstay for the root cellars of America.
As time went on the inventiveness of man improved the products so packaging became a great deal fancier than before and much more functional. Mankind found more ideas for crafting containers for utilitarian purposes such as men’s and ladies purses to carry coins. In colonial and Victorian times snuff bottles and little lidded broaches provided for smelling salt for those weakened by the horrendous smells of the day. For a while we didn’t use garbage cans to contain our waste, so even the streets were piled with sewage and fly-infested debris covered with maggots. We tossed unwanted stuff into creeks, over the hill, and down our outdoor toilets. Out of necessity man began to find better ways to avoid the stench, infestations, and plagues that always seemed to follow.
The potters and glass-blowers went to work to perfect their craft and provide for our improved standard of living. Basket weavers competed for stylized storage that were used to barter. These were reusable and were adopted for diverse uses in home and industry. People began collecting these creations for functionality, but also aesthetics. Artists competed in designing the products and advertising and collectable art-glass became a ‘thing.’ Yes, over the years of man’s existence we have chiseled rock, sewn bags, and made wooden caskets to hold our precious artifacts. As metals were refined with new alloys mankind invented containers of iron, bronze, tin, gold, silver, and steel. (Some of them have engines and four wheels and can even dump their loads!)
The major change that mankind saw was the creation of paper in various forms. From animal skins to pulp products including cardboard, we found even more ways to package our goods. The 19th century gave birth to indispensable corrugated cardboard that had superior strength. It was an inexpensive product that became a standard for shipping and storing many items.
It was in our lifetime that ice boxes were replaced by refrigerators. On the side the children were delighted when new appliances came in because of those wonderful reinforced cardboard boxes. They ultimately became playhouses until it rained or finally were torn asunder by rough play. As a wild boy, I spent hours running into those boxes, crawling, leaping, bumping and cutting out windows to make gun ports. The girls played ‘house,’ and the boys turned them into imaginary bombers or army tanks. When any large appliances were delivered all 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 used in primitive homes by nailing them to the inside the walls to reduce the wind blowing through the chinking. Paper, whether newsprint or cardboard became the first insulation for many in our county.
In 1907 Leo Hendrick invented the firs plastic in America. Called bakelite it is collected today by many. It was after WWI, I think, when the first plastics really began to hit the scene. Initially plastic began to appear in jewelry, trim on appliances, and finally in nearly everything, including parts for our new-fangled telephones! Some thought it was a ‘cheap’ substitute for polished metal or wood, but because of prices the new uses for plastics multiplied. Kitchen plastic wrap came out in the late forties or early fifties. This was used to stretch over casseroles to keep the food fresh while chilling in the new refrigerator. I remember some early TV commercials that introduced Saranwrap. It replaced many of the uses for aluminum foil and waxed paper that granny always kept stored in the Hoosier. In the sixties and seventies we began our love affair with Tupperware. Even kids today understands that word.
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 that were colored, or stenciled. Best yet, they were cheap and helped move us into the ‘throw away,’ 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. Tin cans lined the storekeeper’s shelves. They were useful for K-rations, Spam, sardines, and condensed milk, and vegetables that could be sent to the troops overseas. Unlike the glass jars, they didn’t break when dropped and were capable of keeping the food safe for eating for a long time.
As the wars wound down, the grocers found that wholesalers had an array of canned goods. They had glued-on paper labels with pictures of the products to help identify the can’s contents. Of course some of these early paper labels fell off with handling. This forced the store owners to markdown those ‘unknowns’ so the customer might ‘take a chance’ or hope for pleasant surprises with ‘grab bags.’ This was the only way to liquidate the unknown inventory. We’d take the cheaper stuff home and often glad when we discovered what we bought ‘sight unseen.’ Some surprises were good, some not so good.
Yes, we used to get us a ‘poke,’ a package, or a tin. When I think of words used that meant one thing back then, I see a different, much broader meaning today. Things came in bags, boxes, packages, envelopes, casks, caskets, barrels, kegs, flasks, and cans. Stuff was kept in tanks, bottles, drums, and even basins and bins. There are jars, cases and crates and these things are made of glass, metal, paper, plastic, stone, Styrofoam, or maybe still, animal skins. I wonder how many people have even heard of a ‘peck.’ Bushels were still common in the day, but a ‘plug’ of tobacco was known to but a few.
I have a large suitcase that is in its original box from perhaps the forties. It is real 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 today. I guess some collector would love it, but I don’t know any. Today we see faux alligator shoes and purses around and know there are restrictions on the use of the real stuff. I’m sure my ‘grip’ predates those restrictions. Anyway, we still use leather and other kinds of 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 promise that I won’t use goat skins twice.
The glass bottles we used are slowly being replaced by plastic. I discovered this the hard way once. I dropped what I thought to be glass jar of peanut butter only to see it bounce on the tile floor. Great! No glass to sweep up and no liquids splashed everywhere. Whew, it was a good thing for me, but I worry about whether it is really chemically safe for long-term storage.
Yes, I miss the greenish glass Coke bottles but 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. Plastic isn’t bio-degradable, so those worrying about the environment ought to push for the return of glass and use paper bags instead of those plastic bags we see floating along the highways.
While I’m at it, I have to mention that the shrink-wrap of products is not user friendly at all. It’s a case of the poison scare going too far. These things cover everything to the point that they are not just tamper proof and child proof, but they are 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 the packaging in hopes of being able to use the device. 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 nearly inaccessible.
Staying safe and staying green makes sense. Saving a buck on packaging may help us all in the long run as frustrations and contamination is reduced. Oh, and please don’t throw the plastic out the window. That Indian chief we remember in those early commercials still cries as he remembers mother earth when it was pristine. firstname.lastname@example.org