What Did They Do Before Bubble-Pak Envelopes?

What Did They Do Before Bubble-Pak Envelopes?
A short commentary by Leane Roffey Line, PhD

What did they do before Bubble-Pak Envelopes? Not a question I’d thought a lot about when asked by a fellow book seller on Amazon. In our ensuing conversation, I realized then that a great many Gen Y people had no idea how it used to be in “the old days”. (Funny, I can recall using that same expression asking my grandmother Mary who was born around the turn of the last century what it was like in the Great Depression.) Mary told tales I couldn’t really believe, but the proof was right there before me, in the rag rugs she made, and the vegetables and fruits she canned. Waxed paper, she said, was about as modern as she ever got. Her daughter, my mother, left their farm in Southern Illinois for Chicago, eventually Mary joined her and opened a grocery store in Chicago, and while her family ran the store, went to work as a seamstress.

It’s 2008. We’re in the kitchen, my husband and I, and he’s looking at the pink packets of sweetener. “I hate all that paper”, he says. I offer to buy it in a box. It never occured to me that those packets each represent energy, wood pulp, electricity, etc. Packaging, the bane of our modern age…

How did we get here? I watch Food Network. I get the idea…lemme check the cookbooks we have, maybe that will tell me how it was…Looking through some of our old cookbook collection, I came upon a real gem published in 1955 by the Wesson Oil people, which touted “welcome to a happier world — the fresh, inspiring, leisure-loving world of good cooking…cooking in tune with today…the new time-savers, the new easier methods, the new triumphs made possible by Wesson Oil, the shortening that pours.”

That gave me some pause for thought! Oil that pours. 1955. Yep, we used it where recipes called for melted shortening, that we did. In 1958, Good Housekeeping’s Quick and Easy cookbook featured the latest in electrical appliances: toaster ovens, the forerunner to the crock pot, the first ever electric pressure cooker. It was now possible to use labor saving devices, shortening cooking time in the kitchen.

We moved from pinks and aquas to avacado green, harvest gold, and formica dinettes going into the 1960s. The neighbor across the street had an old-fashioned wringer washer still. We got a self-contained top loader. Everyone still hung their wash on lines. No dryers yet.

I left the old homestead in 1966 for college. At the dorm, of course, no one thought about the kitchen, food was delivered in a serving line and your cafeteria card got punched. I gave it little, in fact, no thought, as ensuing years brought forth cheaper paper products, like paper towels, napkins, placemats, etc. Plastics were booming (remember the Graduate? Plastics, m’boy, plastics). If I had known then what a hole we were digging for ourselves I would have winced at every roll of Saran Wrap I ever bought in the years that followed. I used paper lunch bags until ziplocks came out.

Here it is, a mere 42 years after I left home, and we’re drowning in our own landfills.

I’m all for convenience, in fact, I don’t want to “go back to the farm”, but I also recognize that we as humans are going to have to come up with some better means of dealing with trash we generate than we have been (keep recycling folks, every little bit helps here), and the carbon footprint we’ve caused in our effort to generate leisure time, or suffer the consequences — like EXTINCTION etc. Awhile back I was enamoured of companies who advertised self-contained thermal units guaranteed to literally molecularize trash. Then I realized there was no magic pill for any of it, even if these units were put at every dump and landfill, we might not have the power to run them!

The best I can do myself (as one lone wolf) at this point is explore ways to do things like reduce solid waste in the home, save energy (use cold water), save water (conserve), and otherwise simply reduce my consumption of product. Make that old pair of shoes last one more day, etc. There are books out, for sure, on ways and means to simplify life — even going back to the Green Lifestyle Handbook (Jeremy Rifkin c. 1990) which I picked up at a used book store for a dollar.

Nothing however, strikes me as being as profound as simply cooking a potato dish from a real potato — no frozen fries, no tater tots, no chips, no steak fries — just using a knife and cutting a potato into shapes, boiling it, or frying it in as little oil as possible, baking it, etc. No plastic bags, no freezer room taken, no spoilage…they keep for a long time. I wrote my friend back, and told her that before bubble-pak we used everything from newspaper to shredded wheat as packing — and in the kitchen Grandma’s white kitchen towels were washed nightly and hung to dry over the cabinets.

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