Grocery shopping has changed since I was a boy on Muddy Creek. We did most of our shopping at the big Westall store in Sumner, for it had a gigantic grocery, or it seemed to me. The groceries were far back in the store under the balcony. This made it handy to hang those full stalks of bananas from the low ceiling. A special curve-blade knife was used to cut the desired number of bananas from the stalk. (These exotic treats came packed in tall, wooden, returnable cases, and oft times, one would uncover a foreign spider or even larger unidentifiable stowaway, which would have to be quickly disposed of.)
Crackers were larger than today’s version. In fact, they were nearly four inches square, and came packed in ‘cracker’ barrels. These would be conveniently located near the patented cheese slicer, where a hungry patron could have one of the clerks slice off a dime’s worth of ‘rat trap,’ as they nicknamed the cheese, from the huge wheel of New York cheddar. The patron could then help himself to the crackers while waiting his turn, or while just waiting and sipping on a bottle of chilled Moxie.
It was indeed a bulk world. Coffee came in huge burlap bags, plastered with colorful paper labels. These already-roasted coffee beans had to be freshly ground in a giant of a mill with two huge wheels and a gallon-size can with a spout on it to catch the coffee. This spout allowed the ground beans to be easily poured into small bags that were waxed to preserve the flavor. The memory of the aroma from coffee beans being ground is one to be long-remembered and savored, even if you do not drink the brew.
Bulk tea came packed in two-foot-square wooden boxes, each lined with tin foil and covered with indecipherable Chinese lettering. Baker’s Cocoa was, as now, in colorful pound cans embossed with the Baker lady, wearing a long gown and apron, carrying a tray of steaming cups of hot chocolate.
Very few cardboard cartons were in use then. Clean wooden boxes were used for shipping everything from shotgun shells and dry goods to soap. Then, they were recycled into toy wagons, and podiums for politicians.
Vinegar was always available from a 55-gallon oak barrel. The customer’s jug would be filled through a wooden spigot or from a wooden pump, similar to the tin one that was used to fill the thin wood-covered tin oil cans from the coal oil drum.
Most everyone then used coal oil for their lanterns. A very few farmers were the putting in Delco light plants, in spite of it being said that ‘such bright lights would make your children blind.’
Sugar also came in barrels and would be weighed out as the customer needed it. I remember Dad usually just ordered a hundred dollars worth of sugar, and his tea order was always ‘a half-pound of Imperial and a half-pound of Gunpowder, and mix them, please.’ So the clerk would weigh the black and green tea leaves into a big paper sack and shake them up. The customer got service in those days.
Blue Bird brooms from Sumner’s own ‘Mattoon Broom Factory’ hung from circular racks along with another staple item: buggy whips.
Flour was available in 24-, 48-, or 100-pound cloth bags. While many families would enjoy a treat of a few loaves of McConnel’s bread when in town, the making of homemade bread was an almost universal activity. My mother ‘lost her knack’ for making bread one time, and for the life of her couldn’t get her sponge to rise, so for years we had fried biscuits for breakfast and got to have store bread in our dinner pails.
Both the Globe and the Gem mills ground wheat into flour, but the Globe was by far the busiest. Their brand was very popular, partly because the flour came packed in high-quality cotton sacks, and many were the young’ns whose bottoms were covered by recycled flour sacks. Cloth bags were made into home-sewed panties emblazoned with the words ‘Bill’s Best.’ My Aunt Olie Culberson, Uncle John’s wife, swore by the hard winter wheat that Globe made, and would use none other for her famous cakes. The fact that the wheat for that flour came from her native Kansas may have had a bearing on her choice. Westall’s Store was Globe’s biggest outlet, and rightly so.
Rice and soup beans were shipped in burlap bags. These were then opened and emptied into big hinged-top bins, from which the clerks would use a tin scoop to dip out the desired amount, and weigh it on nearby scales. The bins had sloping tops to make them ‘self-closing’ but in reality were so made that loafers could not use them as a perch.
The beans were either butter beans or soup beans, and they had to be picked over to sort out the stones and weeds. There were no minor classifications, such as ‘pinto’, ‘navy’ or ‘great northern.’ Beans were beans in those days.
Potatoes were also available only in 100-pound burlap sacks, hence the name potato bag. Most people would buy one bag at a time, except when spring came, and it was ‘tater’ planting time. Then the seed cobblers were in ten-pound sacks, probably re-sacked by one of the clerks in their spare time.
Bacon came in whole slabs, with the rind on, with smoked hams in unwrapped and untrimmed full-boned grandeur.
Raisins and prunes, dried apricots and peaches were packed into 20-pound wooden lugs, and candy came in 25-pound wooden candy buckets.
Lard cans were in common use, each holding 50 pounds. Salt fish and cod came in flat, wooden boxes or five-pound keys. Blue point oysters, in season, came in gallon cans. All meat and cheese was cut to order.
Fancy packages, deceptive fractional labeling, and super self-service was far, far in the future. Then we gave service. Lots of people had jobs: the hours were long, and the pay meager, but then so were our wants. A man’s word was his bond, and fortunes were made and lost on a handshake. Ah, those bittersweet days of old.
The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more then 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.