The most recent post on the Christchurch Uncovered blog has been gnawing away at me over the past few days.
In the post the author suggests that what we find in the archaeological record are those items that were seen as cheap and hence disposable, and in the case of Christchurch in the nineteenth century that seems to be cheap imported willow patterned crockery.
Other more valued items were cherished, had a longer lifetime, and were replaced less often.
And the same goes for items such as bottles and pickle jars – irrespective of the value of the product the containers had value because they could be reused, and were not easily replaceable – just as my mother hoarded reusable jam jars for preserving fruit – a habit gained from the second world war where glass jars were scarce and it was important to make supplies of fruit last.
So perhaps what we see in old rubbish dumps is the stuff that wasn’t valued and could not be easily reused – after all, while a single Keiller’s ceramic marmalade pot might make an impromptu jar for flowers, one probably doesn’t need twenty seven of them.
And the there’s also the stuff that was thrown away almost immediately, such as the wrappers for patent medicine bottles.
We’re lucky enough in Dow’s Pharmacy to have a bottle of Hall’s Vegetable Pain Conqueror, complete with its 1880’s paper wrapper.
Paper wrappers on the whole did not survive, as they probably ended up as waste paper to help light the fire – the wrapper was not valuable but it was useful.
The consequence is that we don’t know a lot about Victorian and Edwardian packaging.
We have enough examples to know it existed, but possibly not enough to say much more than that.
Which us a shame, as packaging does tell you something about a society.
It tells you what they valued, and what they didn’t.
And I’ll illustrate this by a little story:
In the days of film photography, in the nineteen eighties, I used to like taking (and developing) 35mm black and white photographs.
In the main I used Ilford FP4 and HP5 film, and sometimes Tri-X from Kodak.
All these films came in a nice firm cardboard box, the film was in a nice metal cassette, and the cassette came in a nice plastic container with a push on top.
The other film I used was OrWo from the then GDR. Cheaper, perhaps not such a good grain quality, but definitely usable. The OrWo film came in a crudely printed soft cardboard recycled paper box and the plastic cassette was simple wrapped in lightproof silver paper.
Now I had all my own darkroom equipment, even my own enlarger, and I could process the films myself, which of course meant I rapidly ended up with pile of used empty cassettes and plastic film containers.
The way you could really save money was to buy film in bulk and reload used cassettes, which is exactly what I did – all you needed was a darkroom, a bench, an empty cassette, and some masking tape.
The only really tricky thing was popping off the end of the metal cassette to get the spool out – they weren’t designed to come off (or go back on).
Strangely enough the OrWo ones, which were plastic, and had been designed to be reused were the easiest to work with – so I tended to end up with reused OrWo cassettes stored in lightproof Ilford and Kodak containers.
The moral of the tale of course, is that it was only these bits of packaging that were useful were reused, no matter how good the original material. The cardboard boxes, and possibly the metal film cassettes were thrown away.
In the 1980’s that meant thrown in the trash, and they would simply have disappeared, but the OrWo cassettes and Kodak film containers would have survived as they were useful. In the nineteenth century, the equivalents of the useless metal cassettes would have ended up in a hole in the ground, while the reused items would have been reused until they became damaged and unusable