How we turned orange crates into lockers — and toilet roll!

So many things have changed beyond all recognition from his young days, says Michael Pattwell
How we turned orange crates into lockers — and toilet roll!

The first post-war consignment of oranges in Cork in December, 1945. Michael Pattwell recalls the boxes were treasured in the ‘50s

USUALLY at this time of year, we confine ourselves to reminiscing about the events of the year just passed.

A recent chat with some friends of a similar age, about things we grew up with, along with the seasonal inclination to reminisce, got me thinking about the way so many things have changed beyond all recognition.

I was in a house recently where one of the children in her early teens had received a beautiful bedside locker, complete with drawers in which her mobile phone, tablet (not in the medical sense) and other paraphernalia could be neatly stored.

I remembered the first ‘bedside locker’ I had when I was a teenager. There was nothing special about it because the same ‘bedside lockers’ could be found in many homes, both in town and country.

My locker was an orange crate, set on one end and with a curtain draped across the front of it. The curtain was hung on a length of stretchy wire, covered in white plastic. It was commonly used to hang light curtains, especially net curtains.

In those far-off days — I’m talking about the 1950s really — there were no supermarkets and local shops sold pretty much everything then available in the line of groceries and other common household items.

Oranges were delivered to them in large crates, made of thin wood, that were about 30 inches (about 75cm in today’s terms) long, about 16 inches (40cm) wide and of similar depth.

They were divided in the middle by a partition. When we could get one from the local shop, they were sometimes broken up for kindling but often they were put to another use, usually for storage in the house.

I saw them, standing on one end so that the dividing partition became a shelf, in kitchens for holding cooking pots, in living rooms used as bookshelves and as already mentioned they were very popular as bedside lockers. The top and ‘shelf’ might be covered with a square of oilcloth and always there was the ubiquitous curtain where a door might be.

The oranges in the crates, when they were delivered to the shopkeeper, were wrapped individually in a light tissue paper. The offer of an empty ‘orange box’ was never refused and, on a rare occasion, the squares of tissue in which the oranges had been wrapped might be included. They were greatly treasured because, smoothed out and strung together at the corners with a piece of twine, they ended up hanging on a nail or hook in the backyard lavatory — a welcome luxury in place of the commonly used half-sheet of newspaper.

I don’t know how old I was when toilet rolls came into everyday use but I know I had advanced a few years towards — and maybe was close enough to — my teens.

Timber boxes were commonly used for packing and delivering things all those years ago. Many of my generation will remember the ‘butter-boxes’. Butter was delivered in bulk to the bigger shops in strong wooden boxes. The wood in them was much heavier than in the fruit crates and while it wasn’t quite a half-inch thick it wasn’t far off it. I’d say they were about 15 or 16 inches deep, maybe about the same long and wide and they tapered by a few inches to the bottom. They were greatly prized too but they would never be used for kindling.

Often, they were turned upside down and made brilliant stools. The more ‘tasty’ housekeepers might cover them with a piece of leftover lino or oilcloth and indeed I have seen them lightly upholstered.

They fitted neatly into a corner of the kitchen and were an ideal seat while one was reddening the open fire with what was commonly called the ‘fire-machine’. This was a sort of bellows with a large wheel that was turned steadily to draft the fire. The fire-machines were more common in farmhouses than in townhouses.

When a rather tall young man was known to be “going-out” with a smaller (more petite, we’ll say) young lady, it was a perennial joke to ask him if he carried a butter-box with him when going on a date.

Cheese, too, was often delivered in a wooden box. Those were about 10 or 12 inches long and about four or five inches wide and deep. I’m sure they must still be found in dusty old workshops and sheds, covered in dust and holding nails, screws, old bits of machinery and anything else that we men (and it was the same back then) are reluctant to throw out in case “it might come in handy”.

We children — boys especially —loved getting a cheese box. We would carefully remove one end, cut it down a bit and use part of it to put under the other end so that it was propped up with the long bottom of the box like a ramp. We would then drill a couple of holes at the higher end; large enough for a marble to drop through, and lo and behold we had a marble game. Standing a couple of yards back, we would try to roll a marble up the ramp in the hope it would fall through one of the holes at the top.

Drilling the holes was an operation in itself. There were no electric drills but occasionally one of our dads might have a brace and bit. If he had, it wasn’t easily available to us as it was greatly treasured by the adult owner.

Sometimes we could persuade dad to drill the holes for us when he got home from work but if we hadn’t the patience to wait — which was usually the case — we would spend a long time continually reddening a poker in the fire and burning through the wood to make the hole.

I’m sure that even today younger people — and maybe the not-so-young — are confused when an old codger like myself refers to a box of biscuits as “a half tin” of biscuits. That is because in the days I am writing about, biscuits were sold loose from large tins that were maybe 12 inches high and about 9 or 10 inches square. If we had only a few pence and wanted to have some biscuits, we could go into the shop at the corner of the street and buy a quarter pound (4 oz) or even 2 oz of biscuits.

Loose biscuits in a tin led, inevitably, to some broken biscuits and sometimes we could get a bag of broken biscuits at a bargain price. Mind you, there wasn’t a great choice in those days; ‘Marietta’ and a little later ‘Lincoln Creams’ were popular. ‘Fig Rolls’ and ‘Kerry Creams’ were more expensive, and in due course the marshmallow biscuits, ‘Kimberley’, ‘Mikado’ and ‘Coconut Creams’ came along.

I don’t know when soap-powders became available. Certainly I recall Persil and Tide but little else. In fact, most of the washing was done in a big tin bath or basin using Sunlight or Ryans soap that came in a big bar. Before washing machines came along, every house had a washboard against which the clothes were washed.

The traditional washboard was usually constructed with a rectangular wooden frame in which were mounted a series of ridges or corrugations for the clothing to be rubbed upon. For 19th-century washboards, the ridges were often of wood; by the 20th century, ridges of metal or even glass were more common. A ‘fluted’ metal washboard was patented in the United States in 1833.

Many parts of the world still use washboards for washing clothes. They are soaked in hot soapy water in a washtub or sink, then squeezed and rubbed against the ridged surface of the washboard to force thecleansing fluid through the cloth to carry away dirt.

Washboards may also be used for washing in a river, with or without soap. Then the clothes are rinsed. The rubbing has a similar effect to beating the clothes and household linen on rocks, an ancient method, but this is less abrasive.

The washboard was used as a percussion instrument, employing the ribbed surface as a rhythm instrument, and was very much part of the skiffle groups popular the first half of the 20th century and into the 50s and early 60s. Perhaps it is still used as a musical instrument.

Washday was often a Monday and as children we hated it. Some heavily soiled clothes were actually boiled in large pots over open fires or on a primus stove. The houses of the better-off had ranges.

The smell of the boiling clothes wasn’t that pleasant and often the dinner on that day – eaten in the middle of the day, of course – wasn’t as palatable as it was on other days with the fire or stove being used for the heating of water for the wash or boiling the clothes. The left-overs from Sunday were often the dinner for Monday, maybe hastily re-heated in a saucepan.

The Primus stove was a pressurised burner that used paraffin oil for fuel. It was developed in 1892 and was a much-used cooking device for the greater part of the 20th century.

I have much more to remember from my young days and perhaps I will return to the topic again soon.

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