Architect's Daughter | How They Did It Before

Architect's Daughter | How They Did It Before

It may be an odd thought to some of us, and perhaps very well known to others, but there was once a time in history, not too long ago actually, where humans lived without plastic. As plastic is now a critical part of most everyone’s life today, one might ask, how on earth was this once possible???????

In this blog, we are going to simply talk about how people used to live plastic-free and hope this will provide some insight and encouragement to adopt some habits from your elders. Perhaps we can look at this blog as a simple word from the wise, plastic-free living.

The first ever synthetic plastics were invented in and around 1910, but the issue of plastic waste did not become a harsh reality until more recently. This is because mass plastic production was not a reality until the Industrial Revolution in the 1950s. Prior to this, plastic was still produced, but at a much smaller rate, and plastic items were used and re-used over and over. It wasn’t until the 1950s that single use plastics really came into effect, and what would soon cause our current facing plastic pollution pandemic.

So what was life like before these synthetic polymers came into our lives? Well, grandmothers and grandfathers will certainly have the best stories, but we will do our best to describe it here. First off, cloth and paper bags were used instead of plastic ones, and bringing your own bag to the grocery store was not an act of environmental good, but just a normal part of everyday life. If you wanted to stock up on or transport any kind of fluid, you would use metal containers. Preferably you would label them, as they were not transparent, but usually lighter than glass which would be more convenient at times.

Today, it is a daunting challenge to go to the grocery store and try to come home without anything wrapped or packaged in plastic. One of the best plastic free lifestyle choices from the past was a vegetable garden. This was tended to daily for vegetables in season and would cut costs at the market. You could also obviously buy vegetables that were in season at the store, and if the vegetable wasn’t in season, you would buy it canned. Jams and pickles were also very popular as snacks to help you get through winter and as a means to not waste what you already had. Dried fruit was also a common snack for this reason. For staples like rice and pasta that are now almost always packaged in plastic, you would scoop into a paper bag, place on the weigh scale, and purchase, completely plastic free. For beverages, the most well-known to date is the handy dandy milkman. Milk would be dropped off at your door, and your old bottles would simultaneously be exchanged for the new ones. Beer and soda bottles would be returned to the store for pocket change, which is still done, but much less regularly. Furthermore, the Styrofoam and saran wrap laden meat aisles of today’s modern grocery store were nothing to be thought of back when your meat was hand delivered or picked up at the local butcher and wrapped in paper.

You would mostly make all your food at home in the old days, and thus the concept of to go containers or Styrofoam takeout just wasn't a regular thing as it is today. The idea of eating out in general was quite foreign back then, and if you did go out for dinner on the rare occasion, you would sit down, enjoy your meal, and leave. The thought of having to put your un-eaten leftovers in a container just sounded like more work, and to be quite honest, portions were likely a lot smaller and realistic in those days, so you probably wouldn't of had any leftovers to begin with. In the rare instances where you may have wanted to take some dinner home to your family members who had been working hard all day, local fish and chips shops would wrap your meal in greaseproof paper and then with newspaper to add an extra protective layer. If you had to pack your lunch for school, sandwiches were the way to go, wrapped up in wax paper or cloth, and off you went!

It might be hard to believe, but cleaning the house back in the day was also a plastic free chore. Cleaning products came in either cardboard containers or glass bottles, and you would wash with old rags that were most likely cut outs from old T-shirts. Once you were done cleaning, you would hand wash your rag and hang it to dry for reuse next week.

Hygiene was also perfectly doable without plastic. Blowing your nose was done so in handkerchiefs that were also most probably made from old clothing. Funny to think that today the use of a handkerchief instead of Kleenex is an unthinkable act of green. Showering consisted of using bar soaps for what we now call “body wash” and shampoo came mostly in glass bottles. Shockingly, it is said that even hairspray came in refillable bottles.

It is also important not to forget about clothing, one of the largest pollutants in today’s landfills and that sometimes goes unnoticed. Back in the day, most clothing was handmade at home from store bought fabrics. Pairs of shoes were bought once, and once worn out, were fixed instead of thrown out for new ones.

Of course, waste was still generated back in the plastic free era, but even then, re-purposing your waste was simply a way of life. Old paper was burned in the fire, and the ash from the fire would be used as an anti-slip method during slippery cold winters. Old clothing was used as rags, handed down, or often turned into quilts. Used jars and containers were reused over and over again to save money and to use what you already had. The list could go on and on.

The takeaway message here is that although today we may be programmed to think so, plastic is most definitely not a daily life essential. As proven above, and by anyone who lived during this time in history, living without plastic is fully possible. Now, you may argue that yes, back then it was the norm, and so today it is harder to live plastic free, and we will not argue back. Yes, it is going to be harder in today’s world to live without something that we are literally surrounded with every single day. Nonetheless, we also need to realize that we don’t need to be constantly searching for new innovative ways to live, but rather to very simply turn our heads and look back for a moment. By doing so, there are so many things we can do to bring this old yet wise lifestyle back to fruition. The reason why corporations are mass producing plastic is because they believe we are too lazy to live without it, and they aren’t wrong. So we need to try to put a little more effort into sustainability and live like we used to. We have been programmed to think that plastic is a necessity as it is mass produced and seen every which way we look, but this is not the case. We have to remember that we have lived, survived, and thrived without plastic in our lives, and that during this time our life had value, health and happiness.           

What is most important to realize is that during the plastic free era many years ago, possessions were deeply valued, purchases were made consciously, and a little effort was actually put into daily activities. So, what can we do to start slowly mirroring the gracious lifestyle of our ancestors? Start composting, start opting for glass and reusable containers, start shopping locally, start embracing hand me down clothing and handkerchiefs. This list could be endless, but you get the gist of it.  

Reducing plastic in your life is not living in the past, it is living for the future.

- Architect's Daughter

Santhanam, Narasimhan. How did we live before plastic were invented? Cleantech.Guide. September 15, 2016.
Blackburn, Mark. Life Before Plastic. One Brown Planet. July 12, 2016.
Martinko, Katherine. What older generations can tell us about plastic-free living. Treehugger. Sepetember 27, 2018.
McCosker, Jaclyn. Life Before Plastic. Jaclyn McCosker Conscious Living Blog.

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