I recently happened across a picture of Esquire shoe polish. The flat, round metal can of pasty cream helped me recall any Saturday night before a Sunday reunion or family gathering at Grandma’s house. My father would set our freshly polished “good” shoes on newspapers to dry overnight and the next morning brush and buff them to a presentable shine.
Later I polished my own school shoes: the sensible saddle oxfords Mother continued buying even after they went out of style and the coveted pair of penny loafers I finally purchased with money I earned at the library. I mimicked my father’s shoe care steps but also had to use an applicator to spread liquid polish on the white leather of my saddles.
Shoe polish is still available for sale. People today, however, probably use it less, often opting for shoes made of synthetic materials while owning more pairs of footwear than the “good” and “everyday” shoes we wore in our family with a slim budget and lots of feet.
From these recollections I made a nostalgic list of other “stuff” stashed in the various cupboards of my childhood houses, stuff still sold but used more occasionally these days – including the powder we used to brush our teeth. Sometimes we cleaned our pearly whites with baking soda, but the tooth powder from the red-and-white can tasted much better. I am sure Mother, considering us too young and too messy for traditional toothpaste, decided it was better that we sprinkle a little powder into one hand and tap our toothbrushes into it.
Also in the bathroom cupboard was skincare stuff. Mother, with five adolescent females worrying about blackheads and pimples, pretty much steered us toward Ivory, the soap that boasted “99 44/100% Pure – It Floats!” I occasionally dabbed flesh-colored Clearasil over a “zit.” Mostly, however, I tried to avoid problems by washing my face with Mother’s Noxema, the white cream with a clean, pungent scent sold in a cobalt blue jar. One used it in place of soap, applying the Noxema by fingertips over the face before rinsing. Perhaps the cleanser helped, but at least my face was clean – as are the faces of today’s Noxema customers.
Farm chores meant ridding our hands of good old-fashioned grime. Lava, a heavy duty soap now manufactured with moisturizers by the WD-40 Company, contained ground pumice and was the only stuff that successfully removed oil and grease from my father’s hands. Every harvest season just before the neighborhood silo-filling group trooped into our house for dinner, at the outdoor faucet near the back porch Mother would lay out the white metal wash basin, a pile of towels, and a couple of bars of Lava. The men rolled up their sleeves and scrubbed energetically before they enjoyed, with temporarily clean hands, the hearty noon meal Mother had prepared.
The skills my mother acquired at nursing school in Springfield carried us safely through all manner of childhood maladies. Every winter I suffered with asthmatic bronchitis: incessant coughing, major chest congestion, fever, absences from school. Mother always reached into the cupboard for the jar of Vicks VapoRub, the almost colorless, mentholated salve she rubbed on my chest. She then covered my chest with a clean cloth diaper which she pressed with a hot iron. I am not sure the Vicks or the heat really helped, but she ardently believed in this remedy. Thankfully, the doctor finally prescribed sulfa drugs when I was twelve or so, and I eventually outgrew the condition.
Our rambunctious family of six children required frequent first-aid treatment. We always hated to see the small, dark bottle of merthiolate pulled from the medicine cabinet – that red liquid burned like the dickens when “painted” on an injury. There was also a tube of Unguentine for infections: a beige salve Mother covered with gauze held in place by adhesive tape cut with scissors reserved specifically for the task. Eventually, she discovered Bactine in the green spray bottle, and the remedy no longer hurt more than the injury.
My father had his own stuff that he kept in the barn. Undoubtedly his favorite was the square, dented, green tin of Bag Balm, a salve used on cow udders. Ever the practical man, who fixed almost anything with twine string and baling wire, he inevitably suggested a layer of Bag Balm to soften dry skin. We girls, totally grossed out by the ointment’s name and function, always rejected it out of hand; but a friend currently uses Bag Balm to successfully remedy her dry, cracked heels.
If I continued to rummage through my mental cupboard, I would surely find a jar of Dippity-Do, the pink or green gel we slathered on sections of our hair before rolling it in curlers. There would be a box of thin, textured onionskin paper I used for my college essays because the removal of typing errors could be accomplished with a simple pencil eraser. And in the laundry cupboard would be a box of the bluing Mother used to make her whites whiter; this stuff was also grand for growing rock crystal gardens when combined with salt and food coloring.
Although these days my cupboards and cabinets are filled with newer brands of more modern, geriatrically-themed products, somehow I fondly remember the long-ago days when that old-fashioned stuff occupied cupboard space right up front.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.