The other day I threw away an empty oatmeal box. I’ve done that a lot in the past 50 or so years, but for some reason this time I hesitated. There ought to be uses for such sturdy and relatively clean containers, aside from adding to the trash we Americans pile up in ever-growing mountains. It’s a nice, round box and it has a tightly-fitting plastic lid, better than the ragged cardboard lids of oatmeal boxes of the past. Surely, some little girl would want it to make a cradle for a favorite doll, or some Cub Scout could cover it with a collage of pictures from old sports magazines and use it to store his special treasures.
I don’t remember my mother EVER throwing away an oatmeal box. We girls were usually waiting for just such a windfall so that we could turn it into something useful. If, by chance, one of us wasn’t eagerly awaiting it, Mother could always cover it with wallpaper or recycled gift-wrap and use it as a repository for all those pencils, matchbooks, rubber bands, paperclips, and strayed pieces of jigsaw puzzles that managed to accumulate on lamp tables and in dresser drawers when you weren’t looking. Sometimes, she’d use it as emergency storage for those extra big batches of cookies she baked around Christmas time, or to disguise the shape of a gift so that we wouldn’t guess the contents weeks before Christmas.
Oatmeal boxes weren’t the only empties we awaited eagerly. A most prized container was a cheese box, such as the two-pound brick of American cheese used to come in. Those wonderful wooden boxes have long since been replaced by corrugated cardboard which, though sturdy and useful, has a flimsy pasteboard lid and not nearly the craft possibilities of the wooden ones. It has gone the way of the prized cigar box and incredibly versatile orange crate.
The cigar boxes were coveted items in their own right. The most available ones, of course, were made for the less expensive and plentiful “ordinary” cigars of their day. But there were numerous elegant and beautiful boxes made for the more exclusive and expensive brands. Their designs were true works of art and the boxes themselves were perfect treasure chests for jewelry, treasured letters and greeting cards, rock collections or any boy’s accumulation of playing marbles. Hobbyists and craftsmen prized the smooth, thin boards and I have seen many a small drawer or desk partition made of parts of cigar boxes. Covered with velvet, lined with satin and trimmed with lace, an empty cigar box added a touch of elegance to a young lady’s dressing table where it stored jewelry, gloves or hosiery. Bottle cap collections, baseball cards, photographs and love letters have survived over the years because they were safely stowed away in a sturdy cigar box.
A whole book could be written praising the possibilities to be found in the old wooden orange crates. These crates, of course, were not used exclusively for oranges – other fruits were shipped in them as well, and often we could obtain an empty one from the neighborhood grocer for a modest price. The sides and bottoms of these crates were made of thin slats of rough, lightweight wood, but the ends and center divider were of thicker, smoother boards. Made to contain and transport about a bushel of fruit, the crates were strong and fairly durable. One of them, stood on end, would serve as a bedside lamp table and book shelf. With a flounce or curtain, it might become a storage place for lingerie or sweaters. They made admirable toy cupboards for children’s rooms, bookshelves for student’s dorms and auxiliary kitchen cabinets for apartment-dwellers.
A charming dressing table or quite functional desk could be constructed from two orange crates with knee-hole space between them and a sturdy board to serve as the top. I especially remember a dressing table that one of my friends had when we were in junior high. The openings of the up-ended orange crates were hidden by a froth of pink and white dotted Swiss fabric, trimmed with lace and satin bows. The board which served as the top was painted with a glossy pink enamel decorated with decals of red roses. A round mirror surrounded by a wide ruffle of pink satin hung on the wall above, and a wooden chair painted white and sporting a plump cushion of pink velvet completed the picture. How I envied her that pretty, feminine dressing table! And it was only two orange crates and a lot of imagination.