By Jan TenBruggencate

Old coffee containers in display at Kaua‘i Coffee in Kalaheo.

Things were different when I was a kid.

It’s hard to even image how different.

It was just after World War II. The folks around us had gone through the privations of the Great Depression and severe shortages during World War II. Everybody reused and recycled — we just didn’t call it that.

I was telling a friend about eating pipipi when I was a kid. We would collect the biggest of those marine snails, cook them in ocean water in an old coffee can, then pick out the edible parts with a safety needle.

My younger friend looked up in surprise, and not for the reason I thought. Nowadays, most coffee comes in bags, not cans.

Those coffee cans came in handy. My dad kept old nails and bolts in coffee cans in his shop.

Old coffee containers in display at Kaua‘i Coffee in Kalaheo.

You could cut the top and bottom out of a coffee can, and use a can opener (the kind that left a vee-shaped hole on one side of the can top) to put holes around the side. Fill it with charcoal and some newspaper, and it started a barbecue quickly.

I have a store-bought version today. The only benefit is that it has a handle. In the old days, you used stick to knock it down and lift it out.

We didn’t have plastic planting containers in those days. Everyone used coffee cans and vegetable cans to start vegetables and flowering plants. Cut out the top, can-opener a couple of drainage holes in the bottom, and off you’d go a-gardening.

Today, folks buy fishing poles all rigged up at the store. In those days, the first step was to find the right bamboo patch, then spend countless hours sanding, and tying down the eyes and other fixtures with colored cord. Then varnish and dry. Then you’d lube up the old Penn reel. Now you could go shoreline fishing.

Old coffee containers in display at Kaua‘i Coffee in Kalaheo.

Hardly anyone went to the store for fishing weights. Some folks would melt scrap lead (don’t try this at home — we’ve learned the fumes are exceedingly hazardous) and pour it into molds. My dad would use scrap pieces of rebar — reinforcing rod — to weight his surf casting line.

He caught big fish.

Every now and then I read people joking about frugal old-timers who saved string. We did. You kept tying pieces of twine onto older pieces and kept them wrapped in a ball.

When you needed string, there was always a ball of it, although you couldn’t be choosy — sometimes white cotton, sometimes brown jute or yellow sisal. It was always natural fiber, not the plastic materials of today.

I can remember as a young boy scout making a knife out of a scrap piece of iron from an old bunk bed, wrapping the handle with jute and then sealing it with varnish. It wasn’t much of a knife, but it worked.

We had time for all this stuff, of course, because there were no TVs, smartphones or social networks.

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.

Old coffee containers in display at Kaua‘i Coffee in Kalaheo.

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