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IF we take a little time to reflect we cannot fail to be profoundly impressed by the sweeping changes that have been made in our buying habits during a single generation. When we take an inventory of the things we are compelled to purchase for the maintenance of life as it is lived today, we realize how completely we have become surrounded by packaged products. It requires real ingenuity to buy many of the things in the form in which we were accustomed in childhood. Instead of going to the bakery, and getting a bag of fresh-cooked crackers, direct from the oven, hot to the touch, and delicious to the palate, we must be content with a carton of biscuits half the weight of our early day bag, and less than half the quality, at two or three times the price. In this, as in many other cases, modern methods of marketing have increased the cost and diminished the quality of living.
It is true that the grocery of some twenty years ago, with its unsightly sugar barrels and cracker boxes, its dried fruit bins, and its long rows of tea, coffee, starch, rice, and other cereal boxes, and its inappreciation of the fact that foodstuffs were intended for internal consumption, has not a particularly savory place in our memories.
Things are today, at least with regard to the handling of food, better than they were. The unforgettable "Jungle" of Upton Sinclair, the pure food campaigns of Dr. Wiley and Alfred McCann, and the evolution of the old ideals of good-cookery and cleanliness into the sciences of dietetics and hygiene, have changed this indifference of most people into demands for ever higher standards of cleanliness in food. Methods of distributing food which were accepted without question a generation ago would not be tolerated today.
It is true that the idea of the sanitary packing of food in convenient cans and cartons at the factory was one of the most important influences in bringing about this change. Twenty years ago, ninety-five per cent of the dry groceries were sold in bulk; to-day, seventy-five per cent reach the consumer in package form. It is merely justice to accord to the advocates of the package idea the credit for introducing a valuable improvement in our methods of handling groceries. But it is foolish to overlook the fact that their motive in introducing packages was the desire to add to their profits by making it easy to advertise their goods and to manipulate the prices which they receive for the product itself by arbitrarily determining how much they place in each package.
Just as today's grocery has become, as a result of these influences, an entirely different institution from that of yesterday, so is the modern kitchen entirely different from the kitchen of fifty years ago. The package has wrought great changes in the American pantry. Today's housewife buys a small package, of a size that is carefully designed to send her frequently to the store to replenish her supply, tightly sealed and packed with clock-like precision by automatic machines, with the quantity in each package guaranteed not to vary over a sixteenth of an ounce, and its standard of quality backed, no longer by the reputation of the merchant, but by the national advertising of the manufacturer.
The kitchen of today, especially in the cities, is more compact. The elevator made the skyscraper possible; the package has made the kitchenette home possible. The modern kitchen contains a greater variety of foods, and its care is much less laborious than the kitchen of years ago. But it is incredibly more extravagant. In spite of these conveniences of which we boast as products of a superior civilization, the home does not turn out anything like the volume of food, laundry and sewing which the housewife of former years turned out as a matter of course. For the privilege of buying in packages and bottles instead of in sacks and jugs, and for buying its jams and jellies and fruits and vegetables in tin cans containing whatever the packers in the generosity of their hearts choose to embalm in them, the housewife has very largely abandoned the preserving of all these foods in the good old glass jar. If this is progress, then I am for the reaction. To can your own fruits and vegetables, improving upon your forbears only by using the inventions of modern science in preserving under steam pressure and in using materials and appliances which lessen the labor involved, pays not only in dollars and cents, but physically and gastronomically.
The package idea is good, especially with foodstuffs. It deserves reasoned support, but because it is a clean and convenient method of handling foodstuffs, consumers should not permit it to be a means by which their pockets are deftly picked of pennies and nickels and dimes which, in the aggregate, represent a very considerable share of their total expenditures.
It is more economical to buy in bulk from the most expensive grocery stores in New York City, than to buy in advertised packages at the corner grocery.
Packed, as are so many advertised articles, in bulky cartons, in panel bottles that are tall and thin, in pretty little jars and glasses, the manufacturer has discovered a way to eat his cake and save it too. He takes credit for selling either a "big" or a "convenient" measure; he actually gives less than the quantity which his customers were previously in the habit of buying.
Some years ago the Commissioner of Weights and Measures of New York started a movement which spread all over the nation. He urged the people to watch for the manipulation of scales and measures by tradesmen who did not scruple to stoop to petty thievery. In New York he succeeded in having hundreds of tradesmen and peddlers fined, their scales and measures condemned and confiscated, and their businesses injured by the publicity which followed the exposure of their roguery. The butcher, who stuck a piece of tallow weighing an ounce under the pan of his scales and cheated his customers to the extent of one ounce on their purchases, was exposed, haled to court, fined, and reprimanded severely.
There is a distinction, but no real difference, between this butcher and the manufacturer who packs his product in a "pound" package which weighs fifteen ounces. The motive which animates both is the same; the desire to add to their profits by giving the customer a trifle less weight than the customer is willing to pay for. The manufacturer, however, picks pockets with a better knowledge of the law. He does openly and brazenly what the other does secretly. With a hypocritical pretense of absolute honesty and his unctuous claim that the measure is accurate to the fraction of an ounce, the advertiser prints the net weight packed in his package somewhere about the package. He complies with the law in as small a type as possible. You generally have to hunt on the label of packages you buy for the net weight, but you can usually find it if you are curious enough and do not mind an occasional strain upon your eyes.
The package, which ought to be primarily a means for conveniently and hygienically handling foods, and only incidentally a means for attractively displaying itself on the shelves of the retail store, has been used by many manufacturers principally for the purpose of craftily raising the price of their products to the consumer. By reducing the quantity in the package and maintaining the original price, the price is raised without the consumer being forewarned. By taking a package which originally weighed fourteen ounces and sold for ten cents and reducing it in weight to twelve ounces, it is raised in price one-seventh even if it continues to be sold for ten cents.
But the package may actually be reduced in price and still the price per pound increased. Take a package weighing fifteen ounces and selling for fifteen cents. Reduce the price to ten cents and the weight to eight ounces. The price of the package has been obviously reduced by one-third, but the price of the goods within the package actually has been increased by one-fifth.
The packages which fill the shelves and counters of stores today lend themselves to this kind of thing very readily. The products are rarely packed in standard units of measure. The package usually contains a little less than a half pound, a little less than a pound, or a little less than two pounds. It is easy for the public to think of it as a half-pound, a pound, or a two-pound package. Five, six, or seven-ounce packages are handed the consumer when he asks for a half-pound; twelve, fourteen, or fifteen-ounce packages pass muster as pound-packages.
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