Containers in the market

Today’s marketplace is all about packaging. Modern packages assure us that the product is clean, sterile if that’s an issue, properly measured and not going to spill on the way home. We buy produce without packaging, but what’s the first thing we do? We put it into a plastic bag. Meat can be displayed without packaging, but if so, the butcher wraps it up in paper. It’s hard to think of anything we buy that doesn’t have a wrapper or container.

In medieval Europe, liquids came in barrels if you were buying it in large quantities, an entire keg or cask at a time (or larger—some casks had to be rolled down the street by six men). Many dry goods came in barrels too, the expense of even a cheap barrel meant that only large quantities came that way. If you were the household manager who bought food for many people, you’d be bringing back barrels of salted fish or flour in a two-wheeled cart. If you were a professional baker, you certainly bought flour in the largest barrels or sacks possible.

But if you lived in town and shopped for smaller quantities, a barrel was probably more than you’d ever need. Home cooks didn’t bake bread, so they didn’t need a barrel of flour. What sort of packaging was available for small market shoppers?

Ale was bought from a neighbor’s house; the procedure was to measure out the quart or gallon in a guaranteed measuring cup and then pour it into your own bucket or pitcher, carried over from home. Bring Your Own Bottle, literally. This was the general understanding of how packaging worked: bring your own. Only wholesalers felt responsible for putting beans or flour into barrels or sacks.

Shoppers carried their food home in wicker baskets. Every household had a variety of baskets, which were made locally and cheaply. Vegetables purchased at the market could go straight into the basket as they were, no further package needed. For meat, here I’m just using some reasoning since we don’t really know. Meat is messy and you’d want to wrap it in something. But most people never bought meat; it was too expensive.

Cooks in really large households may have had their meat butchered on the premises and delivered straight to the kitchen; so the people who bought cuts of pork, mutton or beef at a town butchery were well-to-do, but not lavishly so. By definition, their household had rags. Rags weren’t something to take for granted; if you had rags, it meant that you had worn-out clothes no longer in use. The poor kept wearing their rags. It seems logical to a certainty that upper middle class households buying meat brought some linen or wool rags along in the basket to wrap up their purchases.

For things like dried beans and peas, rough linen burlap was probably in use. Linen was Europe’s native fiber and it held up well in rough, primitive washing with boiling water, scrubbing, and harsh soap. Linen could be spun very finely, but it could also be spun quickly and poorly. Low-grade linen would have been the cheapest container for things that didn’t need to be kept watertight, just held from spilling on the way home.

Paper was a new technology during the Middle Ages. It didn’t become cheap enough for normal use even in writing letters until the 15th century. Cotton, too, was a new technology; its growing popularity created a cotton rag industry that fed right into paper. Neither of these materials were suitable for containers until much later.


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