instant coffee and 8 pennys

This is a story about grandpas–those tinkering, puttering, handy fellows who did unheralded and often excellent work down in their basement shop while managing to keep things impossibly organized.

It’s a story from a bygone era full of snappy jingles, instant coffee and brands and vendors which permeated a time when people smoked inside. stowed their ashes in avocado green ashtrays and framed picture windows with orange curtains.

I helped a friend clean out his late grandfather’s shop recently.

There was a dumpster in the driveway. It stood beckoning, its open end like a mouth waiting for us to just chuck everything inside and walk away.

But we all agreed it would be wrong to junk so many things which were not only still useful, but were a physical memory of a life spent creating and organizing with such a careful attention to detail.

The milk crates we carried up from his workshop were brimming with cans and jars, themselves full of hardware and organized down to the last finish nail. This was an autobiography written from storm window fasteners and curtain rod hardware.

Metal cans with marked lids are a must in every organized basement shop:


The decorative finish is a bonus and would brighten any workspace-


Clearly coffee was an important component of grandfather’s life, as it should be:



Though he seemed willing to try different brands…



And he experimented with diverse methods of brewing as well-



Perhaps the good folks at Mansion Inn were on to something with their new and fancy keyless can




This coffee staple contained not staples but galvies-


There were jars–relics, really–which evoked fond memories of stores long-since closed.


Still, even at 39 cents, I’m not buying-


The brands grew less familiar as we dug towards the bottom of the milk crates-


I once got margarine on my dungarees while riding my stingray.

And this is what happens to your margarine when it freezes, kids:


Peanut butter was very well-represented in grandpa’s basement shop-



Choosy mothers may have chosen Jif, but not our man:


That label on the Skippy jar says Angelo’s and some of us still call the little supermarket in Manomet, MA by that name, though it’s gone now 30 years.


Churned for easier spreading also makes for a great conversation starter about the ‘birds and bees’-


You had us at churnt. The contents within are inconsequential.


Some labels kept it simple and needed no further elaboration-



I can only imagine the glory of those long-forgotten condiment wars, between the Mastermixt, the chilling and the beating til fluffy:



Has anyone written French’s for recipes lately? Can we download a PDF?


This particular jar reminds us that it is delicious as we throw up in our mouth a little-



As the jars became smaller, so their contents turned more esoteric:


SHOE COLORING, by Lady Esquire.


All that glitters retains its full flavor when the cap is replaced-



Obligatory baby food jars-


Looks like stewed peaches for Brad-


The magic happened…


on shelf #3-


Paper goods, in such excellent condition, reveal a knack for careful curating as well as a dry basement-



And this–a faux-grained paper to class-up your pedestrian containers:


When was the last time you made a “small” wastebasket from a potato chip can?

And you just don’t hear the word trinket enough anymore-


Doesn’t it always seem to be the smallest things which remind you most of someone you miss?

I never knew this man but it feels like I did.

We raise our hot-dog-relish-jar to a life spent in quiet craft and exemplary organization in a basement workshop from another era-

One which we can still learn from.










26 thoughts on “instant coffee and 8 pennys

  1. Very cool post. I found a lot of similar things after I bought this property. I still haven’t gotten rid of many things …. I love that his life is still present in many ways. I turned an old yellow and black Chock Full O Nuts coffee can into a bird house … a mother wren is very happy.

  2. kneetoknee says:

    I hope you didn’t throw all that away! My shop is filled with various oddball containers. Each one has come from someone, many long gone old timer friends and each has its own story. A sort of sour dough starter for new ideas and for recalling past inspirations. Some years ago before my Mother died, a friend took photos of the insides of all of her cupboards, double stacked bookcases, mounded up room corners, drawers, closets, etc…….even her pocketbook. Now I have a little book that’s filled with memories of her “collecting” and some provenance evidence for some of the stuff here!

    • Rick says:

      What a great friend to do that, ktok. That is brilliant. Those little things quicken strong memories, no doubt. Thanks for sharing. Also, no hardware was harmed in the making of this blog post. I have no idea where any of it is going. You wanna some 6″ spikes?

  3. Kevin Ponton says:

    RICK !!! – I need the ETASCO box and contents!! Unless you already pitched it?


  4. francedozois says:

    fabulous post–great job Rick

  5. Alice Copeland says:

    Rick reminds me so much of my own father’s basement that I am in the process of cleaning out. Yes the dumpster beckons but these jars cannot be thrown away. Dean Copeland

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Rick says:

      So many of us find it hard to throw those memories away. While others can just walk away. From your stories, your father had a museum collection in his basement. So glad you’re making the effort to keep it and pass it on. Someone down the road will very much appreciate it, Dean. Great to hear from you!

  6. Tico Vogt says:

    A great photo essay. Thanks again for an enjoyable post.

  7. Bill R. says:

    Great stuff Rick, always enjoy your posts. This one brought back great meomories of my granddad and all his containers!

  8. martha says:

    I’m genuinely glad you see the value in these things. I’m in danger myself- after one visit to my hoarding relatives I saved a jar of ginger from 1981. It’s “Marion-Kay: World’s Finest Ground Ginger. There IS a difference! The House of Flavors” from Brownstown, Indiana. You should know, that in SPNEA/ Historic New England’s collections they have a bar of soap over 100 years old because it’s in its original wrapper.

    • Rick says:

      There’s the practical value, the sentimental value, and the eBay/museum value of all these things, isn’t there Martha? So…that soap must be purer than Ivory by now I’m thinkin-

  9. John Wolf says:

    I cleaned out my Uncle Goldie’s shop long after he died, and without ever meeting him. He had some interesting containers too. The attic was unlit, and my flashlight was about done as I started on the wooden packing boxes in the far corner. The lid was nailed on the first one,something was rolling around in it. I carried it to the head of the stairs – and tripped. The box crashed end over end down the stairs and slid across the floor to stop with a thump against a wall. In the light, I could see that the box read “American Cyanamide Co., 40% dynamite”. It was full of pipe fittings. I would rather inventory coffee cans.

  10. graemeu says:

    There was a fad here in the ’70’s of nailing jar lids to the bottom chord of garage trusses to display such things and make them easily accessible (just unscrew the jar from the lid). Then there was a spate of moderate earthquakes…. panelbeaters and windscreen repairers were disappointed the practice was discontinued.

  11. Dave Fisher says:

    Another beautiful post, Rick. I’ve caught up on the last few this morning (I need to look into why I’m not getting the email notifications!) and it was time well spent. I love your writing and work. This post reminded me of my grandfather; thanks.

  12. Barry Cornwall says:

    Thanx Rick. Wish I had been with you down in the basement and – like you – well before to have met Grandpa.

    Barry Cornwall

  13. Kinderhook88 says:

    I’m floored by the array of product packaging here. I’m (almost) strictly a coffee can man myself – like my grandfather 🙂 Thanks for triggering that memory!

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