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The polythene housewife

Unbreakable, washable, highly coloured plastic and rubber household items.

 

When I was a little girl – we lived in a seaside town – I remember that, once a month, the cook would take down all the copper pots in the kitchen and fill an enormous basket with them. Then she would call the gardener to help her carry it to a certain spot in the garden. For her, it was a strategic spot, beneath a touch-me-not tree with drooping branches that cast shade, close to a hand-pump. She would squat on the sand and take a lemon, cut it in half, dip it into the sand and start scouring the copper pots. She put her elbow into the scouring and locks of her hair would fall down and cover her whole face, like fine straw. Having finished scouring, she would go to the pump, rinse the pots and leave them to dry in the sun. After she had been working for an hour, she was surrounded by dazzling brightness, the copper pots shining in the sun, so well polished they were blinding.

I must admit that I loved the cook’s work, which satisfied my longing for marvels. Nowadays, what child can still watch a woman intent on cleaning copper kitchenware in such a simple and rudimentary way – lemon and sand – when you can buy products that make metal look like gold or silver? Not one, I fear. Nowadays, furthermore, all that’s visible in our white, lacquered, anonymous kitchens are materials that have nothing to do with metal. The metal we do use, aluminium or enamelled steel, is tidied away, shut up in cupboards, wholly secret. What we do see in our kitchens however is tremendously festive, because it is all coloured.

Ever since the housewife has had new products to choose from – ones with terrible names: polyvynil chloride (or “pvc”, “sicron”, “solvic”); polyethylene (or “fertene”, “alcatene”), synthetic rubber, plastic, etc. – the only bother is the choice: the pinks, pale blues, reds, greens, yellows, whites are the most beautiful ever seen, plump and dense; they almost seem to be warm, almost – if I may say so – the stuff of flowers. These extremely modern products, derivatives of rubber and resins, are beautiful to look at, as well as practical.

What is a half-litre or litre milk bottle in our ordinary imagination? An ugly bottle of coarse glass. But now, thanks to polyethylene, it has become a beautiful, fluted, dense white bottle, with a shiny light blue safety cap. And the vegetable rack, that tin-plated wire basket that soon becomes black or rusty, what is it today? Thanks to its coating of polyvynil chloride, it is almost a work of art, since the metal support is entirely coated with colourful material – red, green, light blue – which, apart from its aesthetic advantage, is also practical: it doesn’t rust; it protects the contents because it is soft and yielding; it can be washed; it is unbreakable: it is long-lasting. In these plastic-coated baskets, fruit and vegetables become a pleasing “still life”. The ice-cube tray in the refrigerator is a fine milk-white object, so elastic that you only have to twist it slightly for the cubes to come out. The ice-bucket, the jugs for cold milk or fruit-juice are elegantly shaped and come in various colours: from milk-white to anthracite black, there’s a choice of all the colours of the rainbow.

In the “bathroom”, pvc and polyethylene are everywhere. Today, perhaps every woman possesses a talcum powder dispenser, which only has to be squeezed to provide well-distributed scented powder. Those who haven’t already got one should buy one soon: polyethylene is a material that’s warm to the eye and to the touch, unbreakable, long-lasting. […]

And sponges? Sponges deserve a proper presentation. Just fifty years ago, who would have imagined that a sponge could be different from that yellow porous object with the iconic holes and seabed associations that rich people used when they had a bath? The affectation of sponge-owners could be seen in the size of the sponge itself; the bigger it was, the more its user loved life’s comforts. Sponges were lovely items, it must be said, like everything that comes from Nature, but they had serious defects: they could become smelly, go black, and fall to pieces.

The most fantastic sponges I remember were those carried by a donkey, in two large sacks on its back. It was a donkey illustrated by Doré, and its companion was another donkey, laden with sacks of salt. You all realise that I’m harking back to La Fontaine’s lovely fairytale, in which the donkey that wants to carry the lightest items across the river, meaning the sponges, is drowned by their weight, whereas his companion laden with salt safely reaches the other side, because salt dissolves in water. I don’t know whether our teller of tales would nowadays be tempted by synthetic plastic sponges to highlight the moral.

Their colour would suffice, or perhaps their shape, which is attractive because geometric shapes are always fascinating. If the colours of vipla or polyethylene are dense, warm and often deep, those of sponge rubber are cool and bright: light yellow, light blue, light green, “madder” red – which I find it amusing to note is not a red at all, but a deep yellow, like a nasturtium –, grey, old rose, cream. Pirelli has patented the most practical and the most complex: those with two superimposed tones in which a bar of soap can be inserted; those with a long handle to “scratch” your back; those with two different grains, for friction and for ordinary toilet uses. For domestic purposes furthermore, the double-grained sponge is very useful, not to mention the one that all car-owners should have.

In short, we can fill our home with very practical and useful items, which are also pleasant to look at. A rubber bathmat with nice colours cheers up the whole bathroom; a rose-pink scent bottle enhances the cologne; face-powder in an emerald-green box is pleasing with its contrasts of tones. Starting the day surrounded by things that keep us company and cheer the eye is a good omen for the whole day. In a word, we no longer have shining copper pots and sponges smelling of the sea (but what about the women whose hands polished the copper pots? What happened to the sponges with memories of the sea?), but – if we wish – a home full of practical, washable, unbreakable items.

Modern life increasingly accustoms us to having the most appropriate items for daily use and for greater hygiene. Hygiene especially, and without effort. “Et surtout pas de vie commode”, says a French writer. An excellent remark taken in a spiritual sense, but in our practical lives we must always seek and choose what makes life easier (and anyway, they say it’s never easy enough).

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