On Vessels

by Dan Walsh

Vessels – bottles, jugs, cups, mugs, and pitchers are all around us. They have been part of human existence almost since we became human. What is our relationship with these items, and how do they influence our lives?

I recently read the autobiography of P.T. Barnum. In one anecdote, he discussed how the customers of his general store would bring their glass jugs to be filled with vinegar, rum, molasses, etc. Necessities of life. What struck me, is that their jugs were precious enough to keep and to reuse. Glass was scarce and expensive. This preciousness has mostly been eroded in our modern culture by the relative cheapness of plastic and glass bottles. Very few people reuse containers anymore.

In The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond wrote about a mammoth ostrich in Madagascar whose eggs made especially useful vessels for water. The tribes who first discovered Madagascar by way of Africa would steal the eggs in bulk, not so much for the food, but for the jugs the empty shells created. This was made especially easy because the animals on the island had never seen humans before, and so were not afraid of the tribesmen. If an egg-jug cracked they could always just go steal another. They weren’t especially careful with the eggs, as the abundant supply made them a near-disposable commodity. When European explorers ‘discovered’ Madagascar, they found the beach littered with eggshells of the ostrich that had by then become extinct (most of the eggs never hatched).

Vessels and containers are an important part of human existence. They enabled the storage of grain which was the foundation of markets, commerce, and capitalism. They contain the cremated remains of pharaohs and ensure their success in the afterlife. The quality of a good cask meant the difference between eating and starving for seafaring explorers. They are part of human culture, and enable us to do things we couldn’t otherwise do.

So what does it say about a culture when containers become disposable. What does it say about modern American culture? Should vessels be cherished? If so, why? If good quality vessels enable us, make us better, then wouldn’t low quality, disposable bottles and cups somehow make us worse?