They wore their flour with pride

Undoubtedly unusual, our family has avoided addiction to the packaged, prepared foods and mixes, and I still love my conjugal housewife with appetizing fervor. But now and then, since we've been living abbreviated in our collective senior residence, where the kitchen handles only breakfast, she has picked up (she does the shopping) an occasional box of something out of curiosity rather than necessity. And the other morning she placed before me a delicacy she had thus acquired.

After a bit she asked, "How do you like the sinnamum bums?" This was what our manchild always called them.

I said, in the down-east manner of always avoiding a direct answer, "Where'd you find them?"

She said she supposed they'd long been on the store shelf but she hadn't noticed them before, and how did I like the sinnamum bums?

Thus pressed, I made reply in the down-east manner of suppressed enthusiasm and I said, "Not bad!"

She said, "They're by Pillsbury."

And I said (get ready, now), "Remember when Pillsbury used to be in the dress-shirt business?" I betcha a filled doughnut with apple jelly that even Pillsbury doesn't remember that, so I spoke from my memory bank:

I said that all the way through high school, my classmates included Bennie and Lennie Curtis, twins, who came four miles to school each day by horse and buggy (sleigh, after snow-time). They had a bag of hay for the horse and a two-cover hamper basket with their dinners at noonin'. We did not consider the Curtis twins underprivileged or put-upon. On the last lap of our walk to school, Lennie and Benny would jingle past us with just time enough to stable Bucephalus and give him his hay before the bell rang.

Lennie and Benny didn't come to mind for educational comparisons. It was because of Pillsbury's Best that they always wore beautiful white shirts their mother tailored from cotton flour bags, and across their backs we could read, "PILLSBURY'S BEST."

My mom never made me a white shirt, because we bought our flour by the barrel and you don't make shirts from staves. Had she bought by the bag, my shirts would have spelled out Washburn-Crosby's Gold Medal. People believed in their flours then, and the King Arthurs and the Robin Hoods never switched parties.

So in reply to the breakfast sinnamum bums, we wondered about this and that, and she said, "There's an 800 number here on the box. Why don't you call Pillsbury and order an extra-large, neck-size 18-1/2?"

The upshot was that, intrigued by her own whimsy, she called Pillsbury and had a delightful chat with a female trouble-shooter who had the time to be whimsical, too. They discussed everything from the weather to the high price hay holds. Pillsbury, in gratitude of her interest, is sending some coupons. Completely charmed by the lady's graciousness, my wife forgot to ask about shirts. I don't know.

In the bygone, the grocers had no monopoly on flour. The feed stores, supplying animal grains to farmers, offered the best deal. The millers produced many varying kinds of stock feed until baking flour was almost a byproduct. Does anybody remember the Park & Pollard poultry mash called Lay or Bust? A carload (rail freight) of mixed feeds could be bought at reduced price, and it included everything from oats for horses to chick-feed. There was dairy feed, middlings, shorts, bird feed for songsters, and always the apportioned quantity of a bakers' best for home purposes. Bag or barrel, the farm feed store was the place to start yeast bread.

MY Uncle Ralph, the Yankee storekeeper, didn't sell enough of anything to warrant a carload shipment. But he spent a lot of time thinking, and he organized the storekeepers of Somerset County into a buying co-op that took advantage of carload prices. When the train with the "feed" car moved up the Kennebec Valley, it would stop for every store in the co-op, and each merchant in town took off his portion. So now, when a feed car was due, Uncle Ralph would go to the railroad junction and tack an oilcloth banner to the car. It said, in foot-high letters, "THIS CAR CONTAINS FLOUR FOR R.E. GOULD."

So it did. It also contained flour for every other store in the county. In this way, my thoughtful uncle was presumed to be the leading flour merchant and the place to buy at the lowest price. The other storekeepers were not happy to be exploited in this manner, but Uncle Ralph would whistle a jaunty Yankee Doodle every stop of the way to the bank every morning.

I do not know if trademarks were sacred in the vast flour market worldwide. But I think at this late date it will be all right to say that my Uncle Ralph had his own labels. Over whatever name the bags and barrels bore when they arrived, they became "GOULD'S PATENT BISCUIT BAKER BLEND." The stickers could be soaked off a flour bag easily enough, and the dress-shirt business continued as before.

Uncle Ralph used the same stickers for his bulk tea, with which he gave, absolutely free, a baby. The custom of a free gift with a pound of tea was an over-the-counter jest du jour. Everybody knew better, and neither did a baby get brought by the stork. In truth, babies came in a barrel of flour. Of course, Pillsbury's was best.

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