Friday 22 October 2010

Whatever happened to bath cubes?

Early morning light.

Two words set me off down memory lane this morning: "Paraffin heater". On a forum I belong to, we were discussing how we kept warm in our homes as children. For several of us, it was an open coal fire in the sitting room, and a paraffin heater somewhere else in the house. In our case, it was in the scullery (mum never called it the kitchen), and carried upstairs (unlit of course) to the bathroom once a week to bring the temperature to something a little above semi-freezing for the weekly bathnight. I only have to catch a whiff of paraffin to be transported back 50 years to the house where I grew up, or else to the local ironmongers, which sold the "pink" paraffin we used.

Beauchops it was called, the shop that is, and it was separated into two parts. The smaller side sold a few balls of wool (but could order it in requisite amounts for jumpers or cardigans), soap, talcum powder, bath cubes (whatever happened to those?)' eau de toilette (I remember 4711) . . . toilet rolls, hair nets, hair grips, brushes and combs, compacts and pressed powder and powder puffs, dressing table sets (another rarity these days), and, to part me from my pocket money on occasion, it had a shelf-full of the Collins sets of childrens' classics. I can remember going in to the shop and asking to buy a book with horses in. Black Beauty was an instant hit, and Children of the New Forest. Then the shop keeper began to get desperate and in this way I read my way through almost all the children's classics including Lorna Doone (still a favourite with me); Last of the Mohicans (lots of horses but never mentioned by name and even rarely by colour); Heidi - very disappointing - I think just one horse got briefly mentioned in passing but I loved the story and wanted to live in a hay loft like she did; Little Women (I think there may have been a horse pulling a sleigh, once but I loved the film and the book and wanted to look like June Alysson for years); Hans Anderson's Fairy Tales (hrmphh but good stories); and Swiss Family Robinson, where I had to be content with Grizzle the donkey - until the snake ate it!

In the other side of the shop, you instantly became aware that it wasn't the feminine knitting and nice-smelling side, because the overwhelming perfume was paraffin. I can remember inhaling deeply. The smell never changed. I wouldn't mind betting that if you walked back in there (although it is a small Tesco now, sigh) you would still catch a little stray whiff of paraffin. Where the aisles of bakery goods and cereals are now, once there would have been lengths of that wonderfully slightly-stretchy plastic covered wire which held net curtains up, and the hooks and eyes that fastened it. Trays of nails and screws of every dimension and length, glue, ladders, picture hooks, cutlery drawer dividers, enamelled plates, pie dishes and mugs for the kitchen, tin openers, rubber things with a slit cut in them to take the thrust end of a teatowel, dustbins and stepladders, tin baths and buckets, string and twine, packets of seeds and spring bulbs.

It is long-gone now of course, except in my memory, where it is like yesterday . . .


  1. BB, your lovely post brought back memories of the corner shop near us where you could buy all those things. It always amazes me that even the thought of a particular smell can bring back such strong memories.

    I love 4711 and use it frequently in the summer months when it helps to keep me cool just by applying it to my inner wrists :)

    These aren't the bath cubes that we remember, but they do sound very nice

    Hannah x

  2. Hi Hannah, lovely to see you here. I checked out your link, but blimey, they're not cheap are they?! I didn't realize you could still get 4711. It would get washed off here in the average Welsh summer though!

  3. I have to ask what the US equivalent of "parrafin" might be--over here that would be the cakes of wax which one melted to top jelly jars. The heaters remind me of some very hazardous kerosene types.
    Bath cubes: hadn't thought of those in years--little foil wrappers and a pretty flowery image pasted on--they were gritty--but one felt instantly transformed into a beautiful and romantic femme fatale!
    Later there were the ones that looked like big jelly beans.
    There was a general store in the small town where I grew up--its wares were much what you are talking about--it had a meat counter and cold locker as well, and a rather dreary assortment of basic clothing, "house dresses" for women, work shirts and caps and those horrid buckle galoshes.
    The wood floors smelt of all these things combined.

  4. Lots of memories here -- and smells. Bath cubes were what we gave at Christmas to various friends and relatives. My mother loved Tweed soap. We got book tokens and later, Black Magic chocolates. I think you can still get those. Do they still have Tilley Lamps I wonder. Oh and I remember my mother carrying hot coals sometimes with flames, on a shovel from one room to the front room, so she wouldn't have to try to light the fire in there. Smoke and smuts!

  5. Chris J - Tweed soap - gosh, you've just brought back Christmases when mum used to get given a Tweed gift set for Christmas . . . There are still Tilley style lamps about - especially as car boot sales - though you can buy them new at Amazon still! Mum called them Hurricane Lamps . . .

    MM - Paraffin is kerosene I'm pretty sure . . . Very smelly but stopped your extremities freezing when you were away from the main fireplae.

  6. Now you've jogged MY memory.

    When I was growing up, late 50s early 60s, our local Boots was only a small single shop, not the vast shopping mall emporiums they are today.

    Downstairs was the traditional chemist but upstairs they sold books. I don't know if that was general, or just our little one.

    I can remember ordering my first book, although I can't recall what it was, and nagging my Mum every time we went out shopping for us to go in and see if it had arrived yet. It seemed to take forever but was probably only a couple of weeks.

    We also had one of the smelly paraffin heaters.
    Think Pink was the slogan I think.
    And of course;
    Boom Boom Boom Boom. Esso Blue!

  7. Sings 'Theeeey aaaasked meeee howowow I kneeeww it waaa Esssooo Blooooooo'

    I remember the smell of paraffin and the fumes the heaters gave off too. I also could wax lyrical about the smell of burning pine logs or branches and peat fires. Also Wrights coal tar soap or Knights Castille soap.

    I used to hate the hard Izal toilet paper my granny used though.......

  8. I just remember (from Bromley, I think, where I lived briefly as a child) a small aeroplane flying overhead with a trailing banner advertising pink paraffin...I used to hate the smell of the heaters. Weekly bathnights - how times change!

  9. Hi
    If you are ever anywhere near Montgomery on the mid welsh boarder, make a detour and pop into a local shop called 'Bunners' it is a shop well used by the locals and those from further afield and has been in the same family for over a 100 years and it is still as you have discribed the shop you used to go to - even down to the smell of parrafin (which they still sell!) It's a brilliant store and I just cannot go there and not buy anything! our last purchase a few weeks ago was to buy a fire basket for our old log burner! they do really appear to sell everything a country dweller could possibly need (even down to stanley cookers) all to the brilliant aroma of parrafin!
    Thank you for the memories that you evoked

  10. BB, they certainly aren't cheap! I am wondering if they can be made at home...

    Alistair, in our bathroom we currently have one bar of Wrights Coal Tar soap and one bar of Knight's Castille! :-)