Reflections on Containers

When we all began to worry about the contents of landfills and the ethics (and practicalities) of the throwaway society, there was a lot of talk about packaging.  Packaging has to do with containers, and I’ve been reflecting on the importance of containers.  Looking around my kitchen, and visualizing the rest of my house and belongings, I’m struck by how large a part containers play in my life: pots and dishes, jars and tins and pitchers and bowls.  The cupboards and the refrigerator are containers.  Beyond the kitchen there are purses and tote bags and bookcases and filing cabinets.  Many ornaments are refined versions of practical objects like jugs and bowls and glasses.


Containers are essential to what we consider civilization.  They’re pretty basic: without them, we can’t prepare food and we can’t carry very much.  

Early and simple containers reveal a lot about our need for them.  The scooping hands or the folded leaf holding a bit of water – it’s in such makeshift arrangements that containers originated.  Most animals don’t have the concept of the container (camels? gophers? kangaroos?), so devising and using them is part of being human.  Half of a coconut shell.  The piece of cloth in which an African woman – even now – wraps and carries things.  Pots, bottles, bowls, baskets, chests, barrels: without them, nothing was possible.  Containers were needed for keeping food, and for travelling and migrating.  The broken pots that an archæologist finds are fragments of containers and, in the archæologists’ skilled hands and perceptive analysis, become crucial parts of how we understand and write human history.

I have a lifelong habit of saving containers.  It goes along with my innate feeling that it’s absurd and wasteful to throw away (or even recycle) anything that still has some usefulness.  When something stops being useful – the tin can from which I’ve just taken the last sardine – I throw it into the recycling box without a second thought, but when I buy a new shoulder bag I put the old one (“might want that sometime”) in a closet – with all the other still-usable bags.  My assemblage of containers (it can’t be called a collection, but maybe a hoard?) includes neatly folded brown paper bags, jars with well-fitting lids, glass juice bottles, cardboard boxes, manila envelopes, wrapping paper.  At one level it’s all very sensible and useful, but at another it’s ridiculous.

Other things are containers too.  Houses hold – contain – our belongings and our lives.  To Nicholas Basbanes’ book On Paper, I owe the insight that a book is a container; by extension, a library is a container full of containers.  Pockets are containers.  Almost everyone on the street is carrying a purse, tote bag, or backpack.  A memory stick contains information.   This website is a virtual container.  My car can be a container – it becomes a temporary home, furnished with water and snacks, a book to read, a few emergency supplies, the little office of writing equipment that I take everywhere.   Our bodies are containers.

When I mull over all this, I realize that a container – besides holding substances or objects or ideas – is something that establishes boundaries, distinguishes between what is inside it and what is outside.  A circumference.  That means that, along with being a necessary part of how life is managed, it is closely related to our mental and imaginative way of looking at the world.

© Marianne Brandis, 2016