‘Lifting the lid on shoe boxes of the past and all the things we kept inside’

Apr 11, 2021
What's hiding inside? Source: Getty Images

A shoe box is a shoe box is a shoe box unless, of course, you were a 1940s or ’50s kid. The uses we invented for this humble item defied imagination, but if you spied one with holes poked through the lid, I can guarantee it contained some critter or other. Open slowly and carefully!

In our household it could be a creepy crawly or a bitey two- or four-footed creature — its animal Russian roulette. Mind how you go.

A favourite was silkworms; I used to watch mine intently. It was lucky we had a mulberry tree in the backyard because the little beasties ate continually. All too late I found out that if you fed them lettuce leaves the ensuing silk would be white and if you fed them rose petals or beetroot leaves it would turn out pink. Mine was golden and I was so proud of it, but I would have loved to have produced a coloured variety. Smarty pants colour experts; took me all my time to remember to water them.

I can’t remember why or how (I think maybe it was seasonal?) but the silkworms were sometimes replaced (maybe I forgot the water) with butterfly cocoons, or chrysalis. These were absolutely beautifully coloured, shiny, oddly shaped shell-like ‘cases’ that when tended to dutifully, became glorious butterflies … At least that was the plan.

We used to find ours in the oleander bushes hidden from sight on the underside of the leaves. It was like finding an exquisitely wrapped Christmas present to take home. I recall covering my shoe box in pretty paper and pictures for their homecoming; isn’t it funny what you remember?

The boys often kept little mice in their shoe boxes. The only thing I remember about those is that the mice smelled bad and they pooped a lot. And that’s all I have to say about that. Oh yes, the stick insects — again my lips are sealed. Nasty.

We probably destroyed a few eco-systems, but we also used to bring home little soldier crabs from the beach. The box would be lined with paper, sand added, a dish with sea water plus various pebbles and shells, you know, in case they got homesick. Sadly, I can’t remember how long they lasted.

The cutest of the lot were penny turtles. I hear you say these don’t actually exist, that they were simply small hatchlings. Whatever, I can certainly remember one of my brothers and his mates having them. They would feed them food scraps. They would also paint numbers on their backs and race them; funny little things.

By today’s standards all this may sound a tad cruel, but we didn’t know. In some weird way I thought I was saving them all from the nasty, brutal outside world; how I came to that conclusion is a mystery. Plus a shoe box was mobile as we took them with us to school, to friend’s houses or just out to the lounge room to listen to the serials on the radio.

You’ve been warned. If the job of cleaning out Nana’s garage falls to you, be wary of the innocent looking shoe box, with the lid missing, in the corner and check all around. Those teeny tiny turtles can apparently live upwards of 80 years, are amazingly robust and do not stay teeny tiny.

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What did you keep in shoe boxes as a kid?

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