Averyell A. Kessler
The old store isn’t there anymore. Hasn’t been for a long time. I never knew its name or what it sold, but I was fascinated by it. Tucked behind the southwest corner Greenwood Cemetery, at the intersection of George Street and Lamar, the small white building was impossible to miss. Directly in front of its entrance, dozens of tin wash tubs dangled from a telephone pole edging the street. The owner must have been whiz with a hammer and a ladder, because the tubs covered every inch of the pole and flashed in the sun like a wall of mirrors. It was Jackson’s version of an Alaskan Totem pole. When we drove downtown to shop at Kennington’s, to a doctor’s appointment, or Sunday lunch at the King Edward Hotel, I insisted that we pass the store to see how many were still there. I was six and I wanted one – badly. (Yes, I was a crazy child. I admit it). Finally, as an act of desperation, my father stopped the car, went inside and bought a tin tub. When he hung it on a nail inside our garage, he took another giant step in his inevitable conversion from Ohio Yankee to Mississippian.
There are certain things that every southern household should have. A well season black iron skillet is critical. Not a new one, but an ancient, grease soaked, flavor infused skillet, like Mama used to have. Perhaps it was Mama’s. If so, it is extremely valuable because its blessed with love and produces golden fried chicken that tastes like it floated down from heaven’s kitchen. Next in line, is an iced tea pitcher, as well as a deviled egg plate, and a roasting pan large enough for a Thanksgiving turkey, a flock of Uncle A’s bacon wrapped quail, or gallons of Chicken spaghetti for a church supper. I haven’t thought about it before, but I’m ready to add the humble tin tub to my list. Not just for its established place in tradition, but for its ubiquitous presence and infinite variety of uses. One of my favorite writers, Rick Bragg says he once saw a banana pudding in an “honest to God washtub.” * How’s that for versatility?
We never used the tub for laundry, not with a new Westinghouse revolving agitator washer waiting inside. Mama and I did attempt to dye something navy blue once (can’t remember what). We filled the tub with warm water, added a box of Rit Powder, and tried hard, but the result was a spotty disaster. We both had blue hands for over a week. However, the tub was perfect for washing a smelly dog like Nipper who’d been wading in Belhaven Lake, rubbing his nose on dead fish, or confronting an angry skunk.
When summer arrived, we packed the tub with ice and it became the ultimate watermelon chilling machine. Twenty-five pounds of bag ice usually filled it to the top and after 30 minutes in the July sun, our green and white Smith County beauty was bathing in ice water. The same technique worked when hamburgers sizzled on the grill and the tub was brimming with bottles of Coke, Orange Crush and Dr. Pepper. I loved dipping my hands, wrists, even elbows into our tub of freezing water and pulling out a dripping coke bottle. If beer had been legal back then, I’m sure it would have been there too. Maybe they worked it in somehow.
The tub was essential for Halloween too. We took turned bobbing for apples and getting our faces wet. Than done, someone would always drop a few pieces of dry ice and green food coloring into the tub and smoky witches brew erupted. A smaller tub (where did that come from?) was filled with lime green punch.
When we moved from Laurel Street to Avery Gardens, our tin tub was left behind. The bottom was rusty and thin, one of the handles was missing, and it leaked. I was a teenager and far more interested in boys, Elvis, and getting my driver’s license. So, bye, bye tin tub. It was fun while it lasted.
Tin wash tubs are still sold at Walmart and Target, but they’ve been slicked up, rust proofed, repurposed and are advertised as whimsical and charming. It’s possible to purchase one made of stainless steel with your initials stamped on the edge. Some have legs and have morphed into clever planters and lawn ornaments. And as the ultimate sin, some are copper and used for artsy table decorations. Nevertheless, I nominate the old-style tin wash tub as a Southern necessity. Just like that old-time rock and roll, that old tub just soothes my soul; and I’ll be slapped upside the head if a few former frat boys out there don’t have a tin tub story or two. I have a few myself.
*My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South Rick Bragg