The theme for Earth Day 2024 is Planet vs Plastics. Plastic is a thoroughly-modern problem with plastic surrounding us in modern life. It contains our food. It carries our water. It holds our toiletries like shampoo, makeup, and more. As ubiquitous as plastic now is, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t used widely until the 1950s! 

So what did the people of the past use instead of plastic? Let’s explore! 

We have evidence from across the world that our Stone Age ancestors made baskets and pots. The Jomon of ancient Japan were accomplished basketweavers and created beautiful pottery that would have been used for cooking, food storage, and more. Ceramics have been used ever since from the Ancient Greeks to those colonizing the Americas including the Spanish in California and Florida. We still use the same terracotta ceramics that were used to make the great Terracotta Army for Chinese Emperor Qin for garden pots and roof tiles!

But the people of the past didn’t just use ceramics; they used anything and everything they could to make a variety of containers for various purposes. Instead of carrying food in plastic grocery bags, they could have used cloth sacks made of cotton or linen. They would have spun their own fiber and made their own cord or rope. In areas with domesticated animals, they often made their own felted cloth. In areas like the Western Hemisphere with limited animal domestication, they used animal skins to create containers small and large. 

Maya people serving corn husk-wrapped tamales to honor the birth of a child. 16th century Mexico. Bernardino de Sahagun, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What about in the kitchen? They didn’t have plastic wrap or plastic utensils. Instead, they used a variety of plant and animal products in addition to ceramic and metal tools. The Scythians, Mongols, and many Alaska Native groups used various rawhides and animal organs as containers. They could be used to ferment dairy, for example. Some, like the Maya, used plant materials like corn husks or banana leaves to wrap food that was boiled or placed in the fire to cook. Gourds, while native to the Americas, were used across the world as cooking and eating utensils, food storage, musical instruments, and more. 

Egyptian cosmetic box made of wood, paint, faience, glass and alabaster. c.1390-1352 BC/BCE. Collection of the Museo Egizio

Don’t forget hygiene products! Instead of big bottles of soap or little plastic tubs of makeup, they had various solutions. Often, soap of all types from shampoo to body soap was in soap bars like those in the Benin Empire and ancient Babylon. Some cosmetics were in little ceramic, glass, or metal containers like those used by the pharaohs in ancient Egypt. Some could be quite ornate, like makeup palettes made of wood inlaid with ivory. Adorable animal-shaped cosmetic palettes have been found in grave sites from 4400 BC/BCE! 


Roman/Syrian Glass multiple cosmetic flask (kohl tube). 5th century CE

Henna was used as a cosmetic and hair dye since at least the Bronze Age across the Middle East and South Asia. (You can make your own henna body art in Harappa Mohenjo Daro Unboxed!) Containers for henna and kohl, another ancient eye cosmetic still in use today, were often ornate like this blown glass kohl tube from Roman Syria in fourth century AD/CE. Wouldn’t you want to use a beautiful and functional container like this?

Closer to modern times, metal was used more frequently. By the time people were going West in the United States, food was being produced on an industrial scale to be canned in metal tins or glass containers. We still have canned food very similar to our nineteenth-century ancestors! Perhaps this Earth Day, you can eat like a person of the past by enjoying a glass jar of pickles, popping some popcorn in a paper bag, or steaming a tamale!

Rebecca McCormick is a writer and editor based in Fairfax, Virginia. She has a passion for history education and holds an MA in History of Decorative Arts. Rebecca believes that hands-on history and interacting with objects helps learning come alive for children and adults.