Classic consumerism: Vintage favorites and retro specialties find a home on the Web


This voyage into some tips for the modern consumer started innocently, with a newsroom discussion of Nabisco Crown Pilot crackers that originated in topics unknown and probably better left that way.

For those who don’t know what Pilot crackers are, they’re a centuries-old recipe most closely akin to a saltine — a longtime favorite for northeastern chowder lovers and one that Nabisco would like to have done away with a long time ago. They tried in 1996, only to bring them back in 1997 after protests from dedicated fans who insist there is no substitute.

When times were tough, people dipped into stockpiles and scrounged supplies from those who had bought cases at a time when ordering directly from the company was the only way to get them. But this spring, Kraft, which owns Nabisco, finally let the crackers crumble, thus launching an ongoing — but as yet unsuccessful — campaign by those fanatics to bring their crackers back.

They’re not alone in their devotion to regional and childhood favorites that have either gone the way of the dodo-burger or require mass purchases and specialty connections to obtain.

I have fond memories of flipping through my grandmother’s copy of the Vermont Country Store catalogue as a child. Its old-fashioned look mirrored some of the unique things inside — things I never saw in real-life unless my grandmother had ordered them: penny candies; copper teakettles; practical (if not exactly Paris-grade fashionable) clothing, like suspenders and garter-belts for everyday wear, housedresses for ladies and sleepshirts for men; Bay Rum aftershave; chenille bedspreads; floursack dish towels; washboards; breadbaskets and porcelain butter keepers…

When I moved out on my own, one of the first things I did was subscribe to the 60-year-old business’ catalog — if nothing else, as a nostalgic reminder that sometimes the old-fashioned way is not only fun but practical. I mean, where else these days can you find a stainless steel egg-poacher or a fruit-fly trap? Or a Raggedy Ann doll like the one I had as a child or an old-fashioned jack-in-the-box?

But businesses like the Vermont Country Store (www.vermontcountrystore.com) hold more than just the things you imagine might have been found in the general store 80 years ago or that your parents might have gotten at the 5-and-10 when they were kids. Their motto is “Purveyors of the Practical and Hard-to-Find,” after all.

Coincidentally, my father this week lamented to me that he’d had to find a new soap after they stopped making his favorite Lifebuoy soap a while back. But online at the Vermont Country Store, I found Lifebuoy once again available in its vintage formulation.

Vermont Country Store should be noted for single-handedly bringing back some favorite items, pushing manufacturers to start back up production on things like Tigress cologne and vintage Parcheesi sets, and making available old favorites like Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo and Love’s Baby Soft cologne, and odd-ball wonders like Wrinkies and Frownies adhesive patches “to erase lines while you sleep,” based simply on customer requests.

And there’s no question that people are loyal to their favorites and will keep looking for them long after they disappear from the supermarket shelf.

Fond of Zagnuts, Charleston Chews, Clark Bars, Cherry Mash or Chunky’s but can’t find those classic candy bars at the local WaWa or drugstore? Check out O’Ryans Village (www.oryans.com). You’ll likely have to order two dozen bars at a time, but that’s only practical when you’re having an order shipped. And, face it, you’ve missed them enough to eat the entire box. Then there’s those giant chewy Sweet Tarts, Chiclets and Mary Janes. They’ve got those, too.

Can’t live any longer without Nehi grape, orange or peach soda or Cheerwine? Try Hometown Favorites (www.hometownfavorites.com). They’ve got vintage candies and hard-to-find grocery items, including some things I’ve never even heard of, like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese cheese topping, which comes recommended for shaking on popcorn. And if you’ve relocated from Texas, the Texas-based business also offers some of its regional specialties.

Sadly, they no longer offer Planters Cheez Balls, which — like the Pilot crackers — are no longer being produced and are subject of a petition for their return as fans find substitutes really are no substitute at all.

Until recently, the Internet was about the only way I could find Kraft’s Green Goddess salad dressing, but I’ve now found a couple local stores that carry it. It’s good to know, though, that if they ever stopped — assuming it is still being made — I could likely find some on the Internet.

My one-time roommate — a Southerner, to be sure — once expressed a longing for a treat I remember from my college days in South Carolina: boiled peanuts. It turns out they ship those as well. Check out www.boiledpeanuts.com (where else?).

Along with all those traditional consumer items, the Internet is a blessing to those looking for other kinds of out-of-stock favorites — especially books, movies and music. If it exists, it’s likely available to buy over the Internet.

Looking for the first book in a series that you picked up recently at a yard sale? Try www.abebooks.com, which networks sellers of used books to help book lovers everything from a well-read paperback copy of a vintage mystery to a valuable first-edition of a true classic. You can even make a request to be notified when new items matching your interests come into stock at any participating merchant.

And while advances in digital music download services haven’t done as much as they likely should have in terms of preserving otherwise out-of-print albums for the listening public, the ability to find everything from old Victrola records to vintage vinyl, old 8-tracks and cassettes to used CDs means D.J.’s looking for a retro vibe and those of us who feel a little nostalgic for the music of our youth have a good chance of finding what we want.

Start off on eBay for vintage equipment and tapes. Then check into the vast wealth of knowledge available on the Internet on repairing and re-recording what you find, or seek out a pro to do the work for you. Alternatively, look at the online music store from Amazon.com and Apple’s iTunes to see if your old favorite is new again – and downloadable.

Just as with music, movie studios aren’t choosing every single film they ever released to move over to DVD. But there is a modest and growing selection of classic movies — everything from Oscar winners to the Three Stooges — that is available on DVD. The places to get a good flick from the 1950’s and earlier are too numerous to list here, but typing your old favorite’s title into Google’s search box is a great place to start.

Even things like TV shows from the 1980s are still turning up on DVD, so looking around for some of your favorites could turn into a trip down memory lane for the whole family.

While you’re there, bring out the Jiffy Pop popcorn, throw on some of that Kraft Macaroni & Cheese topping and pour off some grape Nehi to go with your retro candy bars. It will be just like a trip to the theater – in the nostalgic past. Yours or your grandparents…