‘Opit’, Said the Label – and They Certainly Did!

Before the days of bar codes, shop ping trolleys, refrigeration cabinets and pre-packed foods, the grocer was truly a man of many parts. He often acted as a buyer, seller, display man, slicer of bacon, butter slapper and weigher-out of bulk delivered goods. Treacle from 40-gallon drums was drawn off into empty jam jars brought in by the customers, and flour and sugar were weighed out from large hessian sacks. Sugar was always packed into distinctive blue paper bags, and it was never considered necessary to mark the bags with that, as customers were quite familiar with the weight relative to size and content.

In those not-so-distant times you could obtain most food necessities from even the smallest shop. Bacon could be eaten as bacon, and didn’t need another half dozen ingredients added to make it palatable (as portrayed in TV cookery programmes of today).

Space was usually at a premium, and this often resulted in goods being placed at the wrong side of the counter, which could have disastrous consequences, particularly in the case of sacks of sugar. For some quite unknown reason, dogs and cats appeared to have particular fondness for going up against the sacks of sugar and leaving their mark in more senses than one. Apart from the horrid stench, the animal urine turned part of the contents of the sack into a golden brown colour, and although more unscrupulous grocers were reputed to have admixed this contaminated sugar into their demerara, it was nevertheless a general nuisance.

The problem appeared to be insoluble until along came ‘Opit’, which soon became a boon to every small grocer. ‘Opit’ was one of the earliest versions of an air wick, consisting of a bottle of green liquid (the formula wasn’t put on labels in those days) with a lamp wick which could be raised once the bottle top had been removed. Once raised, the wick emitted a smell which rose to a height of about two feet, the aroma being nauseous to animals but undetectable to the human nose.

If placed within a reasonable distance of the sugar sacks, ‘Opit’ was sufficient to send any small animal coming within its proximity scurrying out of the shop. This frequently left the customers quite bewildered as they were unaware of the mysterious properties of the bottle with the protruding wick!

It was usually the duty of the most junior assistant to ensure there was a constant supply to the wick, slow evaporation being the cause of it running out. At closing time, the wick would be put back into the bottle (no point in wasting it overnight when neither customers nor animals were in the shop). Before shop-opening time the wick would be raised to ensure that an adequate supply of ‘Opit’ was circulating.

Today, virtually everything in the grocery trade is pre-packed – in fact overpacked would be a more accurate description, as anyone who has attempted to open a milk or fruit juice carton will testify.

Alas, due in part to the many ‘improvements’ which have taken place in the grocery trade, the small grocer is no longer with us – and neither is ‘Opit’!

Alan Thomas