The Panama Canal Spillway - September 28, 1979

Wednesday used to be the day that every Canal Zone boxholder could be sure of getting some mail - but not anymore. For that old standby, the commissary bulletin, has ceased to exist, predeceasing the bureau that sponsored it by only a few days.

In its own way, the bulletin has been a calendar of seasons and events for Canal Zone residents. In the United States, the change of seasons itself signals the beginning of sales and holiday specials. When leaves turn to gold, you can be sure the stores will be stocked with back-to-school supplies, followed by pumpkins and Halloween candy, turkeys and then Christmas goodies.

Locally, the leaves of the bulletin turned the colors of the rainbow from week to week, but it was the announcement of the arrival of Valentine's Day candy in February, a shipment of "spring" dresses in March and bunnies and baskets at Easter time that keep us attuned to the flow of customs and events we have known.

Indeed, the bulletins each year heralded two major events for local residents: the opening of toyland (10 percent off the first day for Company/Government employees only); and the arrival of Christmas trees, including the hour that the starting gun would be fired for the no-holds-barred race to get one with the needles still on it.

Of no small importance in the day-to-day-living of Canal consumers was the bulletin's "weekend specials" - not so much because you could save a few cents on each item offered, because occasionally included in there with the Worcestershire sauce and the economy-size packages of toilet paper were some favorite products rarely available locally. Shoppers created a near stampede over a shipment of snowpeas on one Thursday, and many a basket loaded with nothing but "Twinkies" has rolled down our commissary aisles.

No one is exactly sure when the commissary bulletins began. One unconfirmed source sets the year as 1910, which could very well be correct since The Canal Record carried price lists, price changes, hours and other information from the Commissary Department from the time it began publication in 1907. We have good information that the bulletins existed at least as far back as the early 1940's.

A special experimental issue of a new publication called The Spillway was published by the Information Office on October 30, 1957, and contained Canal Zone/Panama Canal Company news combined with the commissary and movie bulletin. It advertised "Globe Trotter" shorts for men in "no pamper" fabric, no ironing, dry in 3 hours," and nylon subteen petticoats in "lace, parchment, horse hair and marquisette".

The November 1 and 2 weekend special was chuck roast for 25 cents per pound (regularly 33 cents), limit one per customer. "Bernadine," starring Pat Boone, was showing at Canal Zone theaters. The publication was well received, but apparently for financial reasons never got off the ground. The Spillway began publication in 1962, but contained no advertising.

A collection of commissary bulletins from over the years is a history of changes in prices, styles and entertainment tastes. The bulletins chronicled the unique way of living of a transplanted people who brought with them their customs and their tastes.

Presented by CZBrats
December 24, 1998

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