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    Auction Finds

    When food was delivered in wooden crates

    The cover of the wooden crate was nailed shut and there wasn’t a hammer in sight to pry it open. I wanted to desperately see what was inside when I zeroed in on the words stamped in black at the top of the cover:

    “Paul Cristy Funeral Home, Millville, N.J.”

    Did the box contain someone’s ashes, I wondered aloud to my auction-buddy Janet.

    wooden crate

    This Vaseline crate holds bottles that have nothing to do with petroleum jelly.

    We were visiting an auction in South Jersey, one we used to go to often but hadn’t been to in a while. We had always found goodies on the large back lot of this auction house where boxes of stuff would be laid out in long rows. On this day Janet – who doesn’t get to auctions as much now that she works full time – and I didn’t find any goodies.

    There were lots of tools – many of them rakes and hoes and gardening equipment – furniture, porcelain dolls, a John Deere riding mower that the driver actually drove to his car over gravel and concrete, wooden crates and a myriad of other stuff not worth mentioning.

    But I could find nothing to lift the nails on the wooden crate. Tilting the box slightly so I could see one side, I found the remnants of a sign for ready-mixed paint. Then looking even more closely, I realized that the cover of the box also bore the name of a paint company out of Philadelphia.

    wooden crate

    The paint crate shipped to a funeral home in New Jersey.

    So maybe the box did not hold a container of ashes but a can of paint. That was a lot less exciting than the former. Checking out the box did pique my interest in a pile of others nearby and scattered throughout the yard. At some point they all had contained shipped products – from yellow mustard to Ivory soap.

    It made me realize that these boxes had their own history – they were the go-to containers before cardboard. Now, it’s very common to see lighter-weight cardboard boxes for storing and transporting.

    I love the old small wooden crates that still have their labels, and I have several on my front porch. I’m using them now to hold firewood (which I didn’t get to use during the winter). All have dovetailed sides that fit like a puzzle, and add to their decorative look.

    wooden crate

    Proctor and Gamble’s Ivory soap crate. Ivory is one of the company’s oldest products, first sold in 1879. The man in the moon logo with 13 stars for the original U.S. colonies was also one of its earliest. The logo was changed in 2013 after years of rumors tying the company to the Church of Satan, which it has denied.

    Most of the wooden crates at the auction had sides stenciled with the name of the company. None of them were fruit crates that usually contained more colorful and elaborate paper labels denoting the name of the grower. In the late 19th century California growers started this trend of putting labels on their shipping crates. Iceberg lettuce, for example, had been shipped in labeled wooden crates in iced cars since the 1920s. By the 1950s, with new cooling methods, the lettuce was transported in cardboard boxes, replacing the crates (in much the same way the crates had replaced barrels for storing and shipping).

    This was about the same time that commercially made labels fell out of use, too. Some of those labels are now collectible.

    Here are some of the boxes from the auction showing the products they held:

    wooden crate

    Contents of the Vaseline crate: empty bottles to hold prescription opium, with a label from a Millville, NJ pharmacy.


    wooden crate

    Wooden crate for National Biscuit Company’s sugar crimp cookie, seemingly made on a special machine.


    wood crate

    Ivins’ Steam Bakery. Their motto: “Baker of Good Biscuits,” which was displayed prominently on the façade of their building in Philadelphia.


    wooden crate

    Colburn’s mustard crate. It was “adulterated with wheat flour and colored with turmeric,” according to an 1896 dairy and food report.


    wooden crate

    Crate with paper label for Lancella Chocolate Cream Bars, made by a Philadelphia manufacturer of chocolates and cocoas, including Swiss Miss chocolate.


    wooden crate

    This crate once held a dressing used to clean and polish leather. Frank Miller’s also sold dressings for hoofs and carriage tops.


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