The Story: Being reared by a family of farmers, and farming being in our blood for generations, I was taught to appreciate oral and written history as well as pieces of tangible history. One of those pieces of tangible history was an appreciation for wooden crates—fruit crates including blueberry, apple, and orange, in addition to cheese crates, corned beef, and soda or “pop” crates. Many of these crates were intended for one-time usage to pack or ship goods. My interest in wooden crates as ephemera began in my childhood. This collection of images is a snapshot into my world of wooden crates that follow the definition of ephemera.
The Art: Behind the scenes of each image was an iPhone 5s taking pictures in natural light. The outdoor setting was chosen to accent the grains in the wood. The placement of each crate on bricks or in a grassy area aimed to provide an open space free of the dust and clutter that line our barns or homes where the crates are normally staged. Still shots are taken at angles to showcase places where wood is missing, cracked, or to display other characteristics brought about by travel and age.
The Specifications: Document Type: JPEG Image, File Size Range: 1.7 to 2.0 MB, Image Size: 2448 x 3264 or 3264 x 2448 pixels, Image DPI: 72 pixels/inch, Color Model: RGB, Modifications: None
The History: This collection of images includes one corned beef crate, one brick cheese crate, and one cheese wheel or “hoop cheese” crate. The Libby’s corned beef crate is from Argentina and dates back to the mid 1900s. Argentina was and still is one of the largest beef markets in the world. This particular crate, like many was used to hold 24 cans of corned beef. The crate had a lid attached to the top and upon arrival the wooden lid was removed. Often, after the cans were distributed to soldiers at war or other places of need, the crate was use for kindling to start fires.
The second crate is called a brick cheese crate. This Windsor Club crate, out of Manitowoc, Wisconsin held two pounds of pasteurized cheese. The crate was intended to store cheese for transport until it arrived at its final destination. The lid was removed and the crate’s job was complete. As you can see in the images, these crates were typically assembled with staples since their short life span did not necessitate durability. The final crate is known in many rural areas as a “hoop cheese” crate. It was also assembled with stables, and the wood was used to protect the cheese during transport, therefore, the crates were often tossed aside with no other intended purpose. These crates lined many general store counter tops, and it was a treat for locals to come in and enjoy a piece of good ole’ hoop cheese.
Nowadays you see these crates in antique stores, on farms, in general stores, and even decorating people’s homes. What was once historical ephemeron is now held close as pieces of history that tell stories about pastimes.
The Lesson: Bringing ephemera, like wooden crates into the classroom setting has the potential to engage students in inquiry. Researching the history of crates, their development, how they were used, when they were used, and why so many people held on to crates allows such a simple object to tell so many stories about our past. The lives of rural people at general stores, sitting around “shootin’ the breeze,” drinking out of glass bottles, and enjoying a slice of hoop cheese may not describe colonial times, but it certainly describes an earlier period of history. What story does the blueberry crate from Maine tell, and how does the narrative compare to that of the apple crate from West Virginia? Wooden crates are deemed as ephemera and though their lives were not meant to tell many stories, the plethora of history in their creation is endless.
Students can engage in this digitization process by finding their own pieces of ephemera and writing the narratives of what those tangibles portray. This process enables students to analyze a piece of history through a new lens and gather multiple perspectives. Setting the scene, creating relevance, considering context, and weaving the story together place students at the center of learning history.