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During the Great Depression, and the rationing of the war years, there were no Walmarts to supply cheaply built, overpriced furniture to those of low income. Nor was there enough money in the checks of those on “relief” to acquire any worldly possessions. As a result, those near the bottom of society’s ladder depended on other people’s cast-offs, second handle merchandise, things passed down from older relatives, or those things that they could make or scrounge themselves. “Yankee ingenuity” was still a common and admirable trait in a person, so some folks scratched their heads, went to work and made what they needed from whatever materials were available.
One useful thing for those with a need for furnishing a home cheaply was available for free at most grocery stores—wooden orange crates. Cardboard hadn’t replaced wood in those days. While the boxes could be disassembled and the small thin boards used in creative ways, it was more common to use the boxes whole, without the need for cutting and fitting. The boxes were a standard size (12.5 x 12.5 x 25 inches), so the company of origin didn’t matter. Being that their length was exactly double their height (depth?) and width, they were easy to arrange in stacks of various shapes. Having a solid piece of wood spanning the width and height mid-length made them very strong for their weight.
I’ve seen simple illustrations from the 1930’s through the 40’s, and even into the early 50’s that showed many things that could be made from the crates. These pieces of furniture included beds, shelves for books and clothing, tables (with doors for tops), stools and even living room chairs with book storage on the sides and back. The possibilities were limited only by one’s imagination and the number of crates available. Many a pair of newly-weds began their lives with at least some of their furniture being made of orange crates.
The only place I personally remember them being used was at my paternal grandparents, where single crates were used as flower stands, kindling boxes and, believe it or not wash stands. They had only cold running water in their kitchen, from a spring on the hillside. It was available from a stand-pipe, under which sat a crate to hold a bucket to be filled. When you wanted to wash your hands, you moved the bucket out of the way, took the enameled metal wash pan from the nail on the wall and set it on the crate. Then you used either just cold water from the bucket, or added a little hot water from the huge teapot kept perpetually heating on the enormous kitchen stove. The crate in the kitchen was simply painted white. The inside of the crate, with its “shelf” and wooden base, served as a tiny cabinet for extra soap and cleaning supplies. The dirty water was emptied into a big bucket and taken outside to water flowers with when full. Splashing the plants with the soapy water helped keep the bugs down.
My grandma’s sister lived in a building just across the driveway, and had one of the stands in her bedroom. Having no running water in her room, she would carry a bucket in from the house (or from the nearby milk-house, where even hot water was available). She fancied her stand up a bit with part of a patterned plastic curtain or shower curtain tacked around three sides. Again, the front was left open for storage. When she moved into the house with Grandma, after Granddad died, the stand ended up sitting on the concrete floor in the basement. When she eventually moved in with my folks, many years later, the little stand went with her, though it was pretty decrepit by then.
Eventually, I inspected the crate, where it sat in my dad’s barn, and discovered that only one end and one side were still solid. I brought those two pieces to my house and gave the end piece to my wife to display above the kitchen sink. The side-piece remained in the basement all these years until a few days ago, when I decided to drag it out and see if I could sell it. As soon as she saw it, though, my wife laid claim to it, so I washed off the specks of bird poop from its barn days and put a little oil on it. I gave it to her today, but she hasn’t figured out where to hang it yet.
Interestingly enough, though it was the exact same size as an orange crate, it had been used for shipping coffee. I suspect that it was left from the days when my granddad ran a store in the building where I remember my great aunt living. I guess that sort of gives the piece a double story.