Shortly after the Great Depression — when money was especially scarce in small rural towns like ours — you could buy an empty apple box for a nickel in my part of Texas, in Dime Box. Since growing apples was, and still is, next to impossible in Texas, apple boxes, both empty and full of apples, were imported from places like Mequon, Wisconsin. One tree could produce up to 20 bushel boxes of fruit per year, but we could afford to buy apples only once a year, at Christmastime. In those days, we made everything by hand, and apple boxes were cheaper than lumber.
My grandchildren are not familiar with apple boxes at all — perhaps they have seen one at a flea market without knowing what it is. However, at one time, apple boxes were quite plentiful, eagerly sought, and functionally useful. Since 1935, when the first apple box was patented, and for some years afterward, these boxes and crates were made of lightweight pine, cedar, oak, and yellow pine pallet wood. These boxes or crates were made from both thin and thick boards, securing them together with cleats or nails, and leaving spaces between slats for ventilation.
Unfortunately, nearly 50 years ago, some apple growers began using heavy-duty cardboard boxes for shipping their apples. Although some still use wooden crates according to that 1935 patent. Today, if you want to make some shabby-chic “apple box furniture,” you’re not going to get an apple box for 5 cents. Of course in those days, we just thought of our creations as furniture, neither shabby nor refined.
Even if you didn’t buy apples in the good old days, you could still buy an empty apple box for a nickel. My daddy, sometimes with my help, made many pieces of furniture, small and large, with apple box wood, including a huge storage cabinet for my mother’s home-canned pickles, beets, tomatoes, relish, jellies, and preserves. He used a butcher table and heavy wood for the frame, and enclosed the whole thing with apple box wood. The door handles are made of empty wooden thread spools. We painted the storage cabinet gray, and my mother kept it in the smokehouse that we no longer used for smoking ham and sausage. Today, I use this homemade cabinet in my studio to store art and office supplies, and it’s my most cherished piece of furniture.
In addition to the large storage cabinet, Daddy — sometimes with my help — made a number of small tables, including a smoking table for his bedroom, as well as birdhouses for the martins that visited every year (as well as refurbishing these lodgings for our feathered friends), and shelves above the kitchen table for salt and pepper shakers and other condiments. After we got indoor plumbing, he made a boxlike structure to enclose our old-timey footed bathtub. For the bathtub box, he made the frame with heavy boards, and then used apple box planks inside the frame. We painted the bathtub box a medium green to match the bathroom walls that were light green.
You see, in those days right after the Depression, having been in the habit of squirreling away anything of potential use or value, we continued to save everything, and we used everything because we could still buy very little. The nails for putting the wood items together were mostly previously used and bent, having been pulled out of some other piece of construction and straightened. The gray paint used for Mother’s canning cupboard resulted from having mixed together several cans of leftover paint of various colors. Living in Texas, we grew pears, peaches, and plums rather than apples, and the gray cabinet was filled with jars of the preserved fruit. Even the door handle on the smokehouse was a large, wooden spool from my mother’s sewing box and the latch was made from a piece of apple box.
Dad painted his smoking table white after sanding the rough boards and glued a piece of old linoleum to the top. Over the years it became well-decorated with burnt spots. That smoking table was his favorite piece of furniture.
Though unusable scrap wood to some, apple boxes are special to me, and I have such happy memories of helping my father make apple box furniture.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college professor. He is currently a freelance writer living in East Bernard, Texas, with his wife, Peggy, and their spoiled cat, Gatsby. He is putting the finishing touches on his book It Must be the Noodles: Growing Up Wendish in Rural Texas.