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Trouble in Pallettowne

Pallets are the most boring, every day thing… right?

The origin of the pallet is unknown. Rick LeBlanc and Stewart Richardson, co-authors of the indispensable Pallets: A North American Perspective, believe that an early prototype was used to aid in the stacking of wooden barrels in a warehouse in Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, in the mid-eighteenth century.4 But the story becomes more certain only in the early twentieth century, when a machine resembling a heavy-duty golf cart appeared on the American warehouse scene. It was called a “lift truck,” and it had a large iron spatula protruding from its front.

Various proto-pallets, or “skids,” were used in concert with these early lift trucks. Some of the skids were wooden; some were metal; some had little iron legs, which allowed clearance for the spatula. Eventually, the iron legs faded into history—too extravagant—and were replaced by a pair of wooden support beams, called “stringers,” which gave the skid about six inches of height. Then the spatula mutated into a two-tined fork, and the skid, responding in kind, grew a third stringer along its dorsal spine. Around 1925, the skid gained a set of bottom deck boards, below the three stringers, and with this, the pallet had achieved its modern form. Functionally, this new bottom deck stabilized the pallet, which prevented stacks of goods from crashing down in the warehouse. Aesthetically, the effect was striking: the pallet had become a thing, alive and whole.

Although the technology was in place by the mid-1920s, pallets didn’t see widespread adoption until World War II, when the challenge of keeping eight million G.I.s supplied—“the most enormous single task of distribution ever accomplished anywhere,” according to one historian—gave new urgency to the science of materials handling. During the summer of 1941, at Fort Wayne, Indiana, the army staged a field test of various materials-handling contraptions, and the pallet–forklift combo trounced the competition. The Quartermaster General ordered a million pallets, and the domestic pallet industry was effectively born.5

There is a war brewing in Pallettowne. Read the whole thing.

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