I finally got around to reading Jacob Hodes’ “Whitewood Under Siege” in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of Cabinet (primarily because my distracting reading purveyor Kostis Kourelis sent it to me). The article explores the contentious and combative world of the global pallet market. In around 4000 words, it clarified some of my lingering questions about pallets and added another component to my growing interest in pallets in the landscape.
First, the article clarified some of the early history of pallets in the U.S. According to Hodes pallets found their current form by 1925, but did not see widespread use until WWII when the US military ordered millions of pallets to move supplies overseas. That makes a photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Walker Evans Collection particularly interesting. I posted it last winter. The photo dates to 1941 and shows a small “toaster type” RV parked in a Sarasota, Florida. Clearly visible is a line of pallets serving as a deck and another pallet leaning against the trailer’s side. The use of pallets in this way continues into the 21st century, but this 1941 photograph shows that as early as pallets were in use to move bulk goods around the world, they began to be used for secondary purposes.
API Pallets in Grand Forks, ND
The next important thing that I learned from this article is how the pallet ecosystem works. As my regular readers know, I’ve been thinking about how the Late Roman economy functions in light of the massive assemblage of Late Roman amphoras at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria. I have tended to assume that large concentrations of similar containers represents the administrative and economic power of the state, largely because small scale exchange practices and producers have tended to be dynamic and contingent and to leave a less less visible signature in the landscape. The repair, manufacture, recycling, and redistribution of traditional wooden pallets is an open ecosystem with numerous small-scale participants facilitating the circulation of pallets around the world (with some notable exceptions like the Australian company CHEP who has demonstrated a willingness to go to war to protect its “closed pool” practices of pallet circulation). So, if I owned a company in Grand Forks, ND, I’d go to my local pallet company – API Pallets of Grand Forks – to procure pallets to ship my goods. API also, I assume, purchases pallets from companies at a fixed price (typically less than $10 per pallet) or individual recyclers. They then repair or recondition the pallets and sell them back to the market. Pallets that cannot be repaired are recycled almost entirely (at least by API); the wood becomes mulch and the nails are recycled. What is fascinating to me is that this entire system functions in a decentralized way (unlike the CHEP closed pool) with each community having a depot for pallets that ensure their repair and recirculation.
Of course such a decentralized system can only function if there are significant pressures present to ensure the maintenance of standards. Pallets have to fit inside trucks, on airplanes, into rail cars. They have to be close to the same strength so that they can be stacked with goods and treated in a similar way. Even allowing for some significant variation, wood pallets are standardized, despite being produced on a small scale around the world, through the combined pressures of regularized shipping practices and a trade association (note for example how many pallet companies have the similar “Pallets 101” page on their websites). This standardization, of course, came about in part because of the needs of the US military to supply troops deployed globally.
This got me thinking about the manufacturing of standardized amphora shapes, like Late Roman 1 amphoras. By all accounts, the production of these amphoras occurred at various sites on Cyprus and Cilicia. Their standard shape and sized functioned to facilitate the movement of supplies through a particular region. The organization of these producers and suppliers was decentralized and the only pressure to standardize came through the practices associated with moving goods. This is not a novel observation, but I suspect that Andrew Bevan would have found this parallel useful in his recent article on containerization.
One last observation, I did some quick web searching and noticed that Williston does not seem to have a center for the recycling, repair, and redistribution of pallets. There may be one in Minot and Dickinson, and there certainly is one in Bismarck. As with so many things in North Dakota, these core services and infrastructure tend to be clustered in the Red River Valley (for now) and particularly in places like West Fargo which serves as a region redistribution hub for much of the area.