This past week's artifact from the Nelson Pioneer Farm is a set of cheese boxes.
Dorothy Vos guessed at the identity of the artifact. She wrote via email: “This is strictly a guess, but these are possibly boxes to store cheese in or some other food item for shipping.”
Nelson Pioneer Farm Curator Kelly Halbert has done some research on the artifact. She wrote: “This set of reinforced round boxes is for shipping and storing cheese. Before the invention of plastic bags and storage containers, glass, wood and metal were most commonly used for storage of food. Cheese contains a microorganism which requires air circulation to stay fresh. The acid in cheese reacts to metal containers and glass is not porous enough so wood became the container of choice for shipping cheese. It also was a basic design decision to make them round because most cheeses are pressed and molded in a round sleeve.
Soft cheeses, such a camembert, were first shipped in round molds in the late 19th century. An engineer, M. Ridel, designed a box similar to these artifacts, in the 1890s that allowed shipment to the United States from France. In 1933 a study was made of the costs to manufacture cheese and to operate a cheese factory in Wisconsin. One of the items studied was the cost of cheese boxes for shipping the product. It recorded that 6,000 one pound boxes would cost 12₵ apiece.
Often called Shaker boxes, the round cheese boxes are made from thinly cut strips of wood which is steamed and shaped into a ring and fastened with wood or metal grommets. This set of cheese boxes consists of graduating sizes from a one pound box to a 30 pound box.
The most interesting use of an old cheese box is credited to Joel Sweeney, the first known Caucasian banjo player. He modified the African banjo which was made from a gourd by adding a fifth string and using an old cheese box for the sound chamber – creating the banjo recognized today. “