Apple Packing in BC
How d’you like them apples?
When you are doing food history research it is so easy to get distracted. I was looking for information on another topic when I happened to come across the above heading in the History of Metropolitan Vancouver website.[i]
It was part of an excerpt from the Province newspaper dated January 25, 1938 (page 12), about Isabel Stillingfleet of Kelowna who was demonstrating a special skill at a joint meeting of the Advertising and Sales, and B. C. Products Bureaus of the Board of Trade[ii]. She was described as the “Queen of the British Empire Fruit Packers” and had been sent to Vancouver as part of Apple Week by the Associated Boards of Trade of the BC apple growing centers. After an explanation of packing methods by the district fruit inspector, Bryson Whyte, she packed one box of apples in slow motion to give members a chance to see how it was done. Then she did a second box. Her action was described:
“SLAP-SWISH, slap-swish, slap-swish! Nimble white-gloved hands, a quick eye, a cool head, plus a wide experience at her daily task, and Isabel Stillingfleet packed a box of apples in two minutes and seventeen seconds.” [iii]
Stillingfleet explained she could pack as many as 150 boxes on a busy day. I immediately wanted to know more and this is what I learned.
In 1937, the Okanagan growers decided to send a representative from Canada to the apple packing competition in Birmingham, England. According to Morgan and Richards (2012), the apple packing contest was part of the Imperial Fruit Show first held in 1921 at Crystal Palace in London, sponsored by the Daily Mail and the Minister of Agriculture.[iv]
The previously mentioned Isobel Stillingfleet, a 28-year old seasonal packer at the Cascade Fruit Company in Kelowna, was selected to compete after she won a local contest. She traveled with her personal packing buggy to Birmingham, England where she easily beat competitors from England and New Zealand and won the title Apple Queen of the British Empire[v]. She was awarded the first place gold metal and won £20 ($100).[vi] She stayed a few weeks working at the Canadian apple exhibit promoting the quality of British Columbia apples
In 1939 as a way to publicize BC apples across the prairies, a B.C. Apple Good-Will Caravan made a 5000-mile trip throughout the prairie provinces. The caravan was led by Charles A. Hayden, secretary of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association and editor of Country Life in British Columbia. It included four young women packers – Isobel Stillingfleet from Kelowna, Aurelia and Alma Parent, sisters from Penticton, and Dorothy Greenwood of Vernon – who were called Apple Ambassadors. Dressed in smart blue outfits trimmed with red, they demonstrated apple packing in stores, schools, and theatres.[vii] The BC Fruit Growers association describes the packing process used by Mrs. Stillingfleet as
…using a rhythmic swing that seemed humanly impossible to maintain for more than a few minutes. Three “clicks”, so close together as to be nearly indistinguishable, followed by lightning-like placing in the box, constituted her style. The clicks were made when her left hand was placed on the pile of wrappers, when she “threw” an apple and the paper together, and when the paper was given a slight twist.
I try to imagine what this might look like. I found a 1926 pamphlet produced by the Department of Agriculture Dominion of Canada[viii] that helped. Directions for wrapping were described as follows:
The paper should be placed conveniently in a paper holder with the smooth side up, on the left of the packer. A rubber finger-stall is worn on the middle finger of the left hand to facilitate lifting the paper. … The first movement is to pick up the paper with the middle finger and thumb so that it is centered over the palm of the left hand. The hand should be partly closed to that when the apple strikes the paper the corners will be turned upwards. The apple is thrown into the paper on its side with the stem end pointing midway between the thumb and index finger. …The right hand should now be twisted with a wrist movement away from you so that the fingers are pointing downwards while with the same motion the left hand gathers the other two ends of the paper tightly over the apple so the envelop the fruit. Removing the right hand the left hand carries the apple downwards into the box. The wrap, as must describe is carried out in three movements and after a short practice the packer will carry them out automatically. That is to say, the paper and the fruit will be picked up simultaneously and the latter thrown into the wrap in the palm of the left hand in the correct position and the paper twists about the fruit with the greatest ease and speed (Fulton, 1926, pp. 31, 34).
This image shows how the packers were typically set up inside the packinghouse:
It was the packers’ responsibility to select apples of the same grade so that all the apples in the box would be the same size and to decide the pack number and the best order of apples in the box. It was important that the apples be tightly packed to avoid damage in shipping.
Today apples are no longer packed in the iconic wooden boxes and they are not wrapped. Cardboard boxes have taken over with cardboard trays used to hold the apples in place and much of the process is mechanized. For example cameras are used to sort and grade[ix] and the apples are placed in trays either by hand or by a packing robot. For a view of modern processing and packing of 2018 Royal Gala crop in Oliver, BC see the video athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hMklzOPshk
Each time you bite into a crisp BC Apple, think of Isobel Stillingfleet and all those other women packers who made such a valuable contribution to the industry.
[ii] See https://www.bcfoodhistory.ca/apples-and-patriotism/ for a picture of the ambassadors. Additional information about apples in these blogs https://www.bcfoodhistory.ca/selling-bc-apples/; https://www.bcfoodhistory.ca/enjoying-apples/
[iv] Morgan, J. & Richards, A.(2013). The new book of apples. Random House.
[vii] http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/community-stories_histoires-de-chez-nous/applebox-belles/story/apple-packing-competitions/; BC Fruit Growers Association, https://www.bcfga.com/255/Central+Selling%3A+From+Resolution+to+Reality
[viii] Fulton A. (1926). Packing in Apples in Barrels and Boxes. Ottawa, ON: F.A. Ackland, Printer to the King’s most Excellency