First, packing houses varied tremendously and it might even be correct to say that there were no two alike. For an extensive look at such structures, Jim Lancaster’s web site is an excellent resource (see: http://coastdaylight.com/ljames1/scph.html). Most of us model rail-served houses, and these typically had a loading platform trackside of two to five carlengths (sometimes larger). The great majority of packing houses were located near the growing area, so that harvested produce could be brought directly from the fields or orchards to be cleaned and packed at the packing house. This means that one should provide truck unloading capability (if one models that side of the house), even if only in the form of a roadway running behind the structure.
In areas of intense agricultural development, it would not be uncommon to have a dozen packing houses in a single town. Usually this is too many to model, but I mention it because the usual modeler’s choice of a single packing house per town is probably not very realistic in many cases. (Of course, if you are accurately depicting a prototype scene with only a single house, that’s how it should be done.)
For the most part, packing houses did just what the name implies: they packed the produce into shipping containers (which were also point-of-sale containers). Produce certainly would be washed to remove field dirt, to varying degrees of thoroughness, and would have been culled to remove unripe, damaged or spoiled pieces, along with unwanted stems, leaves, etc. Then it was packed into crates, cartons, hampers, lugs, boxes, or whatever was customary for that particular type of produce. In the early 1950s, when I model, cardboard cartons were just coming into use, and wooden crates remained virtually standard.
These containers were sized with two things in mind: the standard sale size for that produce type, and fitting into a standard refrigerator car with minimal or even no dunnage and making a tight fit to ensure no movement during transit. For these reasons, container sizes and proportions varied widely among fruit and vegetable varieties. This is readily seen in a collection of box labels for these products, because normally the label occupied the entire end of a container. There is much more on car loading arrangements in Chapter 14 of the book Pacific Fruit Express (2nd edition, Signature Press, 2000).
Box labels are an entire subject of their own, and a number of fine books have been produced to reproduce and discuss the art and design of such labels. I would recommend any of the following to someone who’d like to look at that side of the subject. All are focused on citrus, mostly oranges.
John Salkin and Laurie Gordon, Orange Crate Art, Warner Books, New York, 1976 (paperback).
Richard H. Barker (editor), Selling the Gold: Citrus Roots . . . Our Legacy, Upland Public Library Foundation, Upland, Calif., 1999 (paperback).
Gordon T. McClelland and Jay T. Last, California Orange Box Labels, Hillcrest Press, Beverly Hills, Calif., 1985 (hardback).
Many of these labels were vivid, sometimes featuring scantily-clad women or sports images, and it should be recalled that these were aimed at male wholesale produce buyers, not at housewives in grocery stores. Many examples were shown in Signor's and my book, Southern Pacific’s Coast Line Pictorial (Signature Press, 2000).
For my own modeling, I want to use actual packing concerns and packing labels from the central coast area. Among them are Phelan & Taylor, a still-standing (though not operating) packing house in Oceano, and Western Packing of Guadalupe. This area, incidentally, is dominated by vegetable shipping. Here are a couple of scans from original labels.
Since my layout town locations are mythical, I will probably modify the labels to reflect my layout town names, for example something like this:
Here’s another example, for my lemon packing house in Santa Rosalia. It has a separate shipping building, as seen here:
I have modified a 1920s lemon label to fit this shipper:
Of course packing crates are pretty small in HO scale, and the name changes just shown are even tinier, but just as one can do automobile license plates, so can one do box labels, and I will be using these, so that a stack of crates with the “right” labels can be waiting on the loading dock.