Pallet history is both humble and dramatic. As Pallet Enterprise ("For 30 years the leading pallet and sawmill magazine") recounts, pallets grew out of simple wooden "skids." These skids had been used to help transport goods from shore to ship and were, essentially, pallets without a bottom set of boards, hand loaded by longshoremen, and then hoisted by winch into the cargo hold.
According to an article in a 1931 railway trade magazine, three days were required to unload a boxcar containing 13,000 cases of unpalletized canned goods. When the same amount of goods was loaded into the boxcar on pallets or skids, the identical task took only four hours.
The second factor in the rise of the pallet was World War II. Logistics is the secret to any successful military campaign, and pallets played a large role in the success of the supply efforts in this war. The use of the forklift truck and pallets was one of the most significant and revolutionary developments of the war.
A Navy Supply Corps officer named Norman Cahners invented the "four-way pallet". A minor change that allows the lift to enter the pallet from all 4 directions. He wanted to increase production and in doing so doubled productivity per man!