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A Short History of Packaging

No Comments    |        |    July 26, 2023    |    Reading time 7 minutes
Cardboard Boxes 0201 being used in a canning factory for dispatching goods in 1916, over 100 years ago.

From the dawn of humankind, along with the ability to create fire and the invention of the wheel, it’s been packaging that’s played one of the most pivotal roles in the development and progression of society.

Initially the solution to basic human needs – how to contain, store and transport items – packaging has morphed into a vital component of modern life essential on both a macro and micro scale, from the success of the global economy to fulfilling specific, individual customer requirements.

Packaging today is a highly sophisticated means of communication pivotal to a company or brand’s messaging. It’s also an artform where levels of innovation and creativity can be off the scale. Whatever the product, carefully considered packaging turns the simple outer shell of a box into a box of delights which enhances a consumer’s experience, not just in terms of receiving an item they’ve ordered in pristine condition, but also in terms of the emotional connection with an on-line company (think unboxing and brand loyalty).

So how has packaging reached such lofty heights? How did it all begin?

Well, we don’t quite have to visit the dinosaurs to see packaging’s origins, but we do have to go back to prehistoric times when men and women still roamed the earth as nomadic hunter-gatherers. . .

Prehistoric Packaging

As you might imagine, prehistoric packaging (we’re talking 10,000 and 8,000 BC here) was all very organic and natural, with levels of sustainability the industry will sadly never see again.

Joking aside, these were the days of using materials that were simply available and to hand: leaves, gourds, animal skins, nuts, and simple clay pots, for example. When nothing was actually on hand, it was common to store food in small caves or hollowed out trees and while it might not sound ideal, at least it wouldn’t have taken half an hour to find a Tupperware lid that actually fit, although rather that, we suppose, than the risk of being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger. Still, as environmentally friendly as prehistoric packaging was, it was definitely at the beginning of its journey and needed a bit of adapting.

Ancient Packaging

It's difficult for historians to pin down exactly when and where the first example of man-made formal packaging originated because the answer probably lies in a multitude of different places at similar times, spanning continents.

What we know for sure is that the Ancient Georgians were using beeswax coated, earthenware vessels as early as 6000 BC in order to store and transport wine. It’s also clear that the First Nations people of Australia were highly adept at using animal skins – wallaby or kangaroo – to carry substantial amounts of water with them whilst they crossed arid land and desert. They were able to seal the ‘containers’ completely by tanning them with resin and then closing off the bags with knotted twine, but some they used as kind of water bottles where the opening could be accessed and then re-sealed where necessary.

Not to be outdone by the Ancient Georgians and the Ancient Australians, the Ancient Egyptians (in around AD 2,500) were not only regularly using papyrus as wrapping of sorts, but they were also producing glass pots in which to store water. The glass wasn’t the type we’re familiar with today; in spite of their fascination with the material and incredibly advanced techniques when it came to glass blowing, it was opaque. However, that didn’t stop it making excellent containers. And like the Georgians, the Egyptians also used a variety of amphora, although sealing them proved a challenge as clay stoppers let in oxygen eventually spoiling whatever was inside. There was still some way to go.

The emergence of Paper Packaging

The major problem with earthenware pots and glass jars – apart from how to seal them effectively - is that they break relatively easily, especially if they’re being transported. In around AD 105, the Chinese were using a kind of paper, made by shaping treated mulberry bark into sheets. Over the next thousand years, the paper-making technique was refined and it gradually made its way along the Silk Road to the Middle East and Europe, arriving in what is now the U.K. in 1310.  

Medieval and early Modern Packaging

Fast forward to the Middle Ages. During this time period, packaging had a mini boom, with both wooden barrels and boxes becoming highly sought after. Anyone with the surname Cooper will know that their name means barrel maker and that the profession is still going strong today, particularly in the wine and whiskey industries.

Back then, however, wooden barrels were used for transporting another alcoholic favourite, rum, but also dried food, fresh water, fruit and vegetables, grains, salted meat and oil. What’s more, they could be moved efficiently, rolling on or off whatever made of transport necessary and then standing up on their ends, secure and unlike to wobble over as a result of their wider, stabilising middles.

The Middle Ages gave way to the early modern period and the age of great exploration and discovery across vast uncharted oceans and territories. It was imperative that supplies lasted the journey and barrels provided a solution. Anyone with the surname Cooper will know that their name means barrel maker and the profession is still going strong today. The West was also catching up with China and seeing the benefits of paper packaging. Though not yet tenable because of cost of manufacture, it was clear to see how suitable it might one day be, lightweight, easy to transport and breathable as it is.

Packaging for Revolution

With the advent of the industrial revolution and as a result of major technological advances, there was a surge in the mass production of products available to the masses. One stumbling block, however, was that though the products themselves were more affordable than ever before, packaging was often prohibitively expensive and reserved mainly for luxury items.

assembly packing products industrial revolution

Thankfully, this state of affairs didn’t last for long. At the start of the 1800s, packaging in the form that we recognise today began to emerge in earnest as the various machines that had replaced traditional handmade processes increasingly facilitated more efficient packaging techniques as well. Products even started to be packaged individually at the point of their manufacture.

The first commercial box made from cardboard was produced by a company called M. Treverton & Son in 1817. Corrugated cardboard followed in 1856 and then, in 1879 came the foldable carton – that is, the cardboard box we know and love today - revolutionary in that it was able to be assembled swiftly without the need for adhesive as a result of its net shape and pop-up sides. It could also be stored flat till needed. Like the paper bag (first produced in 1952), the box was the result of a happy accident when cutting blades on machines were set incorrectly. The oversight was put right, but not before the opportunity for innovation was seized and packaging was able to take a major step forward.

Twentieth Century Packaging

During the last century, the pace of the packaging industry gathered speed. In 1906, the Kellogg brothers created the first cereal box and its success helped further the popularity of paper and paperboard packaging.

The Twentieth Century also gave raise to plastic as a viable packaging option. Although discovered in the first half of the 19th Century, most plastics were reserved for military use and shattered easily. But as processes were refined for numerous applications (including, for example, photography and protecting submarine cable), its uses spread. Cellophane, saran wrap (or cling film) and bubble wrap, all started to be used commercially in the late 50s and 60s.

Kellogg 's Toasted Corn Flakes advert 1909

Packaging Today

In 2023, on-line shopping is giving the High Street a run for its money. Packaging is almost as important now as the product itself especially in terms of consumer perception and loyalty, the unboxing experience and most important of all, getting an anticipated product safely and soundly.

The volume of goods now ordered and shipped on a daily basis is such that for e-commerce businesses to be successful, packaging must be efficient, reliable, and cost effective. At the other end of the supply chain, customer requirements are clear too: packaging must be appropriate and hassle free to open.  Letter box friendly boxes, for example, are deservedly popular for the convenience they offer, as are peel and seal envelopes (basically, envelopes with in-built tear strips) meaning they only take a matter of seconds to open. Amazon refers to this concept as FFP – frustration free packaging and it’s been specifically developed in to keep customers happy and prevent wrap rage. 

Perhaps the biggest development over the course of the last two decades, particularly in the last few years, has centred around packaging sustainability. Steadily and surely, e-commerce is moving away from the linear business model towards a circular economy. This has come about not only as a result of consumer awareness and regional laws, but also, as a result of businesses themselves, many of which desire to be as environmentally friendly as possible. 

It’s undeniable that packaging will continue to play a pivotal role in our global economy and has become entrenched in our way of life. And today, it’s continually evolving in order to meet modern demands, fulfil new expectations and provide us with creative experiences that we didn’t even know we wanted.

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We find it fascinating to look back and see how far packaging has come, but it’s also exciting for us to look forward and imagine just how far it’s still got to go, especially when you're as dedicated to the art of packing a box as we are here at The Packaging Club.

Talk to us today about all your packaging needs. We've not only got you covered, but we're constantly innovating to meet e-commerce's future requirements. Although we're afraid you'll have to go somewhere else to order your earthenware pots.

This article was written by...

Jo Hilton

I studied at the University of St. Andrews and have an MA in French and German. For a number of years, I worked for a Swiss financial institution and lived in Hamburg, London, Zürich and NYC before retraining as a primary school teacher and settling with my family in Cambridgeshire. When I'm not at school, I write content for various blogs and edit academic research articles for clients at ETH Zürich and the University of Munich. I'm also in the process of completing a Masters in Crime and Thriller writing at the University of Cambridge, so behind me you'll find a trail of fictional dead bodies and actual biscuit wrappers.

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