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Who invented the cardboard box? A brief history.

No Comments    |        |    March 15, 2023    |    Reading time 6 minutes
History of cardboard boxes - image of a box exploding with colourful paint

Alas, no sole person can be credited with inventing the marvellous creation that is the corrugated cardboard box. There was no Archimedean moment where some great mind jumped into a bath, thought about all the things that could really do with being transported in a reinforced, pleated paper cube and shouted, “Eureka!”

Rather, it was a series of exceedingly fortunate events that led to the product that we know, love, use and reuse today.

The origins of the cardboard box

The material commonly known as cardboard was invented in China in the 1500s and was made in much the same way as it is today, using pulp from trees and plants, most notably the Mulberry. Pretty quickly, it started to wind its way towards Europe along the Silk Road.

However, it is thought that the very first paper box was made in 1817, right here in good old Blighty by an English company called M. Treverton & Son. Later this same year, there are records of boxes having been produced in Germany, specifically designed to contain "The Game of Besieging". Incredibly popular and based on war strategy, the game's board and its pieces came in these boxes which were handmade. Although very effective at protecting their contents – as one would expect – the boxes were time consuming and expensive to create.

The emergence of the cardboard box

Fast forward a few decades and silk manufacturers in 1840s France were realising just how suitable cardboard could be for their needs. They were producing their own version of a box in which they could transport moths and their eggs after discovering what an ideal material cardboard was for this purpose (good airflow, secure, lightweight and able to block out light). Such was their success, that production became an important industry in south-eastern France and lasted for the next hundred years.

Cardboard boxes were invented in China in the 1500s

Meanwhile, across the channel in England, 1856 was the year a patent was lodged by Edward G. Healy and Edward E. Allen for what we now know as corrugated cardboard. This cardboard wasn’t used for making boxes however. Instead, it was produced as a liner in the manufacture of tall - or top - hats. The two Edwards, just like the silk manufacturers across the channel, understood what a versatile material cardboard was. Pleating it into a wavy shape and using it to line hats, meant that the tall structure of the hats would be maintained, but with some flexibility. Hats therefore became both more durable and comfortable.

Finally, in 1871 and in New York City no less, cardboard finally realised its destiny as a material recognised as ideal for shipping purposes. Albert Jones applied for a patent to use single-sided corrugated boxboard as a wrapping suitable to protect glass lanterns and bottles. Single-sided corrugated boxboard is simply a sheet of corrugated or pleated paper (see top hats) lined on one side with flat cardboard. Of course, today, we’re used to corrugated paper being sandwiched between lining (i.e., on both sides) and that little evolutionary tweak is all thanks to Oliver Long - also of the USA - who decided to add to and thus improve Jones’ patent.

The actual cardboard box

But how did we end up with what we have today, that is to say, corrugated cardboard purposefully cut into a net which, when folded and bent, pops up to give us the ubiquitous box? This honour falls to Robert Gair in 1879, once again representing the U.K., but this time the beautiful Scottish bit. At the time of his discovery however, Gair owned a paper bag factory in Brooklyn. Like most inventions we couldn’t imagine living without – penicillin, the pacemaker or the teabag for example – Gair’s came about by accident. A metal press rule was employed to fold paper used to create the bags. One day, an error was made during the manufacture of seed bags; nobody spotted that the settings weren't quite right and consequently, the rule ended up slicing clean through the paper instead of simply creasing it. After Gair ensured this oversight was corrected, he realised that if the cutting blades were set marginally higher than the creasing blades, they could crease and cut in one step. From there, it was a small step to using his technique with cardboard. Lo and behold, Gair had a foldable cardboard box, which could be mass produced and, as an added bonus, stored flat until required. What's more, assembly was uncomplicated and fast. Box makers would no longer have to score the sheets with the metal press first, then make cuts by hand. Gair's turning a mistake into an opportunity enabled his factory to increase its output of boxes significantly. Now the number previously manufactured in one day could be produced in just two and a half hours.

The rise of the cardboard box

The small revolution taking place in Gair's factory was happening of course, against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. Populations were increasing significantly and food, which, for the most part, had previously been grown and sold locally, needed to be transported over far greater distances. The cardboard box started gaining in popularity, particularly in the shipping and food industries. Initially used to transport more fragile items like glass and pottery, production soared to such an extent thanks in part to Gair's technique, that manufacturing processes improved exponentially and prices consequently became far more affordable. Shopkeepers and grocers, to give just one example, soon cottoned on to the fact that cardboard boxes were not only cheap, but they were also perfect for packing fresh fruit and vegetables, significantly reducing the chances of produce being damaged, bruised or rotting during transportation.

Outside the box 

Although Kellogg’s didn’t use the corrugated cardboard favoured by shipping companies to package their goods, as the Twentieth Century got underway, the company was the first to print on the outside of the boxes they used to package their cereal flakes, thus seeding the idea of a box being used for more than containment, storage or shipping.

The cardboard box now had an advantageous dual purpose. Not only was printing useful in terms of product information and labelling, but it could also be employed as the powerful marketing tool it still is today, attracting and enticing customers with bright colours and fun images and encouraging them to buy products repeatedly with news of free offers and competitions.

The cardboard box and e-commerce

As far as the meteoric rise of e-commerce and its letterbox friendly packaging is concerned, the humble cardboard box has been used as a template from which a hundred variations have spawned. Packaging companies are constantly innovating in order to provide increasing numbers of on-line consumers without a physical, bricks and mortar presence, meaningful touch points and to enable e-commerce businesses to convey their brands' messages, secure loyalty and obtain repeat custom.

Fundamentally however, the cardboard box has one purpose when it comes to shipping: to get a product to a customer safely, securely and as inexpensively as possible. Whatever extras a cardboard box ends up having – die-cut inserts, integrated tissue paper, peel and seal strips, retention wings, pop-ups, scent, a twelve-piece mariachi band – its basic job and its material and formation have always remained the same.

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So there you have it, a brief but altogether fascinating history of the cardboard box. The Packaging Club has all sorts of cardboard boxes from the humble cardboard box to the highly specialised and we recognise the plus points of each and every one as well as the thing they've all got in common: sustainability.

Whatever you need your boxes for - moths, strategic German war games, glass lanterns or half a pound of apples - we're happy to talk you though the options and find the right one for your business' needs.

Contact The Packaging Club today. We'd love to hear from you.

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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