The History of Packaging

The need to contain, store, and transport materials has been around since the early days of humanity. However, overtime, packaging has transformed from simply fulfilling a need to becoming integral to a brand’s messaging as well as consumer experience.

Let’s take a moment to step back in time and observe the major technological advancements throughout history that shaped the packaging industry into what it is today.

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Early Packaging

Packaging, as a concept, grew out of the basic need for early humanity to store and transport their food from place to place.

While there is no record of when the first packaging materials were used, historians believe that during the nomadic hunter/gatherer days, materials such as leaves, animal skins, nuts or gourds were used to store and transport items.

Ancient Packaging

Ancient Egyptian Packaging Techniques

In Ancient Egypt, glass was costly and regarded as a precious stone typically reserved for royalty. However, it was this obsession with glass that eventually lead the Egyptians to discover glass blowing technology of which could mold glass into containers for food and water storage. This ancient glass was not transparent however — that wouldn’t be discovered for another 500 years.


Ancient Chinese Packaging Techniques

Ancient China is credited for inventing flexible packaging due to their innovations in developing paper – i.e. the oldest example of flexible packaging.

Historians believe that in the first or second centuries, the Chinese began to use treated mulberry bark to wrap foods. In later centuries, when the Chinese perfected their paper-making techniques, paper also began to be used for packaging items such as medicine and parcels of tea.


Medieval Packaging

The middle ages saw a rise in popularity in using wooden barrels and wood boxes as storage and transportation devices. Barrels were typically used for travelling across oceans to store items such as rum, dried food, and fresh water.


Industrial Revolution Packaging

Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution: this era (starting from about 1760-1840) gave way to major technological advancements, as the demand for better quality packaging increased. This demand for quality was fueled by a sudden surge in new products that were now available for the masses to consume. However, it should be noted that many of the packaging materials that arose in this era were expensive; meaning that the use of these materials were typically reserved for storing and transporting luxury goods.

Here are some of the more notable packaging advancements that occurred during this era:

Napoleon’s Food Preservation Prize (1795)

In 1795, Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could invent better methods of food preservation. This push for innovation was due to Napoleon needing to find a way to feed his army who was in the midst of a war.

However, it wouldn’t be another 15 years until this prize was claimed by a man named Nicolas Appert. Nicolas Appert, also known as the father of canning, invented a method to preserve food for an extended period of time by boiling then sealing food in airtight glass containers. We still use this method today with canned foods!

The Rise of Tin (1810)

In 1810, Peter Durand, an Englishman, patented the use of tin-coated iron cans instead of bottles to preserve food. Over the next 20 years, tin would become one of the most popular packaging materials for packaging things like cookies and tobacco.


The First Cardboard Box (1817)

Though cardboard itself had been invented several hundred years earlier in China, the cardboard box wasn’t created until 1817 by Sir Malcolm Thornhill. Note: these boxes weren’t corrugated yet, that wouldn’t be invented until 1871. Cardboard boxes were popular among silk manufacturers to transport moths and eggs from Japan to Europe.


Packaging in the Late 1800s – Early 1900s

The First Paper Bag-Making Machine (1852)

Several years after the first commercial paper bags were created in 1844, Francis Wolle invented a machine capable of mass-producing paper bags.

Note: the paper bags back then didn’t exactly look like what we’d think of as paper bags today – they resembled large mailing envelopes.

The First Carton (1879)

Robert Gair, a Brooklyn printer developed the first carton by accident! Gair was the owner of a paper bag company. One day, one of Gair’s machines malfunctioned by slicing through (rather than creasing) a stack of paper bags. It was then that Gair realized that cutting and creasing cartons in one operation could make prefabricated cartons.


The First Cereal Box (1906)

The Kellogg brothers, known for the invention of Corn Flake cereal in 1877, began using cardboard to distribute and market their cereal as early as 1906. Initially, the cereal box was wrapped in a heat-sealed bag, with the cereal loose on the inside of the box. Eventually, however, a plastic bag was placed inside of the cereal box to contain and protect the cereal.


The Invention of Cellophane (1908)

Jacques E. Brandenberger, a Swiss Chemist, is credited for the invention of cellophane after he decided to create a cloth that wouldn’t absorb liquids. His original formula was created using wood cellulose. In 1912, Brandenberger built a machine to manufacture cellophane film.

Cellophane had a major impact on the packaging industry as its transparency made it the material of choice for wrapping in the 1950s and 1960s. Cellophane also laid the foundations for plastic packaging in the following years.

The Invention of Saran Wrap (1933)

The discovery of polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC), what saran resins and films are made of, was discovered accidentally by Ralph Wiley in 1933. Wiley was a lab worker at Dow Chemical who was responsible for cleaning the lab’s glassware. One night, Wiley came across a vial he couldn’t scrub clean. He originally called the substance “eonite”, but the name was changed to Saran by Dow Chemical’s researchers who then remade this substance into a dark green film. This early iteration of saran was sprayed onto military planes in order to protect them from the elements. Later, researchers were able to remove saran’s green colour, which allowed it to be approved as a food packaging material following World War II.


Modern Packaging

The Invention of Bubble Wrap (1957)

Bubble wrap was invented in 1957 by Sealed Air’s founders Al Fielding and Marc Cavannes, but it was not first utilized as the protective packaging material we know it as today. Initially, Fielding and Cavannes were trying to create textured wallpaper by sealing two shower curtains together to make air bubbles — however, this interior decor trend didn’t take off. They later decided to market the material as greenhouse insulation, though this proved to be an unsuccessful endeavor as well.

Three years after bubble wrap was invented, Frederick W. Bowers (a Sealed Air marketer), made a pitch to IBM to use bubble wrap as a protective packaging material for their computers. The pitch went well and IBM began purchasing bubble wrap for all of their fragile products.

The Invention of the Pop Tab (1959)

The pop tab was invented by Ermal Fraze, founder of DRT Manufacturing Company. After forgetting a can opener at a picnic (also known as a church key), Fraze embarked on a quest to design a can that didn’t need a separate opener.

In the following years, after some trial and error, Fraze had finally developed a can where the user only needed to pull a removeable tab to access the drink. By 1965, over 75% of brewers in the U.S. were using Fraze’s can.

In 1977, after pop tab waste began to increase, Fraze patented the pop tab we use today – a push-in and fold-back tab.

The Invention of PET Plastic Bottles (1973)

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) bottles were first patented in 1973 by chemist Nathaniel Wyeth. At the time, these were the first plastic bottles capable of containing carbonated drinks and they soon became the material of choice for manufacturers who wanted a cheaper alternative to glass.


Packaging Today

With sustainability having become a major concern in recent years, today’s packaging innovators are continuously coming up with new ways to reduce the packaging industry’s impact on the environment. Recent eco-friendly innovations such as biodegradable and edible packaging not only reflect the state of our society today, but it also demonstrates the packaging industry’s ability to adapt to the ever-changing needs and concerns of consumers.