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History of Cardboard Packaging

Learn more about Cardboard Engineering

Previous to the creation of packaging, people were self sufficient. They made and caught the things that they needed to consume, and when containers became a necessity they were fashioned from natural materials for example; woven grasses, hollowed logs and animal organs. When the discovery of ores and compounds occurred, pottery and metals developed into additional forms of packaging.


Paper is one of the oldest forms of flexible packaging. As early as the first century BC, the Chinese used sheets of treated mulberry bark to wrap foods. The technique of paper treating refined over the next fifteen hundred years into something similar to the paper we have today.

Commercial paper bags were first manufactured in Bristol, England in 1844. In 1852 the American Francis Wolle invented the bag making machine. The first cardboard box was made in England 1817, and this was an astonishing 200 years after the invention of cardboard in China.

During the 1870’s the accidental development of the carton occurred. The Brooklyn printer Robert Gair was printing a batch of seed bags and the metal rule used to crease the bags moved position and cut it. Because of his mistake the first automatically made carton was created.

As flaked cereals became more popular, the use of paperboard cartons increased. The method of waxing the exterior of the box was marketed with the brand name. As time progressed the purpose of the coating on the box changed to being used as a layer of protection for the products inside the box. In the 1980’s a layer of plastic was used as a replacement for the wax however; lately designers have halted this method because it is not environmentally friendly.


The production of glass began in 700 BC as an offshoot of pottery. It was originally made from the raw materials silica, sand, soda and limestone. They used the process of melting and moulding the materials whilst under a very high temperature which is very similar to the technique that we use nowadays. The blowpipe was invented by the Phoenicians in 300 BC and it both quickened the pace of production and it allowed the shaping of round products. Coloured glass existed from the start however; transparent glass was not discovered until the beginning of the Christian Era.

In the 17th century the spit mould became popular and this allowed raised designs and irregular shapes. This introduced the concept of moulding the product name and the maker into the glass. As the techniques refined in the 18th century the price of glass continuously decreased and in 1889 the first bottle making machine was invented. Today’s machinery allows 20,000 bottles to be automatically produced daily.


In the ancient times cups and boxes were made from gold and silver, and because of their value they were not for everyday use. Eventually other metals slowly developed for such use. In 1200 AD the process of tin planting was discovered in Bohemia. In the 14th century iron cans coated in tin were popular however the technique was kept a closely guarded secret until the 1600’s when the Duke of Saxony stole the skill and brought it back to Europe.

London Tobacconists began selling snuff in metal canisters in 1764 however; people regarded these canisters poisonous so they were not used for food until 1809 when it was declared safe. The can opener was invented in 1875 and is still used nowadays.

After this declaration other food products were available in metal packaging. In the 1830’s cookies and matches were accessible in metal tins, and in 1866 metal boxes were first printed with brand names and manufacturing details.

Particles of aluminium were first extracted in 1825 and were very expensive. As the process of extraction developed the price fell dramatically. Although commercial foils were available from 1910, the first aluminium foil containers were designed in the early 1950’s. Collapsible metal tubes were first used for artist’s paints and toothpaste shortly after its invention in the 1890’s. Nowadays metal is a huge part of our everyday life and we use it for many products that we consume.


In comparison with the other packaging materials plastic is the most modern. It was first used in the 19th century however; its purpose was for military use and not for packaging. Styrene was the first, and it was extracted and distilled from the balsam tree in 1831 however; it was very brittle. In 1933 the Germans refined the process and in the 1950’s it was available worldwide in the form of foam. It was mainly used for cushioning materials and later developed into boxes, cups and meat trays.

Cellulose acetate was primarily made from wood pulp in 1900, its main purpose being for photographic use, and in 1924 was manufactured into cellophane to package foods. Though used for food packaging, its main purpose was for military use and these films protected submarine telephone cables. During the Second World War it was used for radar cables and drug tablet packaging.

Cellophane has been refined into outer packaging that is able to retain its shape when folded. Although they were initially clear, cellophane films can now be coloured, embossed and opaque bearing patterns. In 1977 Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE) became available and it was used for packaging food such as jams and hot beverages.

Because there is a growing concern for the environment, although we still use plastics, methods of recycling are hugely promoted, and as plastic is a non renewable source the search for reuse functions is constantly underway.

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