The need to contain, store and transport materials have been around since the early days of humanity. However, over time, packaging has transformed from simply fulfilling a need to becoming integral to a brand’s message 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.

Packaging, one of the most important aspects of modern living, is continuously changing in order to adapt to the new era.

The Art and Science of Packaging

Paper may be the oldest form of what today is referred to as “flexible packaging.” Sheets of treated mulberry bark were used by the Chinese to wrap foods as early as the first or second century B.C. During the next 1,500 years, the paper-making technique was refined and transported to the Middle East, then Europe, and finally into the United Kingdom in 1310. Eventually, the technique arrived in America in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1690.

But these first papers were somewhat different from those used today. Early paper was made from flax fibers and later old linen rags. It wasn't until 1867 that paper originating from wood pulp was developed.

Although commercial paper bags were first manufactured in Bristol, England, in 1844, Francis Wolle invented the bag-making machine in 1852 in the United States. Further advancements during the 1870s included glued paper sacks and the gusset design. After the turn of the century (1905), machinery was invented to automatically produce in-line printed paper bags.

With the development of the glued paper sack, the more expensive cotton flour sacks could be replaced. But a sturdier multi-walled paper sack for larger quantities could not replace cloth until 1925 when a means of sewing the ends was finally invented.

The first commercial cardboard box was produced in England in 1817, more than 200 years after the Chinese invented cardboard. The corrugated paper appeared in the 1850s; about 1900, shipping cartons of faced corrugated paperboard began to replace self-made wooden crates and boxes used for trade.

As with many innovations, the development of the carton was accidental. Robert Gair was a Brooklyn printer and paper-bag maker during the 1870s. While he was printing an order of seed bags, a metal rule normally used to crease bags shifted in position and cut the bag. Gair concluded that cutting and creasing paperboard in one operation would have advantages; the first automatically made carton, now referred to as “semi-flexible packaging,” was created.

The development of flaked cereals advanced the use of paperboard cartons. The Kellogg brothers were first to use cereal cartons at their Battle Creek, Michigan, Sanatorium. When this “health food” of the past was later marketed to the masses, a waxed, heat-sealed bag of Waxtite was wrapped around the outside of a plain box. The outer wrapper was printed with the brand name and advertising copy. Today, of course, the plastic liner protects cereals and other products within the printed carton.

Paper and paperboard packaging increased in popularity well into the 20th century. Then, with the advent of plastics as a significant player in packaging (late 1970s and early 1980s), paper and its related products tended to fade in use. Lately, that trend has halted as designers try to respond to environmental concerns.

Labels and Trademarks

One rather recent development in packaging is the labeling of the product with the company name and contents information.

In the 1660s, imports into England often cheated the public, and the phrase “let the buyer beware” became popular. Inferior quality and impure products were disguised and sold to uninformed customers. Honest merchants, unhappy with this deception, began to mark their wares with their identification to alert potential buyers.

Official trademarks were pioneered in 1866 by Smith Brothers for their cough drops marketed in large glass jars. This was a new idea—using the package to “brand” a product for the benefit of the consumer.

In 1870, the first registered U.S. trademark was awarded to the Eagle-Arwill Chemical Paint Company. Today, there are nearly 750,000 registered trademarks in the United States alone. Labels now contain a great deal of information intended to protect and instruct the public.

Plastic -The Newest Form of Packaging

Plastic is the youngest in comparison with other packaging materials. Although discovered in the 19th century, most plastics were reserved for military and wartime use.

Styrene was first distilled from a balsam tree in 1831. But the early products were brittle and shattered easily. Germany refined the process in 1933, and by the 1950s foam was available worldwide. Insulation and cushioning materials, as well as foam boxes, cups, and meat trays for the food industry, became popular.

Vinyl chloride, discovered in 1835, provided for the further development of rubber chemistry. For packaging, molded deodorant squeeze bottles were introduced in 1947, and in 1958, heat shrinkable films were developed from blending styrene with synthetic rubber. Today, some water and vegetable oil containers are made from vinyl chloride.

Another plastic was invented during the American Civil War. Due to a shortage of ivory, a U.S. manufacturer of billiard balls offered a $10,000 reward for an ivory substitute. A New York engineer, John Wesley Hyatt, with his brother Isaiah Smith Hyatt, experimented several years before creating the new material. Patented in 1870, “celluloid” could not be molded, but rather carved and shaped, just like ivory.

Cellulose acetate was first derived from wood pulp in 1900 and developed for photographic uses in 1909. Although DuPont manufactured cellophane in New York in 1924, it wasn't commercially used for packaging until the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the interim, polyethylene film wraps were reserved for the military. In 1933, films protected submarine telephone cables and later were important for World War II radar cables and drug tablet packaging.

Other cellophanes and transparent films have been refined as outer wrappings that maintain their shape when folded. Originally clear, such films can now be made opaque, colored or embossed with patterns.

The Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE) container only became available during the last two decades with its use for beverages entering the market in 1977. By 1980, foods and other hot-fill products such as jams could also be packaged in PETE.

Current packaging designs are beginning to incorporate recyclable and recycled plastics but the search for reuse functions continues.

Paper Packaging Begins In China

Paper is the oldest re-shapeable packaging material. Mulberry tree barks were used in China in the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C to wrap food, and paper-making techniques have improved during the following 1500 years and were transported to the Middle East.

Paper-making techniques have reached Europe and from Europe, they reached England in 1310 and America in 1609. The first commercial cardboard box was produced in England in 1817, 200 years after China, and corrugated cardboard was invented in the 1850s, replacing wooden boxes in trade. The 20th century was the brightest era for paper and cardboard.

A Review

From containers provided by nature to the use of complex materials and processes, packaging has changed. Various factors contributed to this growth: the needs and concerns of people, competition in the marketplace, unusual events (such as wars), shifting lifestyles, as well as discoveries and inventions. During the past two decades, a consumer-led concern of the environmental impact of packaging has changed the packaging industry. An estimated $200 billion dollars was invested in the past two decades by packaging firms to refine packaging for a reduced environmental impact. Just as no single cause influenced past development, a variety of forces will continue to be required to create the packages of the future.

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