• Dani

The Ultimate Guide to Cardboard Boxes - Part One: Their Fascinating Biography

Updated: Nov 7, 2019



Cardboard boxes. Despite being commonplace, we never give these packaging prodigies much thought, do we? That is, of course, until we've got a small collection to dispose of or we're moving home, shipping or storing items or giving gifts (usually the odd-shaped kind where wrapping paper just won't cut the mustard). Then it's all "Google, ho!" searching for answers to cardboard conundrums like, "who sells cardboard boxes?", "what are the costs of cardboard boxes?" and "can cardboard boxes be recycled or composted?"


Granted, these are important questions to ask, but here at Eco Packaging Solutions, we couldn't help thinking that surely there are far more interesting inquiries to make about these primo kinds of packaging? After all, cardboard boxes have been around - and please excuse the Americanism - for like, forever, and have become such an integral part of our everyday lives and yet only a handful of us know when and why they were first invented, how they're made, how and why they became so popular or how they affect the environment, etc...


Which is why we came up with this series of blog posts - which we aptly named the 'Ultimate Guide to Cardboard Boxes' - to help people better appreciate this prominent form of packaging; to help folk fathom how much time, effort, energy and creativity goes into manufacturing them as well as to give people something a little more interesting to talk about if and when the topic of cardboard boxes ever crops up in conversation... Admittedly, this might not happen very often, but...


As we started to delve deeper into the subject of cardboard boxes (to find out what people really wanted to know about them), we happily discovered that there are some thought-provoking questions being asked about these crackerjack forms of compostable container. For example, folk are asking; "where did cardboard boxes originate?", "do cardboard boxes attract bugs?" and "how are cardboard boxes printed?" There are even some weird and wonderful search inquiries like; "can cardboard boxes be checked in as luggage?", "can cardboard boxes make you sick?" and our personal favourite, "why do cardboard boxes smell like poop?"


Thrilled that people are thinking outside the box with their questions about cardboard containers and elated that folk are showing an interest in boxes, (even if they're wondering why some of them (apparently) smell of excreta - which, incidentally, raises more questions than answers), we decided to try and answer all those questions and more!


Covering absolutely everything there is to know about cardboard boxes, in this series of blog posts we'll reveal the rich tapestry that is their history; we'll demonstrate how they're made and how to get the most out of them, we'll explain how to dispose of them and we'll discuss how cardboard boxes have changed the world. We'll also examine the different types of cardboard boxes available to buy; how to understand manufacturers cardboard-based jargon, what information you need to give to get a quote for bespoke cardboard packaging and how best to erect and tape boxes for safe storage and transport. We'll even answer the question, "does Boxing Day actually have anything to do with cardboard boxes?" so that at Christmas people can stop being cardbored of cracker jokes and share some knowledge as well as presents!


So, in this, the first of our series of blog posts about cardboard boxes, we'll be unveiling the intriguing life story of this unpretentious but far-reaching form of packaging.


Psst! If you've not got the time to read this post in full, don't worry! You'll find the answers to some relevant history-related cardboard box questions below, as well as an informative timeline info graphic so you can still get the full rundown of cardboard boxes in a matter of minutes.

Your cardboard box questions answered!


Q. Where did cardboard boxes originate?

As cardboard boxes are made from paper, it can be argued that they originated in China over 2,000 years ago in 100 BC when paper was first crafted by Cai Lun of the Eastern Han Dynasty.


Q. Who invented cardboard boxes?

A nonpartisan answer would be that the Chinese were responsible for inventing cardboard boxes. By the mid 15th Century, their skilled paper-making artisans were crafting paperboard; a sturdier and thicker form of paper more akin to card and were using it to package food stuffs. At this time, they were also making lightweight storage boxes out of papyrus. However, in the Western world, the achievement of inventing cardboard boxes (which were also made out of paperboard) was given to Sir Malcolm Thornhill, a British industrialist and the person who fabricated the kinds of cardboard boxes we all know today (the kinds with corrugated fluting sandwiched between two card sheets) is attributed to American inventor, Oliver Long.


Q. Why were cardboard boxes made?

To protect and hygienically store food items.


Q. When did cardboard boxes first come out?

Paperboard boxes first came out in 1817 and were made by Sir Malcolm Thornhill. Corrugated cardboard boxes came out in 1874 and were credited to Oliver Long.


Q. When did cardboard boxes become popular?

Cardboard boxes became a prominent form of packaging after 1850 when Kellogg's - the eminent breakfast maker - began using paperboard boxes to package their cereals in.


Q. How were cardboard boxes invented?

Pre-cut or prefabricated cardboard boxes (the kind which come flat-packed and need to be erected) were invented by accident in America in 1879 in a paper bag factory in Manhattan. After a pressman unintentionally cut through thousands of small seed bags instead of pressing them, the factory owner, Scottish-born entrepreneur Robert Gair, realised he could cut and crease paperboard in one go on one machine without the need for workers to cut the boards by hand. Essentially, Robert Gair discovered die-cutting; a way to mass produce cardboard boxes quickly and efficiently from just one piece of card on one machine without the need for gluing or stitching.





The History of Cardboard Boxes


Chapter One: Their Origin Story


Because cardboard is a generic term for all heavy-duty paper-based products (products which are more than 0.25 mm thick), the fascinating history of the cardboard box has to begin with the advent of paper over 2,000 years ago and nearly 5,000 miles away in China.


Circa 100 BC, Cai Lun of the Eastern Han Dynasty developed a pulping process in which to make paper. The process involved boiling fragments of tree bark, hemp, cloth, plant fibers and water into a pulp and then spreading the concoction over porous molds and frames in order to press the mashed materials into thin sheets of paper; a process which still informs how we make cardboard today.


It wasn't until more than 200 years later in 105 AD - thanks to the introduction of new raw materials and a more refined pulping process - that the small-scale production of paper in China transformed into a flourishing industry. The industry, (built by an administration official named Ts'ai Lun), was heralded as a success and paper generation rapidly spread across the Middle Kingdom. Over 500 years later in 610 AD, the art of creating paper left China's shores for the first time as traders exported both the finished product and the knowledge of how to make it to Korea and Japan.


The Western world did not learn about the art of paper-making until the beginning of the 8th Century - over 90 years later - after skilled Chinese paper-makers were captured and held as prisoners by Arabs during their military campaigns. Forcing these artisans to share their closely guarded paper-making secrets, it wasn't until the early 12th Century that this misappropriated knowledge reached Europe and Europeans started to manufacture paper on a grand scale.



Chapter Two: The Advent of Paperboard


Up until the 15th Century, the demand for paper in Europe was slight. That's because for over 1,300 years, paper cost more than vellum; it was more fragile than parchment and its use was associated with Jewish and Arabic people, people who, in that time, were typecast as being wayward and untrustworthy. In fact, nearly every church across Europe banned the use of paper, calling the material and its production process a "pagan art". It was only with the onset of moveable type in the middle of the 15th Century, (circa 1439), that the demand for paper began to rise.


Paperboard originated in China as a means to package and protect food. Nowadays, it can be used for a variety of purposes and can come in an array of colours.

As it did so and as Europeans were becoming more and more absorbed with printing, the Chinese were developing a much thicker style of paper; a product which nowadays we would call paperboard due to its dense, more robust and durable form. More like the card we know today, paperboard was invented primarily for packing and protecting food. Incidentally, it was developed at the same time as the world's first non-wooden box which the Chinese made from papyrus and which were used as lightweight and durable storage containers.


The very first mention of cardboard came from a printing manual in 1677 entitled Mechanick Exercises which was written by Theodore Low De Vinne and Joseph Mixon. In the manual, they refer to cardboard as a printing material, something to be written on rather than to be used as protective packaging.

Despite paperboard and papyrus boxes being made in Eastern Asia, it wasn't until 1817, nearly 420 years later that the Western world discovered how to craft paperboard boxes. And while the French lay claim to the invention (and despite dedicating an entire museum in Valreas to handmade cartons in a bid to prove it; the Musee Du Cartonnage et de Imprimerie), it was one Sir Malcolm Thornhill, a British industrialist who was the first European to transform paperboard into boxes (the types we associate today with cereal boxes and other forms of frangible packaging). In fact, it was around this time that the first documented instance of a box being used for commercial purposes was recorded; paperboard boxes were being used to house a German board game called "The Game of Besieging". It was also around this time that across the pond in America, brothers Aaron and Eliphalet Dennison, watchmakers by trade, began to create small rigid paperboard boxes for jewelers to use around Boston.


Fast forward 23 years and silk manufacturers were using Thornhill's miniature paperboard boxes to transport silkworm eggs, silkworms and silk moths from Japan to Europe. Fast forward another ten years' and Thornhill's cardboard packaging went mainstream thanks to an investment from Kellogg's who started using his lightweight yet strong and stable boxes as packaging for their cereals.


The Oxford English Dictionary states that the term "cardboard" first appeared in popular literature in 1848 when Anne Brontë mentioned it in her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Like the authors of the Mechanick Exercises, Brontë referred to cardboard as something to write on.



The tradition of Boxing Day originated in the Middle Ages, when parishioners from local churches would go and collect money for the poor in alms boxes which were only to be opened on the day after Christmas in honour of St. Stephen (whose feast day falls on the 26th December) - hence the name "Boxing Day". These poor boxes were traditionally made from wood or pottery, however, by the mid 19th Century, they were being made from cardboard. So, in a way, yes, Boxing Day does have something to do with cardboard boxes!


Up until the 19th century, this philanthropic tradition of people giving money to the poor in alms boxes grew into a more festive practice. The term 'poor boxes' was slowly replaced by the term 'Christmas boxes' but these were not yet the Yule Tide containers we all know and love, rather they were sums of money gifted by benevolent employers to staff and tradesmen with whom they had dealings with throughout the year. Like the alms boxes of old, these 'Christmas boxes' were given so they could be enjoyed on the day after Christmas; on Boxing Day.


This tradition remained prevalent up until the end of the 18th Century when the sentimental traditionalists of the Victorian era, who really went to town on making Christmas a true celebration, transformed these benevolent acts into the art of giving gifts, not just to employees and tradesmen but to family and friends too. Initially, gifts would be hung from the branches of people's Christmas trees and were wrapped in fabric or paper, and if too big for hanging, would be hidden inside wooden chests. However, in the advent of the industrial revolution, where it was possible to mass produce items including toys and paperboard containers, Christmas boxes became exactly that; a form of packaging to hide Christmas gifts in and which could be wrapped in decorative paper and placed under Christmas trees.


So, now you know, Boxing Day does have a little something to do with cardboard boxes!

Chapter Three: The American Effect


Corrugated paper; even on its own it's a completely compostable and recyclable form of protective packaging.

By 1850, paperboard packaging was in its element; a true commercial success, Kellogg's were using paperboard to box their cereals and other companies were beginning to use it to house their products too. From soaps and confectionery to clothes and condoms, boxes were becoming a fashionable - and affordable - way to package items. But when did these types of boxes begin to look and feel more like the ones we all know today?


That wouldn't be until 1871, 21 years' later, after two British gentlemen; Edward G. Healy and Edward E. Allen, in a bid to strengthen top hats and to make them warmer, more durable and more comfortable to wear patented a process in which to pleat paper in 1856. This pleated paper, also known as corrugated card (the wavy, s-shaped fluting you find sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard in contemporary cardboard boxes) was adopted by an American, Albert L. Jones, and was used as a form of protective packaging.


Appreciating this type of paper's ability to absorb and dampen shocks, Jones adapted Healy and Allen's invention by strengthening it on one side with a flat piece of card and used it to wrap glass bottles and kerosene lamp chimneys to keep them safe during storage and transit. Finding that this material protected his wares better and more hygienically than other forms of protective packaging of the time (typically fabrics, straw and saw dust), on 19th December of that year, Jones received the first US patent for corrugated paperboard; the Western world's first form of protective cardboard packaging.


Three years' later, another American, Oliver Long, introduced improvements to Jones' invention by adding a second flat liner to the pleated paper. The addition of another piece of flat card not only maintained the packaging's flexibility, it also reinforced the paper's protective qualities without the waves ever losing their shapes. So much so, it can be said that Long's adaptation was the one enhancement to herald the dawn of the modern day corrugated cardboard box. But when did making corrugated cardboard boxes become a commercial enterprise? When were cardboard boxes being made on a grand scale?



Chapter Five: Wood Pulp Fiction


In 1879, 62 years after Sir Malcolm Thornhill invented paperboard boxes and 23 years after the invention of cardboard fluting, Scottish-born entrepreneur Robert Gair, who owned a paper bag factory in Manhattan, was the first American to be credited with making pre-cut paperboard boxes. After a pressman accidentally cut through thousands of small seed bags instead of pressing them; Gair realised he could cut and crease paperboard in one operation by setting the sharp cutting blades higher than the creasing blades. Essentially, Gair had discovered die-cutting; a way to mass produce boxes quickly and efficiently from one piece of card with just one machine, without the need for gluing or stitching.


Kraft paper; an innovative product that changed the way we see cardboard boxes.

In the same year, in the city of Gdansk, German chemist Carl F. Dahl created a new type of paper; Kraft paper. Meaning "strong" in German, this aptly named paper boasted high elasticity and an impressive resistance to tearing. Created by pulping pine wood chips in a similar fashion to Cai Lun's ancient Chinese paper-making method, by 1884, Dahl had patented his iconic rolls of brown Kraft paper and by 1906 paper mills all over the world were manufacturing them; sending rolls to corrugating or converting plants to be transformed into cardboard boxes.


Not one to miss out on innovation, in 1896 Robert Gair made the switch from paperboard to Kraft paper and corrugated card, thereby recasting the way he made ductile prefabricated cardboard boxes. With these modifications, Gair was able to cut 750 sheets of cardboard in an hour on his press, producing the same amount of boxes in just two and a half hours as to what his entire factory could produce by hand in one day. By doing this, Gair had created packaging which served as a simple, durable and affordable solution to the commercial shipping needs of the time which were emerging all across the globe.


It was finally at this point that cardboard boxes became the ubiquitous, versatile and indispensable catchalls that carry, store and preserve items which we all know and love today.



And the Future of Cardboard Boxes?

The honest answer is, no one knows what the future of cardboard boxes holds! After all, the future of anything is only limited to people's imagination, their accumulated acumen and the types of technology available at the time. So, over the next few years, with ingenuity and with advances in mechanization, the humble cardboard box has the potential to transform into something completely different; something more cleverly commodious, convenient and Earth-conscious to appeal to the times in which we live. In the same vein, it could be said that cardboard boxes might even become obsolete as the world makes a bid to be as environmentally-responsible as possible; replacing cardboard boxes with fully re-usable packaging products made from stronger, all-natural materials in a single stage, energy-saving, waste-reducing and pollution diminishing production process.


Whatever happens with cardboard boxes, however, here at Eco Packaging Solutions, our reputation as being a vanguard for the UK's eco-friendly packaging industry means we're always on the lookout to modernise our manufacturing processes so that we can ensure all of our customers receive the most innovative and most environmentally-friendly forms of packaging. Whether made from cardboard or other natural and sustainable materials, we will always provide our clients with innovative and fully compostable packaging solutions.


Would you like to discuss your eco-friendly packaging requirements with a team of passionate, knowledgeable and helpful eco warriors?


If so, don't be shy! We'd love to hear from you!


Get in touch by calling us on +44 (0)2920 854 860 or drop us an email to see how we could help you package more responsibly.

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