CFAES Give Today

Ohio State University Extension


A History of Packaging

Community Development
Paula Hook and Joe E. Heimlich
Revised and adapted by Cynthia Bond

Very early in time, food was consumed where it was found. Families and villages were self-sufficient, making and catching what they used. When containers were needed, nature provided gourds, shells and leaves to use. Later, containers were fashioned from natural materials, such as hollowed logs, woven grasses and animal organs.

Fabrics descended from furs used as primitive clothing. Fibers were matted into felts by plaiting or weaving. These fabrics were made into garments, used to wrap products or formed into bags. With the weaving process, grasses, and later reeds, were made into baskets to store food surpluses. Some foods could then be saved for future meals and less time was needed for seeking and gathering food.

As ores and compounds were discovered, metals and pottery were developed, leading to other packaging forms. A brief review of the more popular packaging developments is included in this fact sheet.

Paper and Paper Products

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), the 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. 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.


Although glass-making began in 7000 B.C. as an offshoot of pottery, it was first industrialized in Egypt in 1500 B.C. Made from base materials (limestone, soda, sand and silica), which were in plentiful supply, all ingredients were simply melted together and molded while hot. Since that early discovery, the mixing process and the ingredients have changed very little, but the molding techniques have progressed dramatically.

At first, ropes of molten glass were coiled into shapes and fused together. By 1200 B.C., glass was pressed into molds to make cups and bowls. When the blowpipe was invented by the Phoenicians in 300 B.C., it not only speeded production but allowed for round containers. Colors were available from the beginning, but clear, transparent glass was not discovered until the start of the Christian era. During the next 1000 years, the process spread steadily, but slowly, across Europe.

The split mold developed in the 17th and 18th centuries further provided for irregular shapes and raised decorations. The identification of the maker and the product name could then be molded into the glass container as it was manufactured. As techniques were further refined in the 18th and 19th centuries, prices of glass containers continued to decrease. One development that enhanced the process was the first automatic rotary bottle making machine, patented in 1889. Current equipment automatically produces 20,000 bottles per day.

While other packaging products, such as metals and plastics, were gaining popularity in the 1970s, packaging in glass tended to be reserved for high-value products. As a type of “rigid packaging,” glass has many uses today.


Ancient boxes and cups, made from silver and gold, were much too valuable for common use. Other metals, stronger alloys, thinner gauges and coatings were eventually developed.

The process of tin plating was discovered in Bohemia in A.D. 1200 and cans of iron, coated with tin, were known in Bavaria as early as the 14th century. However, the plating process was a closely guarded secret until the 1600s. Thanks to the Duke of Saxony, who stole the technique, it progressed across Europe to France and the United Kingdom by the early 19th century. After William Underwood transferred the process to the United States via Boston, steel replaced iron, which improved both output and quality.

In 1764, London tobacconists began selling snuff in metal canisters, another type of today's “rigid packaging.” But no one was willing to use metal for food since it was considered poisonous.

The safe preservation of foods in metal containers was finally realized in France in the early 1800s. In 1809, General Napoleon Bonaparte offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could preserve food for his army. Nicholas Appert, a Parisian chef and confectioner, found that food sealed in tin containers and sterilized by boiling could be preserved for long periods. A year later (1810), Peter Durand of Britain received a patent for tinplate after devising the sealed cylindrical can.

Since food was now safe within metal packaging, other products were made available in metal boxes. In the 1830s, cookies and matches were sold in tins and by 1866 the first printed metal boxes were made in the United States for cakes of Dr. Lyon's tooth powder.

The first cans produced were soldered by hand, leaving a 1 1/2-inch hole in the top to force in the food. A patch was then soldered in place but a small air hole remained during the cooking process. Another small drop of solder then closed the air hole. At this rate, only 60 cans per day could be manufactured.

In 1868, interior enamels for cans were developed, but double seam closures using a sealing compound were not available until 1888.

Aluminum particles were first extracted from bauxite ore in 1825 at the high price of $545 per pound. When the development of better processes began in 1852, the prices steadily declined until the low price of $14 per pound in 1942. Although commercial foils entered the market in 1910, the first aluminum foil containers were designed in the early 1950s, while the aluminum can appeared in 1959.

After cans were invented and progressively improved, it was necessary to find a way to open them. Until 1866, a hammer and chisel was the only method. It was then that the keywind metal tear-strip was developed. Nine years later (1875), the can opener was invented. Further developments modernized the mechanism and added electricity, but the can opener has remained, for more than 100 years, the most efficient method of retrieving the contents. In the 1950s, the pop top/tear tab can lid appeared and now tear tapes that open and reseal are popular.

Collapsible, soft metal tubes, today known as “flexible packaging,” were first used for artist’s paints in 1841. Toothpaste was invented in the 1890s and started to appear in collapsible metal tubes. But food products really did not make use of this packaging form until the 1960s. Later, aluminum was changed to plastic for such food items as sandwich pastes, cake icings and pudding toppings.


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 cellophane 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.

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.

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.


Program Area(s): 
Originally posted May 11, 2017.