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How it Happened: Thank a mulberry tree and the Silk Road for the cardboard box

I’ve stopped counting. Peeking into just one RV cupboard, I counted 14! I’m talking about cardboard boxes. From breakfast cereal to crackers to spaghetti noodles—all are packaged inside these boxes. We use them to move things into and out of our RVs. We store things inside cardboard boxes, as well. It’s safe to say that our world would be very different without the lowly cardboard box.

So whose bright idea was the cardboard box?

In order to find out about the cardboard box, we first should take a look at cardboard itself. Historians credit the Chinese Han dynasty as the first people to make and use a cardboard-like substance. These ancient people stripped and treated the bark from the mulberry tree and used the resulting cardstock-like substance to wrap and preserve their food.

The Chinese invention of cardboard traveled along the Silk Road, eventually ending up in Europe. In 1817, a heavy-weight paperboard was used to box a popular German board game, but cardboard as we now know it did not take shape until 1856. At that time, English hatmakers Edward Healey and Edward Allen were searching for a way to make their tall hats retain their shape. They developed corrugated or pleated paper which they inserted into the vertical part of their hats. It worked and the hats stood tall.

In 1871, New Yorker Albert Jones patented a single-faced corrugated cardboard for shipping fragile items. Later in the same year, Oliver Long improved upon Jones’ cardboard by facing both sides of the corrugated paper into what we now know as cardboard. The material wasn’t practical as a replacement for wooden crates because in order to form a container shape, the cardboard needed to be cut by hand. This was too labor-intensive and cost-prohibitive.

A happy accident

As with many helpful inventions, the cardboard box came about by accident. Robert Gair, a native of Scotland, moved to America in 1853. When grown, Gair operated a paper bag and printing company. One day, while printing seed bags, the metal bar used to crease the paper slipped and cut the bags instead. The accident made Gair stop and think. By incorporating a cutting blade along with the creasing bar, perhaps cardboard could be creased and cut simultaneously. This would make mass production of cardboard boxes possible.

The mass-produced box idea took off. For the first time, crackers were stored and transported without the usual breakage. Soon afterward, the Kellogg brothers used boxes for their cereal. Other food manufacturers followed.

The sturdy cardboard box quickly replaced wooden crates. The cardboard box weighed much less and proved easier to handle. Now we use cardboard boxes on a daily basis. Changes have been made to the original, as today’s boxes are often made from recycled materials.

Quick! Check your front door. There just might be an Amazon cardboard box waiting for you now!

Fun fact

In 2005, the cardboard box made its way into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York. No parent is surprised. We’ve all witnessed Christmas mornings when the cardboard box turned out to be a bigger hit than the intended gift itself!

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Carson
6 months ago

Yes, but why are ALL cats, from kittens to lions and tigers, compelled to climb into cardboard boxes as soon as they see them?

James
7 months ago

A corrugated box is not “cardboard”. Cardboard is like a cereal, cracker, toothpaste, soap powder, etc. I worked at a corrugation manufacturer for 18 years and that was a correction that was frequently used; corrugated is NOT cardboard!

Duane R
7 months ago
Reply to  James

Yep! I was going to post a similar comment.

Chic Sanders
7 months ago

Great article. Now we, as a society, have to learn how to reduce/reuse them.

Gail
7 months ago
Reply to  Chic Sanders

Agree!
Have a great day!

KellyR
7 months ago
Reply to  Chic Sanders

Large boxes to crawl under the RV. Cereal boxes to make patterns for some of my wood working projects. THEN, they come from FARMED trees, to start with, AND will degrade into the soil in little time. OR to start the, evidently, ever hated campfires.

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