Packaging is not a recent phenomenon. It is an activity closely associated with the evolution of society and, as such, can be traced back to human beginnings. A study of packaging’s changing roles and forms over the centuries is, in a very real sense, a study of the growth of civilization.

Because the science of packaging is closely connected to everything we do as a society, it should come as no surprise that the packaging industry is always in a state of change. Entire sectors can become obsolete, or new industries generated by the discovery of a new material, process or need.

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Primitive Packaging

We don’t know what the first package was, but we can certainly speculate. Primitive humans were nomadic hunter/gatherers; they lived off the land. These early humans would have been subject to the geographical migrations of animals and the seasonal availability of plant food.

This meant that humans followed their food sources around and quite often went hungry. Such an extreme nomadic existence does not encourage property accumulation beyond what can be carried on one’s back.

Nonetheless, primitive people needed containment and carrying devices, and out of this need came the first “package” .

It was most likely a wrap of leaves, an animal skin, the shell of nut or gourd, or a naturally hollow piece of wood. Fire was carried from camp to camp, and evidence suggests that the role of fire-bearer and the “packaging” of fire carried a mystical significance.

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Let’s jump ahead to 5000B. C. , a time of some domesticated plants and animals. While the forage or hunt was still important, a reasonable food supply was available in a given vicinity. This evolutionary stage, which supported larger social groups, gave birth to small tribal villages.

Storage and transport containers were needed for milk, honey, seed grains, nuts, and dried meat Villages with access to different resources traded with their neighbors, requiring transport containers.

Fabricated sacks, baskets, and bags, made from materials of plant or animal origin, were added to the primitive packaging list. Wood boxes replaced hollow logs. Clay from a riverbank would have initially been shaped into containers and allowed to dry in the sun.

This was fine for dry products, but wet products quickly converted such containers to mud. Some impatient Neolithic genius, probably trying to hurry the slow process of sun-drying, placed a clay bowl in a fire. Much to his or her pleasure, the fire-dried clay pots were more durable and held their shape when filled with water. Thus was born the pottery and ceramic trade.

Legend has it that Phoenician sailors who used salt blocks to protect their fire from wind on the sandy Mediterranean coast discovered a hard inert substance in the fire’s remains. B2500B. C. , glass beads and Figures were being made in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). The earliest hollow glass objects appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt in about 1500B. C..

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Ancient Egyptian glass containers were core-formed. Hot strands of glass were wrapped around a core of clay and dung. Wavy patterns could be introduced by dragging a stick across the sot hot glass. Rolling the glass against a smooth surface flattened and smoothed the strand lines. When the glass was cool, the core was dug out of the container.

While the printing arts and extensive packaging laws were still in the distant future, law that affected packaging were being enacted as early as the greek city-state period (abou250B.C.).

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From Rome To The Renaissance

An important packaging event, attributed to the Romans in about 50B. C. , was the invention of the glass blowpipe. The blowpipe was a hollow steel rod on the end of which was placed a gob of molten glass.

By blowing into the opposite end, the glassblower could inflate the gob into a hollow vessel in a variety of shapes and sizes. The glassblower could shape the vessel freehand by alternately blowing and shaping, or blow the glass bubble into a cup mold with pre-existing decorations.

The origin of the first wooden barrel is not clear, but it also probably had its start at this time, possibly in the Alpine regions of Europe. The barrel was destined to become one of the most common packaging forms for many centuries.

With the Roman Empire’s collapse in about 450A. D. , Europe was reduced to minor city-states. Many established arts and crafts were forgotten or became stagnant. The 600 years following the fall of Rome were so devoid of significant change that historians refer to them as the Dark Ages.

In China, Ts’ai Lun is credited with making the first true paper from the inner bark of mulberry trees. The name paper was given to the Chinese invention made of matted plant fibers.

Printing from woodcuts-the ancient parent of the printing process known as flexography-also originated in the Far East. The oldest existing printed objects are Japanese Buddhist charms dated to 768. The oldest existing book is the Diamond Sutra, found in Turkistan and printed in 868.

The European world awoke in about 1100. Neglected crafts were revitalized, learning and the arts were revived and trade increased , and by the 1500s, the great age of exploration was well under way. The art of printing was born in this period.

Shops and stores where a person could buy goods did not exist as we know them. Although money as an exchange medium was available, much of the population never saw any. Manufacturing was strictly a custom business, and what we have called packages to this point was personally crafted, as were most goods.

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Packages, where they existed, were valuable utensils, and were rarely disposable in the manner of a modern package.

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Since there was no retail trade, concepts of marketing, advertising, price structures and distribution were irrelevant. Population levels were not large enough to support mass production, even in the most limited sense.

The Industrial Revolution

Encyclopedia Britannica describes the Industrial Revolution as “the change that transforms a people with peasant occupations and local markets into an industrial society with world.wide connections” . This new type of society makes great use of machinery and manufactures goods on a large scale for general consumption.

The Industrial Revolution started in England in about 1700 and spread rapidly through Europe and North America. Some characteristics of this revolution included the following:

Rural agricultural workers migrated into cities, where they were employed in factories.

Inexpensive mass-produced goods became available to a large segment of the population; the consumer society was born.

Factory workers needed commodities and food that were previously produced largely at home.

Many new shops and stores opened to sell to the newly evolving working class.

By necessity, some industries were located in nonagricultural areas, requiring that all food be transported into the growing urban settings.

These changes increased the demand for barrels, boxes, kegs, baskets, and bags to transport the new consumer commodities and to bring great quantities of food into the cities. The fledgling packaging industry itself had to mechanize in order to keep up with the growing demand.

With large segments of the population living away from food production points, it became necessary to devise ways of preserving food beyond its natural biological life.

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The Evolution of New Packaging Roles

For most of recorded history, people lived in rural communities and were largely self-sufficient. Bulk packaging was the rule, with the barrel being the workhorse of the packaging industry.

Flour, apples, biscuits, molasses, gunpowder, whiskey, nails and whale oil were all transported in barrels. Packaging served primarily to contain and protect. Individual packaging was of little importance until the industrial Revolution spurred the growth of cities.

The new industrial workers needed to be fed by a separate agricultural system and supported in most of their nonfood needs by the manufacturing skill of others.

Products were sold generically. Sometimes identifying marks were made with a blackening brush or with a hot branding iron on the barrel or cask to show origin or manufacturer. In time, certain brand marks became associated with quality products.

As individual packaging began to develop, quality producers wished to identify their particular product as a guarantee of quality or composition. The brand mark was carried from the bulk package to unit packages or labels. It was an early form of product branding, as well as the origin of the term “ brand name”

Early food can labels had to appeal to simple country folk, so pictures of pastoral life, barnyards and fruit on a branch were commonly used. Sometimes the label graphics had little to do with the contents, and sometimes the same graphic was used on unrelated products.

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Another popular practice was to display the gold medals won at one or another of the great national and international fairs held frequently at the time. Many early labels were so attractive that they were saved for decorative use.

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The first plastic, based on cellulose, was made in 1856, but packaging applications were still a long way off. In 1907, phenol formaldehyde plastic, later known as Bakelite, was discovered. Bakelite’s major packaging application was for closures.

A few years later, in 1911a machine was built to manufacture continuous cellulosic film. DuPont chemists perfected the cellulose casting process in 1927 and called their product cellophane. Cellulose films dominated the clear film market until the advent of polyethylene and polypropylene. Bakelite was largely displaced by the newer thermoplastics in the 1960s.

In earlier days, craftspeople sold their own wares and were able to explain the available choices or how best to use a product. Now the shopkeeper was not there to aid or influence the consumer’s purchase.

Stores with thousands of products were staffed by persons who had little or knowledge of the product and their applications. The consumer was face to face with the package, and the package’s motivational and informational roles became critical:

  • The package had to inform the purchaser.
  • The package had to sell the product.

Packaging in the Late 20th Century

The birth rate after the Second World War and into the 1950s was so imposing that it earned its own name: the baby boom. Demographics, the study of population structure and trends, was universally realized to be an important factor in designing products and packages

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Fast-food outlets made their appearance in the 1950s and created a demand for new kinds of packaging. The consumer met disposable single-service packaging for the first time, while the fast-food outlets demanded the bulk delivery of ready-to-cook food portions in their own special type of packaging.

Later, two other factors joined the fast-food outlets boom to influence packaging: increased levels of public health care and a rapidly growing trend toward eating out rather than at home. Today, this market is large enough to form its own sector, sometimes called the HRI (hospital, restaurant, and institutional) market.

The 1950s also saw the growth of convenience and prepared food packages, such as cake mixes, TV dinners, boil-in-bag foods and gravy preparations. A rapidly growing technology added petroleum-derived plastics to the package designer’s selection of packaging materials.

The 1970s and early 1980s brought numerous changes, many of them legislated. Child-resistance closures were mandated for some products. Tamper-evident closures were brought in for others.

Labeling laws required listing of ingredients. International agreements were signed to phase out the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Standards for the acceptance of new packaging materials were raised.

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Interesting Reading - Co-development of Packaging and Society

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