Life, the universe and packaging

Materials World magazine
3 May 2015

Rhiannon Garth Jones tracks some of the key packaging materials and designs throughout history.

We often look back at the ancient world for inspiration and understanding and, while many packaging materials, such as glass, have been around for nearly as long as civilisation, it isn’t an area where antiquity provides much stimulus. However, with an increased focus on natural materials for packaging in recent years, we may be revisiting past ideas with new eyes.

The key role played by trade in most ancient empires meant the clay amphorae used from the Neolithic period onward are the form of packaging most commonly associated with antiquity. Shaped to stand upright in soft ground, be stacked in ships and enable pouring, amphorae were used across the Mediterranean for more than 4,000 years. Once emptied they were thrown away, as the clay used to produce them was cheap and abundant – clearly, the ancient world did not share our notions of sustainability. In an early example of the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach, the design of these amphorae didn’t change significantly over four millennia – the addition of handles being the only major improvement. 

It is likely that ancient China had the most advanced form of packaging – although it may not have directly influenced later methods. Airtight food cans dating back 2,500 years have been found, sealed with multiple layers of natural materials, including bamboo leaves, wet clay and silk. It was to be a long time before food cans made a comeback in the packaging world. The Dutch navy started to preserve beef by packing it in hot fat and then sealing it in iron cans in the late 1700s, but the process of using tin cans as we know it is commonly attributed to the French inventor Nicolas Appert. He responded to Napoleon’s request for better preservation of food by demonstrating his method of storing food in glass, closed with corks and secured with wire. Shortly after, tin cans – already being manufactured to maintain the moisture and flavour of snuff – replaced glass bottles, which significantly improved the heat processing of food to extend shelf life.

The first cans were soldered by hand, meaning only around 60 could be manufactured per day. A small hole would be left in the top to force in the food before a patch was soldered into place. By 1868, interior enamels for cans had been created and, by 1888, double seam closures using a sealing compound were available. However, it would be 1959 before the first aluminium cans appeared on the market, despite aluminium particles being extracted from bauxite ore in 1825. The initial prices were US$545 per pound – too high for mass production. Improvements in the extraction processes pushed the price down over time until, by 1942, it had reached US$14. The commercialised aluminium foils that had first reached the market in 1910 now became cheaper, with containers and then cans being produced after the Second World War. In 2015, 1.3bln cans are produced globally each day – a far cry from the early years.

Around the same time as tin cans were emerging, what we would currently identify as paper (made from wood pulp, not flax fibres or linen) was also introduced as a packaging material. In 1817, a paperboard carton was produced in England. In 1844, the first commercialised paper bags were manufactured in England, followed by Francis Wolle’s invention of the bag-making machine in the USA, in 1852. Flat-pack folding cartons came into common use in the 1860s, and further innovations ensured the status of paper as a key material in packaging over the next decade. Glued paper sacks and automatically produced in-line printed paper bags came next, replacing the more expensive cotton flour sacks. Finally, a means of sewing ends for sturdier multi-walled paper sacks was invented, replacing cloth bags for larger quantities.

The true modern age of packaging, however, began with the creation of plastics. Despite the progress made during the 19th Century, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the advances made in chemistry enabled plastics to revolutionise the packaging industry, with new options for foods and toiletries crowding the market. Products that had previously been packaged in different materials have, at varying speeds, transferred their allegiance to plastic alternatives. Tobacco, soups, stock and chocolate have all changed, with their iconic designs being adapted to this brave new world. Even some high-end alcoholic beverages now sometimes use plastic.

Early styrene products, made from 1831 onwards, tended to shatter easily because of their brittle properties, but the process of distilling the material from balsam was improved in Germany and, by the 1950s, styrene foam was available worldwide for a range of packaging uses – most recognisably, the foam boxes and trays of the fast food industry. Bakelite toiletry products hit the market at the start of the 20th Century, alongside metal cases for lipstick. By the 1940s, metal aerosol cans and moulded deodorant squeeze bottles made from vinyl chloride had arrived, shortly followed by the increasing use of polyethylene tubes for toothpastes and cosmetics and, towards the end of the swinging 1960s, thermoformed blister packs.

Since the 1980s, the innovations have come thick and fast. Packaging has become scented, incorporating modified atmospheres, active and intelligent and even interactive – transforming the industry. The internet of things, with its even greater focus on the link between consumer and product, looks set to take that further. In more recent years, the growing demand for sustainability across all spheres has demanded further creativity from designers, spurring many to look away from plastics and find new ways of using more traditional materials. However, as this brief overview shows, it’s an industry that can rise to the challenge. 

The timeline:

c.3500BC clay amphorae

c.1500BC industrialised glass production

c.300BC first form of air tight food cans

Late 1700s iron cans

1817 paperboard carton

1831 styrene

1835 vinyl chloride

1844 commercialised paper bags

1860s flat-pack folding cartons

1868 interior enamels for cans

1870 celluloid

1872 polyvinyl chloride

1888 double seam closures for cans

1900 cellulose acetate

1907 Bakelite

1910 aluminium foil

1926 aerosol spray cans

1950s styrene foam

1959 aluminium cans

1970 PET

1973 barcode invented

1980s MAP

2000s the internet of things