The evolution of cardboard. Cardboard, the versatile and eco-friendly material that surrounds us in everyday life, has a fascinating history that dates back centuries. This unassuming substance began as a humble form of packaging and has evolved into a thriving industry in 2023. Read on to explore the origins of cardboard and the incredible innovations that have brought it to its present prominence.
Part 1: The Birth of Cardboard
Ancient China: The Birth of Paper
The history of cardboard is closely tied to the history of paper. The first paper-like material was invented in ancient China over two thousand years ago during the Han Dynasty. Cardboard is basically a type of heavy or durable paper. By this simple definition, one could argue that one of the first known forms of paper, papyrus, was likewise the first real example of cardboard. Papyrus could be made to be stiff and ridged, though typically it was pliable and flexible.
So the first durable paper that most would claim as the grandfather of modern cardboard was invented in China in the fifteenth century. Early paper was therefore made from papyrus, mulberry and other plant fibers, and its uses were primarily for writing and artistic purposes. This type of packaging was later adopted by the Romans, who used it to store and transport goods. The first recorded use of cardboard dates back to the 1800s, when it was used in London to package goods such as sugar, tea, and tobacco.
Cardboard’s Roots: Paperboard
The first precursors to cardboard were created by layering sheets of paper together for added strength. This technique evolved into paperboard, a stiffer and thicker version of paper that began to find use in packaging and as a material for making small boxes and containers.
Part 2: The Industrial Revolution and the Birth of Corrugated Cardboard
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries brought significant advancements to cardboard production. Machines were developed for paper and paperboard manufacturing, allowing for increased production and consistency in quality. In 1817, an Englishman named William Foyle developed a process for making paper from wood pulp, which allowed for faster and cheaper production of cardboard. By the mid-1800s, cardboard boxes had become commonplace for packaging goods.
Corrugated Cardboard: An Ingenious Invention
The major turning point in cardboard’s history was the invention of corrugated cardboard in the mid-19th century. In 1874, G. Smyth invented a machine that could produce mass quantities of corrugated board. By the early 1900s, corrugated cardboard boxes had started to replace wooden crates as shipping cartons. This innovation involved sandwiching a layer of fluted paper between two flat sheets, creating a material that was not only lightweight and cost-effective but also exceptionally strong and rigid. The rise of corrugated cardboard packaging revolutionised the shipping and transportation industries.
1890 brought about another huge innovation in cardboard boxes, as pre-cut single pieces of board that could be folded into boxes were invented.
Some of the best inventions have come from mishaps in life. This is precisely how Scottish businessman Robert Gair discovered how to make pre-cut and creased boxes. Apparently, the invention of modern pre-cut cardboard boxes stemmed from workers in Gair’s factory setting the blades on a cutting machine at an improper height. This miscalculation of blade drop led to the corrugated sheet being creased rather than cut. Finally, Gair realized that he could intentionally set the blades of the die-cutting machine at different lengths to create ready-to-fold cardboard boxes, like the same ones we use today.
Since the cardboard packaging offered protection to the contents inside, it was only natural that companies would prefer that their products arrive looking fresh and unbroken. The convenience provided by the invention of ready-to-fold boxes led to a swath of different companies picking up this new style of packaging for their products, from tobacco and cosmetics to biscuits and cookies.
By 1895, corrugated cardboard boxes jumped shores and began being produced in America for the first time.
Part 3: Cardboard in the 20th Century
World Wars and Cardboard
The necessity of toys during wartime became apparent in Britain in the early stages of the war, when many children had to sit for long hours in air raid shelters, or had been evacuated to the countryside where there was little for city kids to do. With little in the way of entertainment or distractions, toys were needed in order to occupy the kids’ minds. Toys made of rubber or various metals – tin, lead, and cast iron, among others – had been popular in pre-war years, especially for things like toy soldiers and toy trains, tanks,and cars, but due to wartime manufacturing demands, using metal for toys became prohibited. Toys continued to be manufactured, however – but the materials of which they were constructed were now mainly paper or cardboard.
Cardboard’s role expanded during the World Wars, as it was used for various military purposes, including making helmets, storage containers, and even landing craft. Consumer Packaging
After World War II, cardboard found its way into almost every home as consumer packaging. From cereal boxes to shoeboxes, it became a ubiquitous part of daily life.
Part 4: The Cardboard Industry in 2023
Sustainability and Recycling
In recent decades, the cardboard industry has undergone a significant transformation. With growing environmental awareness, there has been a strong emphasis on sustainability and recycling. Cardboard is one of the most recycled materials worldwide, with recovery rates that consistently exceed other materials. The industry has responded by producing eco-friendly, biodegradable, and recyclable cardboard products.
E-commerce and Shipping
The explosive growth of e-commerce and online shopping has driven a massive demand for cardboard packaging. The sturdy and cost-effective nature of cardboard makes it the material of choice for shipping boxes, protecting goods during transit from one side of the world to the other.
Innovations in Cardboard
The cardboard industry in 2023 is marked by innovation. Cardboard has expanded beyond traditional packaging, with applications in architecture, furniture design, and even automotive parts. This shows the adaptability and versatility of the material.
Customisation and Branding
Cardboard packaging today is not just functional but also a branding and marketing tool. Many companies invest in custom-designed packaging to enhance the unboxing experience for their customers, creating a unique and memorable connection.
Cardboard has come a long way from its humble origins in ancient China. From corrugated boxes used in wartime to the versatile, eco-friendly material we see all around us today, cardboard’s journey has been one of innovation and adaptation. In 2023, the cardboard industry is thriving, with an ever-growing emphasis on sustainability, recycling, and customisation. This unassuming material, rooted in the past, continues to shape the future, proving that the simple, sturdy cardboard box is far from being a thing of the past.