The Evolution of Packaging
Chapter 03 — How innovations shaped packaging over 150 years
Product packaging plays several important functions which enable commerce and trade. The functions of modern day packaging go beyond containing, protecting and preserving products. It also includes functions to communicate, promote and transact products. Packaging provides several visceral cues designed to affect consumers perception of the product and influence their behavior.
These functions are considered normal today, but it took over 150 years for product packaging to evolve into a carefully designed artifact that integrates multiple functions of commerce into a thin film wrapped around products. Growing competition and continuous technological innovations have shaped the evolution of packaging since 1860s.
As we researched key technology and material innovations during this vast period, it became evident that these developments revolved closely around cultural phenomenon and consumer behaviors prevalent around given time periods. So we sectioned our analysis across 6 time periods and mapped the technological developments against cultural developments.
This approach provided unique lenses to look at the history of packaging and revealed very interesting perspectives on where things stand today and how we can design better for the future of packaging.
A Brief History of Packaging Innovations
In ancient times, food was produced and consumed locally so there was no need for packaging. But as the civilizations grew, the need to contain, protect, and transport food supplies became critical. Primitive man used vessels and containers made of natural materials in form of tree leaves, bamboo, lotus leaves, palm leaves, gourds, coconut shells, shells and animal skin. Later on, as minerals, ores and chemicals were discovered, metals and pottery were developed leading to use of new materials including fabrics, ceramics, metals, lacquerware, wood ware, jade ware, and certain types of paper. Steam engines marked the beginning of Industrial Revolution.
Photo Source: Pencil art sketch by J.Curtis Rice.
Industrial revolution created a sudden demand for better products as trade flourished and more goods became available to consumer. Since materials were expensive, packaging was limited to luxury goods only. The period during and after WWI saw a remarkable number of packaging innovations like molded glass, cardboard boxes, metal cans, and cellophane that made packaging commonplace. This pushed manufacturers to establish an identity to sell to consumers.
The Great Depression marked the rise of supermarket culture and it drastically changed distribution and consumption patterns worldwide. This behavioral change of self-service model called for packaging to assume the role of a ‘silent-salesman’.Post WWII consumerism enjoyed the conveniences offered by the single use-and-throw materials that heralded with the discovery of aluminium foil, and plastics.
The rise of digital technologies in later half of 20th century allowed businesses to scale rapidly and become global. With unprecedented competition, packaging came to be the way of differentiating product on the shelf. As much as packaging has become essential to the business, it is also recognized as a threat to the environment. And hence much research continues not just to find new materials, but also to find optimal and sustainable solutions.
In last couple of decades, advances in personal computing, and mobiles have significantly transformed consumer behavior and thus their expectations. With access to information every time, every where, they value engaging experiences that provide a utility or novelty. Since the birth of barcodes, many digital technologies have continually been tested to bring reforms to retail experiences. And once again product packaging is at the center of these developments.
With the rising notion of the Internet of Things, coupled with advances in mobile computing, RFID, Augmented Reality, and Biosensors, we are at the tipping point where delightful digital experiences will position product packaging as an ESP or Emotional Selling Point.
Early Age Packaging Materials
The conclusive summary of historic development of packaging above suggests a lot of patterns across several decades. Lets dive deep into each of those time periods to have a better understanding of these patterns. It is interesting to see how the innovations, while trying to meet consumer needs, periodically shaped consumer behaviors too.
As a result of the Industrial Revolution, there were significant innovations in improving manufacturing processes and materials. Most materials used for storing products included wood crates, barrels, cloth, glass — were primarily rigid and expensive. But manufacturers of high value goods saw packaging as a reflection of the quality of their products, and hence there was a palpable interest in finding new and cheaper ways to make a trade more appealing.
- In 1200 B.C. glass was pressed into molds to make cups and bowls. The techniques to blow glass continued to evolve and split molding was developed in 17th century allowing for irregular shapes. Since 19th century, glass is primarily used to package medicines, spirits, liquids, and other high value goods.
- In 1200 A.D. the process of tin plating was invented in Bohemia. Tin was the first metal that economically allowed use of metals in packaging, soon it was used to make tin cans and tin foils. In early 1800s Nicholas Appert, found that food sealed in tin containers and sterilized by boiling could be preserved for long periods. Over a period of time, this established metal packaging as a food grade packaging material.
- In 1830s, tin boxes were used for selling cookies, chocolates, and tobacco products. Soon after, first soft metal tubes were produced in 1841 to be used for artist paints and they gained instant popularity.
- In 1690, first paper mill in the U.S. was built near Philadelphia. At that time paper was hand-made out of parchment and rags, both of which were expensive and limited in supply.
- In 1796, Lithography was invented Alois Senfelder in Munich. This enabled printing of black-and-white illustrations on printed labels. One-color lithographed or letterpress labels were widely used on glass bottles, metal boxes and early paperboard boxes. Color printing or chromolithography was invented in 1837 and became popular soon after manufacturers realized its potential.
- First paper making cylinder machine was installed in 1817 by Thomas Gilpin in Delaware used to make paperboards and other forms of paper used in packaging. This gave birth to ‘flexible packaging’. Mechanization made paper plentiful but cost limited its use until paper could be made commercially from wooden pulp in 1850s. The invention of paper bag making machine in by Francis Wolle in 1852 further pushed use of paper in packaging.
1860s, 1870s, 1880s: The Era of Dual Use Packaging
The second wave of Industrial Revolution began during this time and with major developments in railroads, trade suddenly flourished. Materials and processes during this time were still expensive and laborious. During this time packaging was primarily seen as a way of storage, and reserved for only high value goods like jewelry, gift items, shoes, and premium foods. As the materials were indispensable, they were structurally designed to serve a function after product use. Thus, dual use packaging was a solution to command high price and assure ingenuity of the manufacturing quality.
Tobacco pack reused as picnic lunch box — Dixie Queen
Popular examples of dual use packaging include premium tobacco products like Dixie Queen’s Tobacco Tin which measured 7.5x5x4 inches in dimension, had two handles and a nice lithographed design pattern so as to resemble a picnic basket. These tin boxes were very popular until 1900s when they were replaced with more playful roly-poly canisters which could be used as toys after tobacco consumption.
Flour sacks repurposed as dress materials — Bemis Bro
Bemis Bro Bag Co. from Minneapolis were the largest sack manufacturers. They sold patterned feed sacks and flour bags. These bags were printed with decorative patterns could be used to sew dresses, aprons, pajamas, children’s clothes, and other household necessities like draperies, tablecloths, quilts, towels, sheets and pillowcases. Bemis continued to market dress print bags through the 1960s.
More innovations during this period:
- 1866 — First printed metal boxes were made for Dr. Lyon’s tooth powder. Metal tear-strip was also invented during this time. Further innovations in sealing the packaging to preserve goods, continued during this period.
- 1867 — Process for deriving cellulose fiber from wood pulp was developed. Wood being cheap and plentiful, this fiber source rapidly replaced cloth fibers as the primary source of paper fiber. Today, virtually all paper has wood pulp as the source of cellulose fiber.
- 1870 — First registered U.S. trademark was awarded to the Eagle-Arwill Chemical Paint Company, thus establishing a goodwill between manufacturer and the consumer.
- 1879 — Robert Gair accidently invented paperboard cartons when a metal rule normally used to crease bags shifted in position and cut the bags. 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. Such folding cartons or “tubular cartons” dominate the dried, processed food market.
1890s, 1900s, 1910s: Building Brand Identity
With rising trade, the phrase “let the buyer beware” became popular since inferior and impure quality products were disguised and sold to uninformed customers by counterfeits. This posed serious threat to original manufacturers and they began to mark their product with their identification to alert potential buyers. But that was not sufficient, so manufacturers turned to use packaging in innovative ways to establish their brand identity.
Branded Packaging — Uneeda Biscuit
In 1896, National Biscuit Company invested $1 Million in creating an identity for Uneeda Biscuits to take on its rival Cracker Jacks. Uneeda Biscuits were wrapped inside a waxed paper liner inside a tray-style paper carton, and the colorful brand-printed wrapper featured a boy in a raincoat to emphasize the moisture barrier. This allowed preserving biscuits for longer periods and they can now be transported easily in a clean unit-size package.
The Uneeda Biscuit package is often cited as the birth of consumer packaging because of its widespread distribution and the dramatic effect that folding cartons were to have on retailing business in the century to come. The carton packaging also represented the power of brand advertising that relied on packaging as a sales tool tied to an easily recognizable identity advertised in magazines, and on the billboards.
Packaging Shape as an Identity — Coca-Cola
In early 1900s, Coca Cola found that a straight-sided bottle wasn't distinctive enough and that Coca‑Cola was becoming easily confused with ‘copycat’ brands. Glass manufacturers were approached to come up with a unique bottle design for Coca‑Cola. The Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana, designed with the famous contour shape, which won enthusiastic approval from Coca‑Cola in 1915 and was introduced in 1916. The new bottle design instantly became an integral part of the brand identity and is today one of the most recognized icons in the world — even in the dark.
More innovations during this period:
- 1890 — Michael Owens invented first automatic rotary bottle-making machine. Suddenly, glass containers of all shapes and sizes became economically attractive for consumer products, and from the early 1900s until the late 1960s glass containers dominated the market for liquid products.
- 1894 — Thompson and Norris produced the first double-faced corrugated boxes that prevented material from stretching during transportation. Corrugated boxes played an essential role in developing mass distribution throughout the 20th century.
1920s, 1930s, 1940s: The Era of “Silent Salesman”
In the early part of the 19th century, retailers played an important role in making a trade happen. Food items were sold in loose, and needed wrapping and weighing. This meant that consumer had to wait while their orders were made up. But the rise of cheap and clean packaging solutions had solved this problem to a large extent and retailer’s role in facilitating a trade started to marginalize. This allowed for huge retail chains to come in where products were displayed on the shelf, and consumer themselves had to make a purchase choice. The big chains had a price advantage, and were slowly gaining momentum.
But immediately after The Great Depression, supermarkets became a dominant force and marked a major shift in the consumer behavior. Manufacturers once again turned to product packaging to be the silent salesman — differentiating from competition and affecting a sale.
Shifting Shopping Behavior — Piggly Wiggly
Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly stores are widely credited with introducing self-service shopping chain in U.S. in early 1920s. Consumers were given shopping baskets and asked to pick what they needed. This was a little bewildering, but the 4.5%-14% price advantage made it an immediate success. The rise of automobiles fueled its growth further as housewives could now travel miles to get the deals.
After the Depression hit U.S. economy in 1929, a sharp demand for low prices encouraged chains like Kroger, A&P, Safeway and others to open giant superstores that offered everything under single roof at very prices up to 14% lower than most chains.
Increasing Visual Appeal — Flexography
Most packaging till this period leaned on distinct typographic treatments to create a visual identity. Due to limitations of letterpress printing, product packaging could only be embraced with illustrative painted imagery to define the contents, it was not truly an interpretation or an honest impression of the product contents. It was after the invention of aniline printing technology in late 1920s that packaging materials afforded visual information with a higher degree of accuracy, reproducing impressions of actuality realistically. The aniline printing used aniline dye on rubber blocks and the technique allowed printing on any kind of substrate including corrugated boards, milk cartons, paper bags, folding cartons and metallic films. This technique later on came to be known as Flexography, and is now the default for package printing.
More innovations during this period:
- 1920s — Nutritional value of canned foods gradually approached that of the fresh product. For consumers, the choice between fresh or canned food increasingly became a question of taste, preference, and convenience.
- 1924 — DuPont bought licensed exclusive rights to make and sell Cellophane in U.S. The cellophane sheet was a clear, transparent protective layer wrapped over primary packaging, to prevent product from moisture and extend its shelf life.
- 1931—Aluminum foil was packaged in appropriate sizes and thicknesses, in both rolls and sheets a decade after first aluminium foil laminated carton was produced. It started being used as an institutional wrap primarily for use by hotel, restaurant, and hospital kitchens.
- 1930s and 1940s — The years preceding World War II, amidst a climate of escalating industry consolidation, were also a time of tremendous innovations for synthetics like vinyl, ethylene, and acrylic. U.S. government massively invested in building industrial infrastructure for this new sector. And these innovations lead to discovery of PVC, Nylon, Teflon, Polystyrene, Polyethylene, each of which transformed several industries and heralded the rise of Plastic Age in years to follow.
1950s, 1960s, 1970s: Convenience As The Motivation
Post World War II, U.S. experienced massive economic growth over next three decades as its gross national product grew more than nine times the value of $100 billion in 1940. During the time, even the poorest Americans were affluent compared to world standards. As a result of this, everyone was able to afford most luxuries available at the time. This lead to an exuberant growth in consumerism, and everyone wanting to have a modern and convenient lifestyle.
Most development of the moldable metals and plastics, happened much earlier than this period, but its exploits were primarily limited to military use. But after WWII, the consumer market exploded with the continuous innovations in aluminium and plastics. Owing to mega efforts of giants like DuPont, Dow Chemicals, and the likes — shinier, sturdier, cleaner, more flexible, and modern looking materials were available at cheaper price compared to traditional materials. This provided impetus to re-invent existing packaging solutions and plastics and metal cans took over majority of consumer packaging, while paper was limited in use and glass reserved for high value products only.
Convenient Lifestyles — Swanson TV Dinners
Soon after invention of aluminium foil in 1954, Swanson introduced TV Dinners that offered busy consumers, the conveniences of pre-processed foods requiring minimal preparation. The original dinner tray was made out of aluminium, carved into three compartments to neatly house frozen foods. The frozen dinner could be heated in an oven and easily consumed. TV Dinners fulfilled two post-war trends: fascination with television, and lure of time-saving modern appliances. While these trends encouraged buying behavior, disposable or use-and-throw packaging materials became increasingly acceptable.
Medicines in blister packs — Enovid
In 1957, when Enovid was introduced to treat menstrual disorders and infertility, the idea of medicine pills was born. In 1960, the same pills were rebranded and repackaged in blister packs as oral contraceptive pills. The unique blister pack was conceived initially as an aid to patient compliance. The popularity of “the Pill” created a new market for pharmaceutical companies. For the first time, healthy women would be taking medication for an extended period of time. The advanced Enovid-E Compack packaging from 1976, had 20 pills in a blister pack with days of the week written around the rim of a plastic case as a ‘memory-aid’ to assist women in tracking their daily pill regimen. The styled cases also allowed pills to be discreetly carried in bags and purses. Continuing the trend, pharmaceutical companies developed unique packaging in order to distinguish their product from those of their competitors and build brand loyalty.
Explosion of the Toxins — Plastics
DuPont and Dow Chemicals heralded the rapid rise of plastics as they were used for textiles, tires, toys, paints, electronics, and as packaging material, affecting all aspects of life. Alan Pendry captured the versatility of plastics in his award winning short film The Shape of Plastics, in 1962.
While the widespread use of plastics made a lot of economic sense, its environmental effects were soon apparent. In absence of regulations, it was difficult to keep a check on manufacturers. U.S. government passed National Environmental Protection Act in 1970 and form EPA as an authority to tackle environmental issues and form necessary regulations.
More innovations during this period:
- 1950 — Polyethylene was invented to be used as cable shielding material, but soon it outgrew its original use and was used to make products such as food and garbage bags, packaging films, and milk containers. In less than a decade, the demand for PE grew from 5 million pounds to 1.2 billion pounds at the end of 1960.
- 1960 — Reynolds and Alcoa made all-aluminium cans out of one piece of metal. This solved the problem of weights of cans, now only a lid needed to be attached. This provided impetus for invention of rip-off closure and the pop-top lids on aluminium cans.
- 1977 — Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE) invented as material for beverage packaging is today one of the most commonly used plastics.
1980s, 1990s, 2000s: The Rise of Digital
This era was marked by the rise in computing abilities and the evolution of printing technologies as a result. Digital printing technologies, coupled with innovative transactional capabilities provided an unprecedented speed of execution and rapid scaling of business became possible.
While the growing fascination with plastics lead to innovation in packaging shapes and materials, it meant other materials like paper and glass found themselves limited in its use for packaging. This widespread adoption of plastics paved way for use-and-throw behavior, and non-decomposable packaging waste became primary constituent of landfills as a result.
In early 2000's, EPA created stringent laws for businesses to control and reduce environmental impacts. As a result, finding sustainable materials and optimizing waste became a prime agenda, heavily influencing the package design. Now a days, it is a business imperative to reduce the amount of packaging for products not just for its financial benefits, but the emotional connect it offers for consumers — making them feel good about their choice.
Rise of Barcodes
Barcodes have existed since 1950s, but the first commercial U.P.C. scanner was installed in 1974 at a Marsh’s supermarket in Troy, Ohio and the first product to have a bar code included on packaging was a packet of Wrigley’s Gum. Since then, barcodes have become the default checkout processing technology and have revolutionized the retail industry. While barcodes made supermarkets a convenient place to be in, they also hastened the demise of public markets and independent grocery stores.
The World of Digital Publishing
In early 1980s, Adobe, Aldus, Apple, and Hewlett-Packard each produced key technologies that allowed professional desktop publishing to overtake package printing. Owing to the benefits of identical and easy duplication, digital printing presses started to take over traditional printing methods by late 1980s.
The Smartphone Revolution
With the introduction of iPhone in 2007, the smartphones rapidly grew to become a major force and became part of consumer’s shopping behavior. Now a days, consumers use their devices to get product information, compare options and deals, and also to place orders and track post purchase behaviors. The explosion of ‘experience’ happened after Steve Jobs released iPhone in 2007. It became an instant hit and in a few years consumers started expecting more and more from all kinds of products.
Packaging As a System — Target RX Bottles
Target’s clear RX bottles were the first to use graphic communications on packaging as a system to benefit consumers. The bottles had different color rings to help identify different members of the family and both sides of bottle label had clear prescription details printed on them.
This Rise of Digital section is not complete yet, I’ll be adding more recent examples and emerging trends in a separate post which will be release very soon.