11th January 2022

From pig-bladders to glass and bonded drinking carton - how packaging evolved

The History of Packaging  - Part One

In our new series we provide insights into 25,000 years of packaging history. In part one from leaves and pig´s bladders, through amphoras and wooden barrels to glass and paperboard, and the usage of plastics and paper in combination. 

Calabashes on display in a crafts market in Oyo state, Nigeria

Packaging has been around for a long time – ever since there has been a need to store and preserve food and make it transportable. In other words, it’s been around since prehistoric times. After all, sufficient food supplies were needed even during periods of drought. Early humans were very inventive. They created storage chambers in caves, dug holes and used what was left of the prey they hunted as means of storage – bladders, skins and leather were their preferred materials. These continued to be used for a surprisingly long time, with drinking straws made of leather still doing the rounds in the Middle Ages. In addition to animal remains, biological materials such as plant leaves and hollowed out bottle gourds known as calabashes were equally suitable. Nature is, after all, an expert when it comes to protecting things and making them last – eggs, nuts, chestnuts, bananas and simple tree bark are virtually perfect packaging solutions.

New materials and ideas: ceramic and wood

When humans began to become sedentary and the first settlements evolved, the need for storage places increased. Gradually, the materials used to make tools, weapons, clothing and houses were also used to produce receptacles. Loam and clay were used to make pots, and pieces of such pots are the classic find at an archaeological dig to this day, with the oldest found to date being around 20,000 years old. However, ceramic only really took off when humans became sedentary approximately 10,000 years ago. The best-known example from the classical era is, of course, the amphora which, it is worth noting, was a single-use product. These containers made of clay were sealed with a plug made of cork. The bark of the cork oak is still elaborately harvested in the Mediterranean region to this day. Other plant-based materials such as twigs, bamboo and reeds lent themselves well to making baskets, while others such as flax, linen and jute were good for lightweight bags. This is still common today.

Starting in the second millennium BCE, the first barrels, buckets and tubs were carved out of wood. It took some time for them to adopt their characteristic form with aligned staves (long wooden slats). The Celts are said to have first used the craft of barrel-making (also known as cooperage) several centuries before the Common Era. The receptacles were used to store and transport wine, beer, vinegar, pickled fish, salt and grains. Metal was needed to fix the staves in place. This had been available since the Bronze Age, but it was only with the discovery of iron that its use for day-to-day purposes became worthwhile.

Ten Arm Owens Automatic Bottle Machine (approx. 1913)

Glass – from a luxury item to the standard material

If you owned glass, you were wealthy. Right up to the 19th century, this translucent material was synonymous with affluence. The art of glass-making is more than 3,500 years old. The earliest evidence of glass-making dates back to antiquity. Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt are often quoted as its place of origin. Glass had a long way to go before it could evolve from an absolutely luxury item to an everyday material, however. Only with the arrival of industrialisation and machine-based manufacturing processes did it become possible for glass containers to be inexpensively mass-produced. In conjunction with the crown cork patented by William Painter in 1892 and the invention of the automatic bottle blowing machine by Michael Joseph Owens in 1903, the glass bottle became one of the most widespread forms of packaging in the world.

Erik Wallenberg, inventor of Tetra Pak's first package

Light and practical – paper and paperboard

While there was no alternative to clay, wood, flax, jute, etc. in Europe for many years, the Chinese were already producing paper using soaked plant fibres some 2,000 years ago. This was used not only for writing on, but soon also for wrapping things. It took a while for this invention to make its way via the Middle East and to Europe, where it was first used for food packaging in the 14th century. The paper bags we are familiar with today have been around since 1879, when the first machine to produce them was invented by the American Margaret Knight. Other development steps followed a while later, such as corrugated board and paperboard. A world-famous combination of paper and plastic, the bonded drinks carton, was introduced as the Tetra Pak on 18 May 1951. The composite material brought worldwide fame to the Swedes Ruben Rausing and Erik Wallenberg. The various pulp and composite products are now an integral part of life and are used in many areas.

Invention of the airtight cap

The invention of industrial preservation at the beginning of the 19th century marks a general turning point in the history of packaging. And the story is as follows: before hitting the pinnacle of his power, Napoleon Bonaparte launched a competition in 1795 for the preservation of food as he intended to wage a number of wars. And the most common cause of death among soldiers was not the battles, but hunger and the cold. Napoleon needed one thing more than anything else to feed his vast army, namely food that would last and could be transported. A major prize awaited the winning inventor.

That same year, 26-year-old Parisian confectioner Nicolas Appert invented a groundbreaking method which he called ‘The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years. He put food in jars, heated them and gave them an airtight seal, thereby inventing the bottling process. He didn’t actually receive his prize money until 1810. And by this time, the next packaging revolution was already occurring in England, because the heavy and breakable glass jars that Appert used were anything but practical for transportation.

In Part 2 you can find out how the tin can was invented and when plastics really began to take off. Coming to the ALPLA blog soon.



Copyright remarks to pictures:

Picture One: © Dotun55, Creative Commons Attrubution-Share Alike 4.0

Picture Two: © public domain

Picture Three: © Tetra Pak, Commons Attributions-Share Alike 2.0 (cropped image)

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