Hand-crafted boxes were eclipsed by the folding carton

Posted in Arts and Crafts, Historical articles, History, Industry, Trade on Monday, 26 March 2012

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This edited article about box-making originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 676 published on 28 December 1974.

Match-box makers, picture, image, illustration

Making match-boxes was sweat-shop labour for many children in Victorian times, by Peter Jackson

Now that many things from cereals to washing powder and tea-bags to typing paper are sold in cardboard cartons of one sort or another, it is not surprising that carton-making is a large and important industry. What is surprising is that it began a long time ago, and that several firms who are prominent in this industry today were already making boxes a hundred years ago.

In its early days, however, box-making – as the trade is known – was different in many ways from box-making today. At first, boxes were not included in the price you pay for the contents, as they are today; they were bought individually by people who wanted containers in which to store their possessions. There were large boxes for clothes generally, and smaller ones for hats, ribbons, jewellery, and collars.

It was said:

But a box for hat and cap –
‘Twill keep them safe from all mishap.

This was a familiar London street cry in the eighteenth century; and long before that, in 1635. Sara Jerom and William Webb had applied for a patent for an “engine for cutting timber into thin pieces or scales for making boxes”.

This pinpoints another of the differences between early box-making and modern practice – that in the early days the box-maker’s raw material was not cardboard but wood, in the form of thin chips or scales. This made good sense at the time. Wood was a natural material and it was available in most parts of Britain, whereas cardboard had to be manufactured. It was not until the 1800s that cardboard, or even paper, could be made by machine. Before then, it simply was not produced in the large amounts or at the low cost which its use in packaging would have demanded.

As an industry, box-making began in the nineteenth century. There were several small box-making businesses in England – mostly in London – before 1851, and one box-maker, William Austin, of London, was doing well enough to win a bronze medal at the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park that year. Even so, the exhibition jury noted that the British were lagging behind the French in their packaging progress. In Paris alone, there were about 4,000 people engaged in box-making and producing a wide range of different kinds of boxes – for the packaging of pills, perfumery, fans and gloves amongst other things, as well as large boxes. In Bordeaux, too, fruit-box manufacturing was a growing industry.

The mid-nineteenth century saw the French as world leaders in box-making, but this position did not last for long. Rapid progress was made in other countries, and when Britain held her second great international exhibition, in 1862, the story was very different. This was what the 1862 jury had to say about “fancy box-making”:

“It has now spread into England and elsewhere, and fancy boxes vying with the best French productions are exhibited in the British department . . . In 1851, no such goods were contributed by any English house.”

Not unreasonably, as the demand for packaging developed in this country, box-makers often started in business in towns or districts where there were industries which needed their products. Thus boxes for gloves and hosiery were made in Nottingham, for ribbons in Coventry, pins in Birmingham, and so on. Some of the growing manufacturers set up their own box-making departments, too. Well before the end of the nineteenth century, Cadburys, Frys and Caleys were all making their own boxes for chocolates, as Birds were for custard powder, Reckitts for starch, and Levers for soap.

When we think about cardboard boxes today, we think of them as usually being made of printed cardboard. But this did not apply in the early years of the box-making industry. Neither wood chip nor the early manufactured cardboard was a suitable material for printing on, and any graphic design which was required had to be applied to boxes in the form of paper labels.

The firms who printed these were often quite unconnected with box manufacture. Many of the early box-makers survived (and flourished) for years without doing any printing. Robinsons of Chesterfield, for example, began making chip boxes in 1839 and branched out into cardboard box-making in the early 1850s, but they did not set up a printing department till the 1890s.

From the point of view of manufacturers who used cardboard boxes, a serious disadvantage was the amount of space they took up while empty. Every hundred empty boxes were a hundred boxfuls of air, occupying valuable factory space – until they were filled.

Many inventors sought to get round this snag by developing machinery for the production of folding boxes which could be stacked flat until they were needed. By the time the first issue of the “Box-maker’s Journal” was published, in 1897, over 800 such patents had been taken out in the USA, as well as many in Britain and Germany.

It is easy to see that if you are going to make a folding box from a sheet of cardboard, you will need to cut right through the cardboard in some places. In others, along the lines where it will later be folded, you will only need to crease it. What was not easy was to find a mechanical device that would perform these two different operations at the same time. Credit for being the first man to find a solution to the problem is generally given to Robert Gair, of New York, USA. Gair was a Scotsman by birth, who had emigrated to America and had for some years run his own printing, bag-making and box-making business. One day in 1879, a machine-minder in Gair’s factory accidentally cut some seed bags on a printing press, when he should only have been printing lines on them.

Gair realised the potentialities of this at once; he adapted a small second-hand press so that it would cut with sharp metal blades and crease with blunt ones at the same time.

So the machine-made folding box or carton was born. Gair failed to patent the invention, and within a few years there were other American folding-box manufacturers in business, competing keenly with him. As a result, the consumption of paperboard in the US increased threefold in the years between 1879 and 1889.

It was in this period that the folding box came to England, brought over in 1887 (the year of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee) by Isaac Watts Parmenter, of New York.

Here was the beginning of carton packaging on something like present-day lines, though not yet on the present-day scale. In spite of the setbacks caused by scarcity of materials in two world wars, the thousands have grown into millions. The story that began with Robert Gair nearly a hundred years ago is continued on the shelves of every supermarket today. Whether it is to be continued indefinitely depends on the supply of raw material in a world where we are reminded almost daily of present and future shortages.

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