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The history of the cardboard box | by whitneyj.starr
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The history of the cardboard box

The cardboard box goes largely unappreciated. Yet, it is indispensable to our daily living. It holds all of our knick-knacks and personal mementos when we move or have things shipped. It holds our breakfast cereal. It has been used for countless children's art projects; fashioned into a robot head or a horse's body. Heck, it is even in the International Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York. As with a lot of things that have become commonplace, hardly any thought has been put into how and why it was invented and by whom. In fact, the history of the cardboard boxes, besides rarely being talked about, isn't particularly well documented either. However, cobbled together through several sources, patents, and old forgotten texts, we can start to piece together the story of the ubiquitous cardboard box.


It seems the beginnings of cardboard dates back to China, about three or four thousand years ago. During the first and second century B.C., the Chinese of the Han Dynasty would use sheets of treated Mulberry tree bark (the name used for many trees in the genus Moras) to wrap and preserve foods. This fact is unsurprising considering the Chinese are credited with the invention of paper during the Han Dynasty, perhaps even around the same time (the earliest paper ever discovered was an inscription of a map found at Fangmatan in the Gansu province).


Paper, printing, and cardboard slowly made its way west thanks to the silk road and trade among the empires of Europe and China. While cardboard likely ended up in Europe much earlier than the 17th century, the first mention of it comes from a printing manual entitled Mechanick Exercises, which was written by Theodore Low De Vinne (well-known scholarly author of typography) and Joseph Mixon (a printer of math books and maps, while also believing, rather bizarrely, that the Arctic was devoid of ice because there was sunlight there 24 hours a day). In the manual, it reads:


Scabbord is an old spelling of scabbard or scale-board, which was once a thin strip or scale of sawed wood…. The scabbards mentioned in printers' grammars of the last century were of cardboard or millboard.


Through this description, it is inferred that cardboard was used as printing material and to be written on, rather than in box form and for storage.


The first documented instance a cardboard box being used was in 1817 for a German board game called "The Game of Besieging," a popular war strategy game. Some point to an English industrialist named Malcolm Thornhill being the first to make a single-sheet cardboard box, but there is scant evidence of who he was or what he stored in the cardboard box. It would be another forty years before another innovation rocked the cardboard world.


In 1856, Edward Allen and Edward Healey were in the business of selling tall hats. They wanted a material that could act as a linear and keep the shape of the hat, while providing warmth and give. So, they invented corrugated (or pleated) paper. Corrugated paper is a material typically made with unbleached wood fibers with a fluted sheet attached to one or two linear boards. They apparently patented it in England that same year, though English patents from prior 1890 are notoriously difficult to find and most have yet to be digitized, so we weren't able to read over the patent as we normally would while researching.


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Uploaded on October 12, 2016