A History of Food Packaging

By Lisa Nash, Administrative Assistant

Food packaging evolves with the progress of knowledge. Material discoveries, manufacturing developments, and new understandings of science shape the history of food packaging. Its developments usher in countless benefits like the improved health and safety of food distribution. Today, food packaging is extremely varied and can accommodate many different distribution needs ranging from food preservation to weight minimization. However, there is no one silver bullet when it comes to food packaging, so every decision has its share of tradeoffs.

The goal is to find the food packaging that meets the food requirements with the least amount of tradeoffs. As the food packaging industry constantly develops, the search for the right food packaging is intricate and exploratory. This blog post will take you back in time to the colonial ages and then through American history. It will examine the characteristics that allow different forms of food packaging to still exist today and then explore what encouraged the rise of new materials and new forms of packaging.



The Colonists

The earliest forms of food packaging that existed in the United States were paper, cloth, wooden crates, and glass. All of these materials, except glass, are made from organic materials and, therefore, biodegrade easily. Paper, paperboard, and cloth are “made from an interlaced network of cellulose fibers” mostly derived from plants. (A little side note: cellulose will make another interesting introduction much later during the invention of plastic.) The woven nature of paper, paperboard, and cloth make these forms of packaging easily permeable by air vapors and liquids and do not persevere food for long periods of time. In contrast, glass “is impermeable to gases and vapors, so it maintains product freshness for a long period of time without impairing taste or flavor.”



The 1800’s

The first metal can was invented in 1809 after General Napoleon Bonaparte made an offer of 12,000 francs for anyone who could invent a method to preserve food for his army. Nicholas Appert, a Frenchman, invented the method of sealing food in tin, airtight cans and sterilizing them through a boiling process. Manufacturers later used tinplate, which is typically steel with a tin coating, to create cans. Metal food packaging is similar to glass in that they both are impermeable by vapors and rigid forms of packaging. Cloth and paper, on the other hand, are flexible forms of packaging.

The 1800’s saw several advances in paper manufacturing, including the mass production of paper bags and paperboard carton. The introduction of paperboard, a thicker paper, brought about the first type of semi-flexible packaging. The commercialization of paperboard carton resulted from the malfunction of a paperboard bag machine while processing an order of seed bags. A ruler, intended to crease the bag, moved so that it creased the bag and cut it in one operation. The owner of the paper bag factory, Robert Gair, recognized the mistake as an opportunity to decrease the time and labor required to make paperboard cartons. This mistake planted the seeds for a successful future for Robert Gair, who manufactured boxes for Kellogg’s cereal and the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco).

As food packaging material, paper is cheap and lightweight and, significantly, provides a canvas on which companies can communicate with consumers. A characteristic that paper lacks is grease resistance; therefore, “when used as primary packaging (that is, in contact with food), paper is almost always treated, coated, laminated, or impregnated with materials such as waxes, resins, or lacquers to improve functional and protective properties”. The mixing of packaging materials to strengthen their characteristics is a trend that increases in the 1900’s.


glas and metal

Glass and metal and plastic!

Oh my! From the early 1900’s to the 1960’s, glass dominated the liquids market until metal and plastic became commercially available. Glass’ unfavorable characteristics, which encouraged the rise of its competitors, include heaviness, high costs, and breakability. Weight is an important factor because it increases the transportation—or fuel, costs for that product. Glass is still a leading packaging where permeability is a vital issue like wines or fruit preserves.

In 1959, Coors ushered in the age of the aluminum can with a unique proposition for the consumer: the company offered to “pay one cent for each can returned to the brewery”. Prior to the advent of aluminum, metal food packaging was not recyclable. Since this defining moment when Coors made recycling an economic venture, metal solidified a reputation of recyclability. According to the EPA’s Municipal Solid Waste statistics of 2011, steel cans and aluminum cans have among the highest recovery rates when measured by percentage of generation. 71% of steel cans that are generated are recovered and 55% of aluminum cans. These metals trailed lead-acid batteries with 96%, corrugated boxes with 91% and newspapers/ mechanical papers with 73%.

Despite its ubiquity, metal food packaging has had its upsets. The most notable cases include poisonings that resulted from high concentrations of tin in cans and corrosion. “Tin corrosion occurs throughout the shelf life of the product…accelerating factors include heat, oxygen, nitrate, and certain particularly aggressive food types”, like acidic foods (p. 130). Tomatoes are an example of an acidic food that accelerates the corrosion of tin cans. This influenced the transition of food packaging to aluminum cans because “Unlike many metals, aluminum is highly resistant to most forms of corrosion”. Tin is still used within the food packaging market because manufacturers lacquer tin with a barrier between the metal and the food—just like wax on paper.

The next phase of food packaging, ushered in by Saran wrap in 1953, experienced a flourishing of new products and innovations with the advancement of plastics. Today, “plastic packaging (both flexible and rigid) continues to lead growth” in the food packaging industry; however, interestingly, “paperboard containers will present stronger competition to plastic substrates in the future”. The continued demand for earlier forms of food packaging shows the need for diversity amongst food packaging as new inventions come with their own set of tradeoffs.

This ends the historical tour of food packaging in the United States.

The next blog post will elaborate further on the plastics age we currently live in and the possible directions food packaging will go in the future.

4 thoughts on “A History of Food Packaging”

  1. very interesting! the advent of plastic was/is beneficial for its convenience and sanitation, but at the same time, we currently need to be looking into more sustainable packaging.

    Ive heard there’s a styrofoam alternative made of sugar, but of course that would be more expensive. if it were more available, however, it might not be. and so, if culturally we had higher demand for sustainable products…

    even more so, individual families can do so much more in conservation of packaging. there are people who go “trash-less.” it requires a bit of organization, but they cut expenses in half. i save all my sandwich bread bags for dog poo (I live in the city) and carry everything if I’ve forgotten reusable bags.

    1. Thank you for commenting!

      I actually do the last two sustainable behaviors you mentioned as well! If you have Twitter, you should submit one of those behaviors or others in this month’s #MyHumaneNature challenge. The challenge poses the question: how does your view of the world around you influence your consumption? Help spread sustainability pride and awareness and participate! Winner gets a free copy of Arthur Weissman’s book! Check it out: http://inthelightofhumanenature.org/events/myhumanenature/

  2. Chipotle’s Cultivating Thought Author Series http://cultivatingthought.com/ which prints funny quotes and inspirational essays on the side of cups and bags is an interesting illustration of food packaging’s ability, specifically paper’s ability, to act as a canvas for communication to consumers.

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