Young girl at computer
Young girl at computer

Packaging – The Evolution Of A Phenomenon


Packaging – The Evolution Of A Phenomenon

What is the definition of packaging? Mr Google defines it as “the materials used to wrap or protect goods”. He (as always) is spot on, however, there’s a lot more to packaging than meets the eye.

Packaging came about before any of these highly mechanised operations (today’s normality) were even concepts occupying the human brain. If human inventions were a family, packaging would be the baby-faced grandad, who has the uncanny ability to act like a born-again teenager.

Packaging stems from natural staples, leaves, wood, twine etc -  what you’d expect for back when a simple wrap-around of battered fabric was labelled clothes.

The unique thing about packaging was how it began. Unlike most inventions, it wasn’t devised as a pursuit of wealth or stumbled upon by accident. It was functional. A common misconception of packaging is that it’s purely brand, when actually equal effort goes into ensuring it functions as a protectant. When our ancestors had spent all their energy crafting a gift, they didn’t want it being damaged, even if it was just a scuffed rock or a chiselled stick. It was then packaging became the norm.

Take a leap forward to 1500B.C. where Egyptians were crafting a new form of packaging. The component was mixed with melted limestone, soda, sand, and silicate to form vessels that only Fred Flintstone would regard as top-tier packaging. Nevertheless, it was a start.

Come 1200 B.C. pots and mugs of all shapes and sizes were being produced with the substance. Little did the Egyptians know that this innovative craze was the start of a revolution. 

Their technique was modified in 300 B.C. to incorporate a blowpipe and form what glassblowing fanatics know as free blowing. Using short puffs into the molten interior to form an elastic skin, matching to the exterior. Whilst free blowing does ensure a larger capacity, the results are not entirely symmetrical, hence why nowadays it’s favoured for artistic purposes.

Packaging now consisted of leaves and glass. Two staples that packaging wouldn’t stray from for generations. Glassblowing did advance in 100AD with the discovery of mould-blowing, but the essential concept remained the same. It was the Chinese who made the next move.

Since the invention of Papyrus in 3000 B.C. people had searched for better alternatives. It was when the Chinese mastered the art of papermaking around 200 - 100 B.C. that their search was halted. The bark of a Mulberry tree, shredded hemp rags and water made up the mixture. Not what you’d imagine when you see a sheet of A4, but after extracting the moisture and been dried under the sun, paper (the first form of flexible packaging) was born. 

With the secrets of paper-making rapidly spreading around Asia and the Middle East, you’d imagine it wouldn’t take long for the fine art to reach the shores of Britain, but you’d be wrong. Papermaking wasn’t known in Britain until 1310 AD.

Before the world had even heard of the paper bag, the tin can made an appearance. Tin cans were a product of the Napoleonic Wars, where the French government offered inventors 12,000 francs to fathom an effective method of food preservation for the soldiers. The brainwave belonged to confectioner and brewer Nicolas Appert, who recognised how cooked foods stored in jars wouldn’t spoil unless their seal was broken. Tin cans were one of the first examples of packaging preserving its contents. 

It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that consumers witnessed the paper bag. School teacher Francis Wolle unveiled the Union Paper Bag Company in 1852, where the first ever mechanical mass production of bags was unveiled. His glued paper sacks were the first example of semi-flexible packaging.  

With packaging evolving at such a rapid rate, it only seemed right that brands take advantage of the huge advertising opportunities packaging presented. In 1866 the Smith Brothers, manufacturers of cough drops, brought consumers the first example of branding by applying their pictures to the packaging to differentiate them from competitors. Proof of the correlation between a packaging’s appearance and a brand.

1871 saw the birth of the flat-bottomed paper bag, thanks to inventor Margaret Knight, who wasn’t satisfied with Wolle’s round-bottomed sacks. Paper bags could now hold more, which introduced consumers to another level of versatility. With the current war on plastics leading to rising paper prices, many experts are anticipating high demand for flat-bottomed paper bags as they become the next planet-friendly trend. 

1879 was when printer and paper bag manufacturer Robert Gair messed up. A metal ruler used to crease paper bags shifted position, slitting his bags and damaging his press. This costly mistake got Gair wondering why cutting, folding and printing couldn’t be done by one machine. Soon after, Gair produced the world’s first mass-production folded carton machine. Folded carton hit the shelves in 1897. Nabisco’s Uneeda Biscuits using carton to form the first example of national branding; the product’s design and brand were promoted nationwide. Suddenly levels of potential consumers grew. 

1890 also welcomed the world’s first flexographic printing press, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that flexographic printing no longer restricted designers in expressing their flamboyance through bold design. Multinational Proctor & Gamble introduced Tide laundry detergent, which brightened up shelves in 1946. Packaging wasn’t just a business anymore - it was an art.

Later that year, the first plastic bottles hit the shelves, but remained expensive until the discovery of high-density polyethylene in the early 1950s. Since evolution plastics have adopted many forms: carrier bags, Tupperware, shrink labels, flow wraps, buckets, labels, children’s toys, coat hangers – the list goes on. Despite the environmental debates surrounding plastic, it’s still one of the preferable packaging materials of manufacturers, with its versatility and inexpensive manufacture making it an attractive material to work with. 

What role does packaging play today?

Packaging today is a consolidation of past innovations across metals, papers and plastics. With a current emphasis on tailored packaging designs and branding to target specific consumers, today’s packaging design focuses more on consumer attraction and their immersion in the opening experience. 

Take brogue shoes for example. A large determiner of their retail price and sales relies on the packaging. The more luxurious it is, the higher their justifiable retail price. When purchasing an item of such cost, it’s only right to expect the very best in terms of packaging. 

Designer brogues sit inside a thick textured paper bag that comes embellished with the designer’s name. The top is fastened with branded ribbon underneath the silky rope handles that make the brogues a pleasure to transport home.

Once home, you undo the ribbon bow and open the bag. A bespoke branded booklet resides on the top, holding your receipt, which comes printed on thick gloss paper. Deeper amongst the sea of scented tissue is a shoebox, only this is no ordinary shoebox. The minimalist design presents an understated appearance, until on closer inspection you notice its rubberised texture and the embossed designer crest. Lifting the lid, you notice the thickness of the box and sift through more layers of branded tissue paper, under which you expect to find your Italian leather brogues, but no. Perched on the top of the shoebox is a branded shoe bag, made of a soft suede-like material, to protect your investment from future scuffs. It’s only then that you’re presented with a pair of Italian leather brogues.

Designer packaging is a clear indicator of packaging evolution, as brands pin increased focus on the pantomime of unboxing a designer item. The multiple layers of packaging are specifically designed to work together in transforming a mundane task into an immersive experience for the buyer. Thanks to social media, packaging is more influential than ever, with unboxings engaging millions of viewers worldwide as they scope out their next purchase in hope of experiencing first-hand the latest innovations and materials in packaging design.