The History of Packaging
Mon Mar 25 2024

Whether we realize it or not, packaging is one of the most ubiquitous commodities in our daily lives. But how much do you really know about the history of the various substrates and applications we’ve come to know so well? Lucky for you, the Packaging School is here to help!

Following this short lesson, you will be able to understand the origins of several popular forms of packaging, including glass, paper, corrugated fiberboard, metal, and plastic.

To begin, let’s start with glass, one of the earliest materials ever used for packaging. The first evidence of human-made glass has been dated all the way back to 4000 BC, but for the sake of a packaging discussion, we'll start in Mesopotamia in 1500 BC. By using a naturally occurring material known as “natron,” the earliest glass containers were formed by covering a core of sand (an insert that will be placed into the mold) with a layer of molten glass so that it would form to that shape for easy containment. Jumping ahead to the first century BC, we find the invention of glass blowing in Syria—an innovation that allowed for glass to be formed into much more elaborate shapes.1,2, 7

A few hundred years later in the 2nd century AD, papermaking as we know it today was invented in China. By pouring a mixture of Mulberry tree fibers onto a porous cloth, then pressing and drying them, a sheet of paper could be formed. For use in packaging, paperboard has its roots in 1839, when a jeweler from Boston began to produce rigid boxes for use in his business. Shortly after came the invention of the folding carton, and in 1879, a mass-production method for said folding cartons was developed.3 

Cardboard, or more accurately corrugated fiberboard, was also first used around this time. The first corrugated material was actually used as a sweatband lining in the hats of posh Englishmen in the mid 1800s, but by 1871, it was already being used as a packaging material to protect fragile materials like glass. By the end of the decade, a first and second liner were added to the corrugated material, creating the first instance of what we know as single wall corrugated board. In 1894, corrugated sheets were finally slotted and shaped into boxes, and it’s rumored that just a few days later, the first Amazon delivery took place!4

The idea of using metal alloys for containment has been around for thousands of years, but we’re going to highlight Bohemia around 1200 AD. This is where the process of tin plating was discovered which led to the development of iron can-like containers being coated with tin. It wouldn't be until 1764, though, that it was used for packaging as we may think of it now. Tobacconists in London began selling some of their product in metal canisters, but tin wouldn’t be used for food for 50 or so years due to the prevailing opinion that metal was poisonous for food. This changed when Napoleon Bonaparte offered a prize to anyone who could come up with a way to better preserve food for his armies. This led to Nicholas Appert discovering the idea of “canning” food, and before long, the tin can as we know had arrived.5

The newest form of packaging we'll discuss today is plastic. Although not the first type of plastic ever discovered, the birth of plastic packaging can be found with cellophane. Invented in 1900 by Swiss chemist Jacques Brandenberger as a material that could repel liquid, cellophane was adopted by Whitman’s Candy Company as a candy wrapper for their famous Whitman’s Sampler in 1912.5,6

Innovations to cellophane were rapid around this time, as the original material was waterproof, but not moisture-proof—meaning the product would not be penetrated by water, but it would hold water. This was a problem for Clarence Birdseye, who had recently learned of the concept of “flash freezing” from the Inuit people of Canada. Birdseye wanted to utilize this method to revolutionize the frozen food industry in the US, but needed a moisture-proof form of packaging. Birdseye then contacted DuPont to develop a moisture-proof form of cellophane suitable for frozen foods. Chemist William Hale Charch discovered that when a nitrocellulose lacquer was added to cellophane, it became moisture-proof. And so in 1927, this product made its debut on the market.6

While these may be the origins of some of the most popular forms of packaging out there, we’ve only just scratched the surface. Within each of these broad categories can be found dozens and dozens of applications with their own unique histories!

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