Cardboard History | Ancient Chinese Boxes to Mailing Tubes

A complete history of cardboard

two men making paper

Cardboard is a heavy form of paper, reinforced typically by gluing more pieces of paper together as one thick unit. There are different methods of making the paper more rigid, most notably, corrugated cardboard. 

When was cardboard invented?

While today's cardboard is a paper product, its roots come from a fabric-based packaging material created in China in the early 1600s. The primitive cardboard made at this time was created from several different materials, including recycled rags. While there is little information about the spread of this technology, one can theorize that the concept made its way down the silk road to Europe. 

The following historical mention of cardboard, hailing from Europe, comes from a book titled Mechanick Exercises, Or The Doctrine of Handy-Work. The book was first printed in 1677 and republished several times after. It doesn't mention cardboard as a packaging material, but rather a material that could be printed or written upon. It's possible that other uses were found at this time, but there are no official documents to back this up.

When was the first cardboard box made?

old board game

Over 100 years later, the world would see the first commercial use of cardboard as a packaging material. In 1817 a German board game called "The Game of Besieging" was released. It was sold in a paperboard box. This fact should point to a German company being the first to create a cardboard box. However, it is not quite that simple. 

The Malcolm Thornhill mystery

Oddly enough, in the same year of 1817, another individual is cited as creating a paper board box. The name of this person is Malcolm Thornhill, sometimes noted as Sir Malcolm Thornhill. He has been accredited for the invention of the cardboard box by countless blog articles and even some books. However, there is a lot of debate on whether or not this individual ever existed. There is even a Wikipedia page discussing this at great length. Though there is no reference to Sir Thornhill prior to 2009, two books have been published citing him as the inventor. He appears in both 1001 Inventions that Changed the World. and The Grid BookHowever, both of these books reference a 2009 Wikipedia source and nothing else of note. In the words of the editor who caught this potential wiki error, 

"I can find no source for the name Sir Malcolm Thornhill being associated with the first cardboard box. I've removed him, and made comments in edit summaries to that effect. His name was added several years ago, in a way that made it appear to be associated with the ref that provided the date, but I think it was likely just made up, or some guy adding the name of his friend."

While we may never know for sure if someone by the name of Thornhill had anything to do with inventing the cardboard box, it is certainly noteworthy to mention him, even as just a reminder to always check your sources.  

Who truly invented the cardboard box?

Shortly before the release of the above-mentioned German board game, a company in England known as M. Treverton & Son would invent what could be considered the very first cardboard box. It was not corrugated like most boxes of today but made of simple paperboard. There is little evidence of the exact date of this creation, and therefore it could also be determined that many people invented the cardboard box around the same time. There is even a museum in France dedicated to the invention of the cardboard box in 1840. With industrialization on the rise, it makes sense that in the 19th century, many people were looking for a lightweight packaging material, and several individuals came up with a similar solution. The first verifiable issued patent for cardboard packaging would come sometime later. 

Ruffles have ridges, and so does stronger cardboard.

Old Top hat black

Cardboard doesn't only serve the purpose as a packaging material unless you consider a hat as packaging for your head. In the 1850s, top hats were in fashion, and two men, Edward Allen and Edward Healey, were looking for a way to make their hats taller and more ridged. So in 1856, they invented and began using corrugated cardboard as a support stitched into the hats, as it offered the strength and flexibility they were looking for. In a Gizmodo article, it is stated that the men patented the design in England specifically for use in the fabric industry.

Less than 20 years after Allen and Healey had used paper to increase the strength of their tall hats, a man in America was looking for a material that could offer better protection for glass products. At the time, the most common solutions were to package items such as glass bottles and lantern chimneys in sawdust and or cloth. In 1871 Albert L. Jones filed a patent for "improving paper for packaging purposes."

Shortly after the 1874 patent, a man named Oliver Long had the brilliant idea of gluing the corrugated paper to a flat/smooth piece of paper, thereby preventing the paper from stretching and losing the ridges. It should also be noted that the design was such a hit that before the year was over, a man by the name of G. Smyth had already created the first machine to mass produce double-sided corrugated cardboard.

The final invention that would create corrugated cardboard as we know it was yet by another American by the name of Robert H. Thompson, who glued smooth paper to both sides of the corrugated cardboard and filed for a patent in 1882. The modern material was an instant success, and in 1883 the first corrugated board factory opened in England, followed by another in Germany in 1886.

An invention by accident that changed the world.

Cardboard box

Some of the best inventions have come from mishaps in life. This is precisely how Scottish businessman Robert Gair discovered how to make precut and creased boxes. As the story goes, the invention of modern precut cardboard boxes stemmed from workers in Gair's factory setting the blades on a cutting machine at an improper height. This miscalculation of blade drop led to the corrugated sheet being creased rather than cut. Finally, Gair realized that he could intentionally set the blades of the die-cutting machine at different lengths to create ready-to-fold cardboard boxes, like the same ones we use today.

Since the cardboard packaging offered protection to the contents inside, it was only natural that companies would prefer that their products arrive looking fresh and unbroken. The convenience provided by the invention of ready-to-fold boxes led to a swath of different companies picking up this new style of packaging for their products, from tobacco and cosmetics to biscuits and cookies.

The invention of the paper tube

toilet paper roll

While toilet paper was first used by the Chinese as early as the 6th century and then later commercially packaged in 1857 by American inventor Joseph Gayetty, sold as "Geyetty's Medicated Paper." At the time they were packaged as stacked sheets. The concept of selling the paper in rolls would come later. The invention that would eventually change how we package toilet paper and ultimately spark a global debate on how we hang such a roll would be the paper or cardboard tube. 

E Revell & Sons, which operated out of South London, began making kraft paper tubes in 1903. The first paper tubes were made entirely by hand and, at first, were primarily used for packaging cigars. 

Paper tube machine

patent file for paper tube

In 1904 the concept for spiral wound paper tubes would be developed. One of the first uses was for packaging cheese, but they would continue to be hand made until 1926 when Charles K. Dunlap invented the first paper tube machine. The ability to mass produce cardboard tubes with this new technology was a game-changer. Cardboard tubes would later see tremendous use during WWII as containers to package everything from food to light military equipment. 

If you want to know more about how these machines operate, you can check out our upcoming article on how we make tubes here at Erdie Industries. You can also subscribe to our email list below to be updated about new and interesting articles.

The future of cardboard

After reading the progression of such a versatile product, it's interesting to wonder what may be next on the horizon. Erdie Industries and many other companies are pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved using paper. If you want to learn more, check out our short article about cardboard chairs.