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The History of Food Packaging: A Timeline

Written By: Leslie Taylor | Article Date: June 03, 2021

Imagine a time when you had no choice about the type of food and beverages you consume. Everything available to eat was locally produced and grown, so there was no need for complex food packaging.

As humans evolved, so did our consumer needs. We’ve come a long way since the invention of food packaging. From being a simple vessel for storage and transportation during ancient civilizations, packaging’s primary role has evolved to contribute to a product’s overall quality, freshness, and shelf life.

Read on to learn about the origins of food packaging and the key events in history that shaped the sector into what it is today.


Packaging in Ancient Civilizations

In prehistoric times, early humans were nomads. They moved to and from the same areas, following the seasonal availability of wild plants and animals.

Refrigerators and freezers did not exist back then, so whatever they could hunt and forage, they had to immediately consume. If they needed to transport their food, they also had to make do with whatever nature provided. Containers were made from animal skin, shells, and gourds. Baskets and bags were fashioned out of the grass, wood, and other pliable natural fibers.

It was not until new minerals and chemicals were discovered that materials such as fabrics, ceramics, and woodware were used for food packaging.

  • In 3500 BC, the Ancient Egyptians discovered glass blowing to create containers for food and water storage.

  • In 105 AD, Emperor Ts’ai Lun of the Imperial Court invented paper, the oldest example of flexible packaging. He mixed bamboo and paper to make a paste, then dried it in the sun.

Some foods could then be saved for future meals and less time was needed for seeking and gathering food.

Packaging in the Medieval Period

Wooden barrels were common packaging in the Middle Ages. Their robustness helped transport food, especially for long and perilous periods of travel. Both barrels and wooden boxes were used to store water, rum, and dried food while traversing across oceans.

In medieval Europe, food items were also displayed and sold in barrels. Shoppers who bought in small quantities had to bring their wicker baskets, bottles, or pitchers when purchasing food in the market. Linen and wool rags were used to wrap meats, beans, salted fish, and flour.

Though paper was already discovered at that time, it wasn’t cheap enough for day-to-day use until the 15th century.

Packaging in the Industrial Revolution

The invention of machines caused the birth of new industries and allowed trade to flourish. In turn, the need for better packaging increased.

Because of this period’s focus on mass production and distribution, food packaging had to be durable, easy to produce, and accessible. Food preservation was also a high priority during this time as new transportation methods allowed businesses and individuals to travel more often.

  • Back in 1975, French General Napoleon Bonaparte offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could preserve food for his army. This led to the first “canning” technique, founded by confectioner Nicholas Appert. He sealed cooked food in glass containers and boiled them for sterilization.

  • Later in 1810, British inventor Peter Durand patented his own canning method using tin instead of glass. By 1820 he was supplying canned food to the Royal Navy in large quantities.

  • 200 years after the Chinese invented paper, the first commercial cardboard box was produced in England in 1817.

Packaging in the Age of Mass Production

Also known as the Second Industrial Revolution, this era is characterized by technological advancements in energy, mass production, and the invention of the telegraph and the telephone.

This period allowed people to build on the previous revolution’s discoveries, allowing further developments in manufacturing and production—among which included food packaging.

  • In 1856, the corrugated paper was patented in England and used as a liner for tall hats. By the early 1900s, wooden crates and boxes were being replaced by corrugated paper and shipping cartons.

  • In 1890, biscuits were the first products to be individually packaged and sold by National Biscuit Co., now known as Nabisco. This was the first packaging to preserve crispness by providing a moisture barrier.

  • The invention of the crown cork in 1892 revolutionized the beverage industry. William Painter, known today as the founder of Crown Holdings Inc., created a metal cap with a layer of cork that protected the liquid inside the bottle.

  • The first cereal box for corn flakes was introduced by Kellogg's in 1906.

  • The first plastic based on a synthetic polymer was invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907. It was called Bakelite, and it could be shaped or molded into almost anything, providing endless possibilities.

  • In 1933, a new era of plastics began with the discovery of the plastic Saran Wrap. This material would cling to almost any surface and paved the way for airtight food packaging.

  • The Tetra Pak was invented in 1951 by Ruben Rausing, a Swedish graduate from Colombia University. This paperboard-based package revolutionized Europe’s dairy industry; it could store liquids without refrigeration, and the box shape was easy to stack and ship.

  • Coors pioneered the use of aluminum cans in 1959. From this start, there has been a steady growth in sodas, energy drinks, and sparkling waters.

  • In 1963, the first ring pull for cans was introduced. Before this, aluminum cans were opened with a can opener, like the way other metal cans are opened.

  • In 1973, the first plastic bottles that can contain carbonated drinks were invented by chemist Nathaniel Wyeth. This became the cheaper alternative to glass.

Active Packaging in the Modern Era

In the last few decades, the steady increase in consumer demands has resulted in the advancements of food packaging.

Active packaging gained popularity in the 1990s, benefitting both the manufacturer and consumer. This type of packaging meant better preservation, extended shelf-life, reduced food waste, and easy use for customers. Some examples of active packaging include, but are not limited to:

  • Sachets and pads placed inside the packaging to preserve the food

  • Packaging films and absorbers to eliminate unwanted odors and moisture

  • Materials with temperature control and insulation so food can be heated and eaten directly from the packaging

Food packaging technology is continually evolving, the same way it has since ancient times. New developments are caused by the ever-changing buyer landscape. Aside from the key characteristics of active packaging, the consumer’s demand for sustainable solutions, reduced plastic use, and a heightened customer experience will contribute to how food packaging will continue to develop over time.

The History and Future of Plastics - Science History Institute
A History of Packaging - Ohio State University
The History of Packaging - DigiMarc
Nicholas Appert Invents the Can - Can Manufacturers Institute
The Evolution of Packaging - Medium
Active Packaging - ScienceDirect
Food Packaging History and Innovations -ACS Publications
5 Ways Active Packaging Has Staying Power - Packaging Digest