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Inventing the Cardboard Box

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chaps676

Chad Dickerson, Etsy CEO and all-around awesome dude, recently had a whim to research the building that currently houses the Etsy offices. Located on the shores of Brooklyn’s DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood, 55 Washington Street sits only a block from the East River, with a view of Manhattan that keeps tourists braving the subway with a folded map in one hand and a digital camera in the other. Chad’s curiosity led him to the Landmarks Preservation Commission where he uncovered the history behind Robert Gair, a Scottish-born emigrant who constructed and occupied many structures along the DUMBO waterfront. Not only was Gair a successful, self-made businessman, he had a surprising hand in revolutionizing the way we consume and receive our goods.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Robert Gair’s family emigrated to Brooklyn  in 1853, when Gair was only 14. He spent his adolescence as a plumber’s apprentice, learning his father’s trade. He was quick to develop a sense of American pride; at age 21, he cast his first ballot for Abraham Lincoln. After serving in the Civil War, Gair returned to Brooklyn, acquired a business partner and began manufacturing paper bags. During the war, when cotton had become scarce, flour and sugar were often packaged in paper bags rather than cotton or burlap fabric bags. While bulk-sized flour bags returned to fabric casing after the war, paper bags became the preferred packaging for small portions of dry goods. Gair saw dollar signs. After returning home and opening his factory, he quickly became the leader of the fledgling paper good industry, enabling the world’s first packaged food products to turn up on the shelves of general stores.

Gair found success in his paper bag company, and it was over ten years until a careless mistake by one of his workers would lead to a revolutionary product. In 1879, a pressman in Gair’s factory accidentally cut clean through 20,000 paper seed bags. Instead of exploding in anger, Gair looked at the ruined bags and realized that he could create a die that would cut and crease box board in one fell swoop. Prior to Gair’s happy accident, box making was a labor-intensive process that involved many hands. Most of the assembly work was completed by women working from their own homes. With every single cut and fold performed manually, cardboard boxes also came with a heavy price tag. Gair’s new invention resulted in the world’s first affordable cardboard box.

1890 was a hot decade for boxes. Gair produced cardboard boxes for Bloomingdale’s, Colgate, Pond’s, and a few cigarette companies. The folding box got its true big break in 1896 when the National Biscuit Company, now known as Nabisco, sought to sell its popular Uneeda Biscuits in folding boxes. Before then, crackers were typically stored in cracker-barrels, doled out individually by general store owners. As you can imagine, this often made for stale or molded crackers. Robert Gair’s factory produced the first 2 million boxes for the National Biscuit Company, a moment that contemporary historians still highlight as the birth of consumer packaging.

Left: Uneeda Biscuit advertisement. Right: Robert Gair and the 79th New York Highlanders during the Civil War.

It wasn’t long before cereal companies came knocking, desiring perfectly folded cartons for their puffed wheat. With the patronage of cereal companies secured, the successful future of the cardboard box was inevitable. However, the real reason Gair’s boxes succeeded wasn’t because of the affordability or manufacturing speed; packaged food companies saw the six, broad expanses on each side of a box as valuable ad space. “By packaging at the factory instead of in the store, advertising directly to consumers in magazines and on billboards, and by making their packages easy to recognize, manufacturers were able to take control of the market,” wrote Diana Twede in an essay on paper based packaging. It seemed that everyone benefitted — with such clean, pristine packaging, retailers were able to make attractive store displays and sell more goods. Candy, crackers and cigarettes were no longer stored in unlabeled tins; cardboard boxes put products in front of buyers’ faces in elaborate and creative store displays.

By the time Gair passed away on his 88th birthday, he had millions of dollars and several patents to his name. After perfecting cardboard boxes, he experimented with lithographic processes to print advertisements directly onto cardboard boxes. Undoubtedly, Gair had a keen eye and savvy foresight, rounding out the Industrial Revolution with innovations that still affect our lives today. The next time you find yourself sneaking a box of Cheez-It crackers into your shopping cart, or carefully packing a hand-knitted sweater into a cardboard box, say a little thank you to the ingenious Scotsman.

Paper Ephemera Category

Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.

  • pinkflapper

    pinkflapper says:

    Really interesting-love the history!

    2 years ago

  • sparrowgrey

    sparrowgrey says:

    Very interesting; thanks for sharing!

    2 years ago

  • WeddingAmbience

    WeddingAmbience says:

    Thumbs up for the importance of great packaging!!!!! Very interesting story.

    2 years ago

  • HelloSprout

    HelloSprout says:

    Where would we be without the invention of the cardboard box, nice informative story. Thank you!

    2 years ago

  • TheScarfTree

    TheScarfTree says:

    Love these types of history stories, it is so interesting and I especially paper and packaging! Thanks for sharing!

    2 years ago

  • wiosnachamow

    wiosnachamow says:

    I'd prefer to buy goods packaged by the store - there would be no such visual chaos we experience today at shops, where every company wants you to look on their product. see this http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1351667/Its-shelf-portrait-Chinese-artist-spends-months-creating-incredible-camouflage-pictures.html

    2 years ago

  • JustOffNormal

    JustOffNormal says:

    I love discovering little bits of history like that- I wonder what foresight we may have into the needs of our own futures that we don't even realize the significance of.

    2 years ago

  • VeraVague

    VeraVague says:

    fascinating! given that we ship so many etsy purchases in cardboard boxes, it seems the building has come full circle :)

    2 years ago

  • HouseDressing

    HouseDressing says:

    Very much enjoyed this bit of history, thanks for posting.

    2 years ago

  • lovelygifts

    lovelygifts says:

    Great story!

    2 years ago

  • VivaGailBeads

    VivaGailBeads says:

    amazing article!

    2 years ago

  • heatherfuture

    heatherfuture says:

    I'm so happy you lovelies at Etsy decided to share this great research with us! What a fascinating tale of invention and marketing.

    2 years ago

  • JanJat

    JanJat says:

    Fabulous story!

    2 years ago

  • TheIDconnection

    TheIDconnection says:

    Great read! Hubby and I up-cycle old magazines and use them for the outsides of our packages. It generates a lot of conversations. Outside of that it's a blast reading some of the adverts! Monica TheIDConnection

    2 years ago

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush says:

    Thank you Mr. Gair!

    2 years ago

  • BirdiesCozyNest

    BirdiesCozyNest says:

    Enjoyed reading this bit of history, and I'm looking forward to the day when all packaging is made from recycled/recyclable materials too. :)

    2 years ago

  • ChakarrJewelry

    ChakarrJewelry says:

    Interesting story, now I'm curious and want to research who was living in my house before.

    2 years ago

  • DarwinsDress

    DarwinsDress says:

    Such an interesting story. It's amazing to track everyday products back to the exact time they were born and their birth creating a revolutionary way of making life easier. Thank you for this great article.

    2 years ago

  • beliz82

    beliz82 says:

    Great Story Thank you for sharing :)

    2 years ago

  • hoganfe

    hoganfe says:

    Unique and interesting post - thank you!

    2 years ago

  • MissEverGreens

    MissEverGreens says:

    Love this story! Can't wait to go to NYC and see this!

    2 years ago

  • bedouin

    bedouin says:

    Fantastic and interesting story ~ This is why its important to restore and keep alive as many structures as we can. How cool to walk the same footsteps as an inventor of something we almost take for granted now.

    2 years ago

  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns says:

    Great story. Thanks for researching and sharing!

    2 years ago

  • littlesoup

    littlesoup says:

    wow-so interesting!

    2 years ago

  • allthingswhite

    allthingswhite says:

    Where would we all be without the cardboard box!!! Love this story and love your building, I have been lucky enough to visit :D

    2 years ago

  • bhangtiez

    bhangtiez says:

    Cool history lesson. Thanks for sharing :)

    2 years ago

  • silversamba

    silversamba says:

    very cool! didn't learn that story in packaging design class, but so important! :) alana

    2 years ago

  • CherylBrissonFolkArt

    CherylBrissonFolkArt says:

    Accidental marketing advice! The "clean and pristine packaging" that allowed store owners to up their sales in this post is what I try to emulate in my own little shop...I like to throw in a bit of cute-kitschiness too!

    2 years ago

  • 63artlove

    63artlove says:

    how inspiring and good info to have to pass on to our kids/grandkids...a little bit o fhistory to share..thanks for all of that!

    2 years ago

  • KettleConfections

    KettleConfections says:

    thank you for posting this fascinating story behind such an ubiquitous item - I'll never look at packaging boxes the same way.

    2 years ago

  • Furiousdreams

    Furiousdreams says:

    This is so cool - thanks for posting and to Chad for his due diligence research. Mistakes made into opportunities - it's what we artists do on a daily basis. Love the outcome of this particular story.

    2 years ago

  • KrysPettitArtwork

    KrysPettitArtwork says:

    fascinating article on so many levels...creating something from a mistake, employing women to help with the work....also love the idea that the history of a building is being researched and not forgotten. Thank you!

    2 years ago

  • mylenefoster

    mylenefoster says:

    I love reading about stories of people long ago and how it's connected to places today. I wish I could see the details of the building inside and out. It probably tells the spirit of the place and echos of events long gone.

    2 years ago

  • NatalieDrest

    NatalieDrest says:

    Great story! I wonder what the occupants of your building 150 years from now will write about Etsy?

    2 years ago

  • ErikaPrice

    ErikaPrice says:

    What would we do without the cardboard box?!

    2 years ago

  • Waterrose

    Waterrose says:

    I love old buildings and their history. A building that I use to work in in Ohio, we found out that it use to house Carnival items. Some of the offices were being renovated and we found some of the carnival posters and other signs under the drywall.

    2 years ago

  • 108ways

    108ways says:

    I kept waiting for you to say "...and this is when manufacturers started clearcutting our forests at an incredible rate, and landfills began overflowing with cheap, disposable packaging ..." I work as a commercial packaging designer; my relationship with the cardboard box is ambivalent to say the least. It's hard to imagine moving anything from here to there without them, and yet ... the volume of waste they generate just boggles my mind. I deeply appreciate Etsy sellers who recycle, upcycle, or otherwise utilize packaging materials in their second, third or even fourth or fifth lifetime of use. [steps down from her handmade, wooden, reusable soap box]

    2 years ago

  • ErbStGalleries

    ErbStGalleries says:

    I loved the story and the photo with the houses and clothes hanging on the line

    2 years ago

  • RossLab

    RossLab says:

    What's worse than stale crackers? Thanks Mr.Gair!

    2 years ago

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery says:

    Those are quite some sporrans! Impressive, I always think it's facinating to learn the true history of a place.

    2 years ago

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie says:

    Love this post!

    2 years ago

  • KMalinka

    KMalinka says:

    Interesting story!

    2 years ago

  • woodart631

    woodart631 says:

    thank you for that bit of history

    2 years ago

  • KINGxACE

    KINGxACE says:

    Thanks for the interesting story! :)

    2 years ago

  • GennyPenny

    GennyPenny says:

    love the history of things!! this is a great article!

    2 years ago

  • HiddenMeadows

    HiddenMeadows says:

    I cannot wait to read more of these! Love reading about the strange links connecting things together and the history behind them.

    2 years ago

  • ResaArtDesign

    ResaArtDesign says:

    Thank you Chad for researching such an interesting piece of our history. It gives new perspective :) Resa

    2 years ago

  • kakes005

    kakes005 says:

    Thank you, that was a great article!

    2 years ago

  • cari961

    cari961 says:

    Really enjoyed the piece! Thanks for sharing that bit of history.

    2 years ago

  • CassiasGarden

    CassiasGarden says:

    I enjoyed this. Thanks so much!

    2 years ago

  • tinylittleworlds

    tinylittleworlds says:

    One leader, one mistake, and a simple way in which we inhabit the everyday changes forever. Great research. And nice digs, etsy.

    2 years ago

  • BabetteBistro

    BabetteBistro says:

    What an interesting article. Thank you for posting it.

    2 years ago

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 says:

    If old buildings could talk, what stories they could tell! Love the history & Gair's serendipitous discovery/invention but like 108way's comment above, I'm ambivalent about modern, disposable packaging also. I try to recycle as much as possible, use biodegradable wrapping tissue or unprinted newsprint paper but never know if these products are further recycled at their destination. Thanks for a really great story!

    2 years ago

  • saskatoon

    saskatoon says:

    I'm fascinated by those women, painstakingly making all those boxes at home... maybe taking in sewing and laundry, too. Anyway, it's a really wonderful piece.

    2 years ago

  • cassandrastephanie

    cassandrastephanie says:

    I love looking at the history of NYC buildings. I took an NYC art history course, where most of the time we were out on tour of different areas of the city - museums and historical neighborhoods/buildings. It was the best course I've ever taken!

    2 years ago

  • SoulSeeds

    SoulSeeds says:

    Wow, I'd never known that women made boxes from their homes. Never really thought about boxes. Very interesting article. Thanks!

    2 years ago

  • Banglespark

    Banglespark says:

    This is exactly what I want to read about! I wish Etsy would put out a weekly history lesson, that would be such a good read like this one.

    2 years ago

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 says:

    Thanks for the fun read. But I keep thinking of all those women, making boxes at home, that lost their income.

    2 years ago

  • mindimade

    mindimade says:

    i think i owe this guy a HUGE thank you.....

    2 years ago

  • EverydayCookies

    EverydayCookies says:

    ...cool story! ...great hiSTORY!

    2 years ago

  • JonEicher

    JonEicher says:

    The Gair loading docks on Adams Street next to the Manhattan Bridge anchorage are now gone and so are the railroad tracks that ran into the Gair buildings so box cars could be loaded indoors. The volume of boxes coming from Gair must of been staggering. Having worked in the Gair buildings too they really are an impressive testiment to the entrepreneurial spirit. I still use a superheavy straight edge for paper cutting I salvaged, when the buildings got renovated.

    2 years ago

  • storyline

    storyline says:

    great article, really enjoyed reading this!

    2 years ago

  • baconsquarefarm

    baconsquarefarm says:

    Wow, enjoyed reading the history of boxes, items we take for granted today at least I did until now. Fitting that Etsy would be located in this building now where creativity abounds. Thanks for sharing this story with all of us.

    2 years ago

  • FabricFascination

    FabricFascination says:

    Very interesting. We take cardboard boxes for granted, but how revolutionary it must have been when they were first made readily available. I enjoyed the article very much.

    2 years ago

  • Iammie

    Iammie says:

    Interesting article.

    2 years ago

  • AliceCloset

    AliceCloset says:

    Really interesting history article!

    2 years ago

  • ConfettiWestern

    ConfettiWestern says:

    what a man what a man!

    2 years ago

  • LeatherheadOriginals

    LeatherheadOriginals says:

    I can make my own durable, reusable patterns thanks to Gair and his cardboard box! I agree, Banglespark, I love learning the origins of everyday stuff too!

    2 years ago

  • floresflorestanis

    floresflorestanis says:

    What a cool story!!!! History, craft, innovation, architecture - all my favorite subjects!

    2 years ago

  • HillcrestVisuals

    HillcrestVisuals says:

    Now what am i supposed to do about this 2 AM Cheez-It craving? Another fascinating story Chappell!

    2 years ago

  • HillcrestVisuals

    HillcrestVisuals says:

    What am I supposed to do about this 2 AM Cheez-It craving? Chappell thanks for sharing yet another fascinating tale.

    2 years ago

  • ElenasLoom

    ElenasLoom says:

    Fantastic! Very fascinating, thank you for telling us this little-known story of a great invention!

    2 years ago

  • LavenderField

    LavenderField says:

    Really fascinating story. I love learning about how things started, in this case cardboard boxes. Give us more such stories :0)

    2 years ago

  • ShopRedLeaf

    ShopRedLeaf says:

    I LOVE these kind of stories. Thanks!

    2 years ago

  • scandivintage

    scandivintage says:

    Thanks for this! :)

    2 years ago

  • animadesign

    animadesign says:

    Another one fascinating story! I read your articles with great interest! Write on Chappell! Best regards from Athens/Greece.

    2 years ago

  • lemondear

    lemondear says:

    history is everywhere, isn't it wonderful? love the story

    2 years ago

  • ericawalker

    ericawalker says:

    Great story.

    2 years ago

  • NutfieldWeaver

    NutfieldWeaver says:

    Excellent!

    2 years ago

  • Archivia

    Archivia says:

    This is a wonderful and inspiring story. I love that the mistake was not seen as a mistake, but inspired a whole new revolutionary product!

    2 years ago

  • kathyjohnson3

    kathyjohnson3 says:

    Every day I learn something new on Etsy! Not only has Etsy given me the chance to be a stay at home mother and be available to my children at any given time (which is the most important thing to me) but I learn so much about history, people, cultures and the like! It's unlike any other website I've ever known, thank-you for sharing these wonderful articles!

    2 years ago

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy says:

    clever man. wonderful story. i would have never guessed the original mass use of paper bags traced back to brooklyn or die cut and stamped cardboard boxes. love.

    2 years ago

  • TreasuryShop

    TreasuryShop says:

    Great article. It's amazing how a mistake can lead to a whole new way of making a product.

    2 years ago

  • Alterity

    Alterity says:

    Everything has an interesting beginning, and I suppose cardboard boxes shouldn't be left out! what a great story....love the history :)

    2 years ago

  • TheBakersDaughter

    TheBakersDaughter says:

    Love the history!

    2 years ago

  • ShoeClipsOnly

    ShoeClipsOnly says:

    Very intersting to learn the history behind the box! Thanks for sharing!

    2 years ago

  • thunderpeep

    thunderpeep says:

    fascinating story. It's funny how we never think of the small things like where cardboard boxes came from... and that packaging didn't exist at one point.

    2 years ago

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies says:

    Very good. Very historical. Everything has a story.

    2 years ago

  • AmericanGirl51

    AmericanGirl51 says:

    I can not imagine Etsy without a cardboard box, Thanks Chad Dickerson for the box and Chappell for writing this interesting article, I have a really hard time getting rid of a box, I always find a use for it, sometimes even using it for something other than shipping or storing. Great Article, Thanks, Renee

    2 years ago

  • SweetiePieCollars

    SweetiePieCollars says:

    So ironic-- the building of the birth of consumer (mass) packaging now houses Etsy!

    2 years ago

  • LittleMissCards

    LittleMissCards says:

    Great article, I loved it!

    2 years ago

  • HouseOfMoss

    HouseOfMoss says:

    The cardboard box is so ubiquitous, I forgot that someone had to invent it! Thanks for sharing this, Chappell!

    2 years ago

  • artworksbycarol

    artworksbycarol says:

    I knew there was a good reason I could never through away a good cardboard box without asking ..."what can I use this for?" It drives my husband MAD. Creative people, can you relate?

    2 years ago

  • luckyduckletterpress

    luckyduckletterpress says:

    Great article! I told a similar story about the old building that my shop is in my blog just last week!

    2 years ago

  • AntwarePottery

    AntwarePottery says:

    It is always interesting to see what triggers a great idea.

    2 years ago

  • JennasRedRhino

    JennasRedRhino says:

    Think how many times in a day you handle a cardboard box made with this technique. This mistake has shaped the American breakfast, lunch and dinner and is a staple part of our lives!

    2 years ago

  • HulaGirl1922

    HulaGirl1922 says:

    ... it all started with a thought... an interesting read ...thx xo

    2 years ago

  • PurpleAmethystStone

    PurpleAmethystStone says:

    Thanks for the posting of one of many successful businesses that has made our country great thanks to iimmigrants from around the world.

    2 years ago

  • VitalityHandmade

    VitalityHandmade says:

    That was a great read, thanks for sharing. I love it when history hits home. :)

    2 years ago

  • Alaroycreature

    Alaroycreature says:

    HAHA so funny and cool

    2 years ago

  • MishaGirl

    MishaGirl says:

    Very interesting bit of history!

    2 years ago

  • Jollymountainsoap

    Jollymountainsoap says:

    Amazing! what a fun history!

    2 years ago

  • PinwheelStudio

    PinwheelStudio says:

    We can learn so much from history - what a great story! Packaging really does make a difference. And how neat for Etsy to be located in the same area as this story!

    2 years ago

  • NotYoMommasHandbag

    NotYoMommasHandbag says:

    How ironic....smiles

    2 years ago

  • JeanB123

    JeanB123 says:

    Love the story and thanks for all his hard work!

    2 years ago

  • girliepains

    girliepains says:

    Such a sweet photo

    2 years ago

  • sandboxcastle

    sandboxcastle says:

    Interesting- I have always wondered "who thought of" this or that- cardboard boxes was not one of them but I'm glad this post brought it to my attention! Thanks for the great story/history!

    2 years ago

  • DeadSerious2010

    DeadSerious2010 says:

    Love this article, Fascinating history!

    2 years ago

  • USAVintage

    Jennie Kinder from usavintage says:

    I found your article after researching my Stetson hat box with the name Robert Gair company embossed stamped on the bottom and Patent applied for. I was getting ready to sell the box on Esty! How very Ironic!

    325 days ago

  • karibetts1

    Kari Betts says:

    Thank you so much for doing such a wonderful job writing this article Chappell. Robert Gair was my great grandfather and as much as I love hearing my father tell the story, it's so nice to read this and see the comments as Robert lives on though his invention even to this very day.

    317 days ago