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Inventing the Cardboard Box

Aug 29, 2011

by Chappell Ellison

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

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

110 comments

  • pinkflapper

    pinkflapper said 5 years ago

    Really interesting-love the history!

  • sparrowgrey

    sparrowgrey said 5 years ago

    Very interesting; thanks for sharing!

  • WeddingAmbience

    WeddingAmbience said 5 years ago

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

  • HelloSprout

    HelloSprout said 5 years ago

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

  • TheScarfTree

    TheScarfTree said 5 years ago

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

  • wiosnachamow

    wiosnachamow said 5 years ago

    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

  • JustOffNormal

    JustOffNormal said 5 years ago

    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.

  • VeraVague

    VeraVague said 5 years ago

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

  • HouseDressing

    HouseDressing said 5 years ago

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

  • lovelygifts

    lovelygifts said 5 years ago

    Great story!

  • VivaGailBeads

    VivaGailBeads said 5 years ago

    amazing article!

  • heatherfuture

    heatherfuture said 5 years ago

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

  • JanJat

    JanJat said 5 years ago

    Fabulous story!

  • TheIDconnection

    TheIDconnection said 5 years ago

    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

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush said 5 years ago

    Thank you Mr. Gair!

  • BirdiesCozyNest

    BirdiesCozyNest said 5 years ago

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

  • ChakarrJewelry

    ChakarrJewelry said 5 years ago

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

  • DarwinsDress

    DarwinsDress said 5 years ago

    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.

  • beliz82

    beliz82 said 5 years ago

    Great Story Thank you for sharing :)

  • hoganfe

    hoganfe said 5 years ago

    Unique and interesting post - thank you!

  • MissEverGreens

    MissEverGreens said 5 years ago

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

  • bedouin

    bedouin said 5 years ago

    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.

  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns said 5 years ago

    Great story. Thanks for researching and sharing!

  • littlesoup

    littlesoup said 5 years ago

    wow-so interesting!

  • allthingswhite

    allthingswhite said 5 years ago

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

  • bhangtiez

    bhangtiez said 5 years ago

    Cool history lesson. Thanks for sharing :)

  • silversamba

    silversamba said 5 years ago

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

  • CherylBrissonFolkArt

    CherylBrissonFolkArt said 5 years ago

    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!

  • 63artlove

    63artlove said 5 years ago

    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!

  • KettleConfections

    KettleConfections said 5 years ago

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

  • Furiousdreams

    Furiousdreams said 5 years ago

    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.

  • KrysPettitArtwork

    KrysPettitArtwork said 5 years ago

    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!

  • mylenefoster

    mylenefoster said 5 years ago

    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.

  • NatalieDrest

    NatalieDrest said 5 years ago

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

  • ErikaPrice

    ErikaPrice said 5 years ago

    What would we do without the cardboard box?!

  • Waterrose

    Waterrose said 5 years ago

    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.

  • 108ways

    108ways said 5 years ago

    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]

  • ErbStGalleries

    ErbStGalleries said 5 years ago

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

  • RossLab

    RossLab said 5 years ago

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

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 5 years ago

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

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie said 5 years ago

    Love this post!

  • KMalinka

    KMalinka said 5 years ago

    Interesting story!

  • woodart631

    woodart631 said 5 years ago

    thank you for that bit of history

  • KINGxACE

    KINGxACE said 5 years ago

    Thanks for the interesting story! :)

  • GennyPenny

    GennyPenny said 5 years ago

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

  • HiddenMeadows

    HiddenMeadows said 5 years ago

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

  • ResaArtDesign

    ResaArtDesign said 5 years ago

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

  • kakes005

    kakes005 said 5 years ago

    Thank you, that was a great article!

  • cari961

    cari961 said 5 years ago

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

  • CassiasGarden

    CassiasGarden said 5 years ago

    I enjoyed this. Thanks so much!

  • tinylittleworlds

    tinylittleworlds said 5 years ago

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

  • BabetteBistro

    BabetteBistro said 5 years ago

    What an interesting article. Thank you for posting it.

  • breadandroses2

    breadandroses2 said 5 years ago

    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!

  • saskatoon

    saskatoon said 5 years ago

    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.

  • cassandrastephanie

    cassandrastephanie said 5 years ago

    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!

  • SoulSeeds

    SoulSeeds said 5 years ago

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

  • Banglespark

    Banglespark said 5 years ago

    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.

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 said 5 years ago

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

  • mindimade

    mindimade said 5 years ago

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

  • EverydayCookies

    EverydayCookies said 5 years ago

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

  • JonEicher

    JonEicher said 5 years ago

    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.

  • storyline

    storyline said 5 years ago

    great article, really enjoyed reading this!

  • baconsquarefarm

    baconsquarefarm said 5 years ago

    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.

  • FabricFascination

    FabricFascination said 5 years ago

    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.

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 5 years ago

    Interesting article.

  • AliceCloset

    AliceCloset said 5 years ago

    Really interesting history article!

  • ConfettiWestern

    ConfettiWestern said 5 years ago

    what a man what a man!

  • LeatherheadOriginals

    LeatherheadOriginals said 5 years ago

    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!

  • floresflorestanis

    floresflorestanis said 5 years ago

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

  • HillcrestVisuals

    HillcrestVisuals said 5 years ago

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

  • HillcrestVisuals

    HillcrestVisuals said 5 years ago

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

  • ElenasLoom

    ElenasLoom said 5 years ago

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

  • LavenderField

    LavenderField said 5 years ago

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

  • ShopRedLeaf

    ShopRedLeaf said 5 years ago

    I LOVE these kind of stories. Thanks!

  • scandivintage

    scandivintage said 5 years ago

    Thanks for this! :)

  • animadesign

    animadesign said 5 years ago

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

  • lemondear

    lemondear said 5 years ago

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

  • ericawalker

    ericawalker said 5 years ago

    Great story.

  • NutfieldWeaver

    NutfieldWeaver said 5 years ago

    Excellent!

  • Archivia

    Archivia said 5 years ago

    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!

  • kathyjohnson3

    kathyjohnson3 said 5 years ago

    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!

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy said 5 years ago

    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.

  • TreasuryShop

    TreasuryShop said 5 years ago

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

  • Alterity

    Alterity said 5 years ago

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

  • TheBakersDaughter

    TheBakersDaughter said 5 years ago

    Love the history!

  • ShoeClipsOnly

    ShoeClipsOnly said 5 years ago

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

  • thunderpeep

    thunderpeep said 5 years ago

    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.

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 5 years ago

    Very good. Very historical. Everything has a story.

  • AmericanGirl51

    AmericanGirl51 said 5 years ago

    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

  • SweetiePieCollars

    SweetiePieCollars said 5 years ago

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

  • LittleMissCards

    LittleMissCards said 5 years ago

    Great article, I loved it!

  • HouseOfMoss

    HouseOfMoss said 5 years ago

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

  • artworksbycarol

    artworksbycarol said 5 years ago

    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?

  • luckyduckletterpress

    luckyduckletterpress said 5 years ago

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

  • AntwarePottery

    AntwarePottery said 5 years ago

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

  • JennasRedRhino

    JennasRedRhino said 5 years ago

    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!

  • HulaGirl1922

    HulaGirl1922 said 5 years ago

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

  • PurpleAmethystStone

    PurpleAmethystStone said 5 years ago

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

  • VitalityHandmade

    VitalityHandmade said 5 years ago

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

  • Alaroycreature

    Alaroycreature said 5 years ago

    HAHA so funny and cool

  • MishaGirl

    MishaGirl said 5 years ago

    Very interesting bit of history!

  • Jollymountainsoap

    Jollymountainsoap said 5 years ago

    Amazing! what a fun history!

  • PinwheelStudio

    PinwheelStudio said 5 years ago

    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!

  • NotYoMommasHandbag

    NotYoMommasHandbag said 5 years ago

    How ironic....smiles

  • JeanB123

    JeanB123 said 5 years ago

    Love the story and thanks for all his hard work!

  • girliepains

    girliepains said 5 years ago

    Such a sweet photo

  • sandboxcastle

    sandboxcastle said 5 years ago

    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!

  • DeadSerious2010

    DeadSerious2010 said 5 years ago

    Love this article, Fascinating history!

  • USAVintage

    Jennie Kinder from usavintage said 3 years ago

    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!

  • karibetts1

    Kari Betts said 3 years ago

    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.

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