Anatomy of a Box


It all starts with this, a simple box.

Cardboard was invented by the Chinese in the early part of the 15th century[1]. The first commercial cardboard box was produced in England in 1817. The first patent registration of corrugated cardboard was made in England in 1856 by Edward Healy and Edward Allen. At that time corrugated cardboard was used for hatbands [2].

20230409-arkiv02-4080112Corrugated cardboard consists of two layers of cardboard, also called ‘liners’ and a corrugated central part called ‘fluting’ (deriving from the English word flute). The liner is manufactured from long fibres in order to make it strong and hard-wearing. The fluting is manufactured from short fibres in order to make it stiff and resistant to pressure [2].

The first cardboard box manufactured in the United States was made in 1895. By 1900, wooden crates and boxes were being replaced by corrugated paper shipping cartons. The advent of flaked cereals increased the use of cardboard boxes. The first to use cardboard boxes as cereal cartons were the Kellogg brothers[3].

Cardboard boxes have a variety of uses beyond packaging, including toys for children [4], costumes [5], home construction [6] and disguises, among others [7]. But there’s more: Time refers to the cardboard box as “a great enabler of global trade.” [8] The New York Times goes a little further and describes the role of larger containers [9].

For me, in the past, contact with a cardboard box was a relatively rare event, usually limited to an appliance purchase, new shoes or a move. Now, however, it is a more common event; at least weekly. Why? Our local food retailer doesn’t issue bags of any sort, rather they provide the customer (me) access to the cardboard boxes used by their suppliers to ship produce to them. Charitably, it’s an example of reuse.

But in the end, I’m left holding the box. Our local municipality recycles cardboard. To be collected, though, all cardboard must be flattened and tied in bundles no larger than 2′ x 2′ x 1′. This means cutting the box into pieces and this is where I come into close contact with how boxes are designed. It turns out that the design of many boxes are not so simple, and in fact are quite complicated:


Flaps on the left and right side of the box unfold. The flaps are held in place by tabs that hook into a slat inside the box


Unfolding the flaps (left and right side of box) one can see several folds in them. Unfolding the flaps exposes other cardboard flanges on each side, probably to provide strength to the box.
Here the front and back sides are unfolded, again exposing several folds.
Here the boxes is completely unfolded allowing one to see that it is comprises of several folds, cuts and holes.

Designing a box seems less trivial than one might expect. I’m going to guess that the complexity of the design is to allow construction without glue, and the use of tape, which I presume reduces the cost and possibly the complexity of the manufacturing process enough to offset the initial design costs.



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