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The birth of modern packaging: Cartons, cans and bottles

Diana Twede (School of Packaging, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA)

Journal of Historical Research in Marketing

ISSN: 1755-750X

Article publication date: 27 April 2012




During a short two‐decade period (1879‐1903) processes for making food packages – paperboard cartons, tinplate cans and glass bottles – were mechanized by American inventor/entrepreneurs Robert Gair, Edwin Norton and Michael Owens, respectively. This paper aims to describe the context for packaged, processed food at the time, and to explore the men, their inventions, and the modern packaging industry that they collectively developed.


Biographies and patents were reviewed as well as contemporaneous and retrospective trade publications, newspapers, censuses and commentary.


Packaging's industrial revolution played a key role in the development of modern marketing. Mass‐produced cartons, cans and bottles collectively became building blocks for mass markets. By the time of the first supermarket in 1920, annual sales of packaged breakfast cereal, crackers, biscuits, canned fruits and vegetables, preserves, soft drinks and other prepared foods had increased by 60‐fold over 1880 levels, 80 percent of which occurred after 1910. The packaging companies of Gair, Norton and Owens capitalized on new methods of production and business integration (and collusion) to profit from the trend, and enabled emerging national brands like Nabisco, Campbell's Soup and Coca‐Cola to successfully lead a revolution in mass marketing.


This paper shows why and how the practically simultaneous invention of machines to make cartons, cans and bottles was able to accelerate the development of national brands and supermarkets. Inasmuch as the histories of the three packaging forms are not considered to be in the same “industry,” this research represents a fresh interpretation of secondary sources.



Twede, D. (2012), "The birth of modern packaging: Cartons, cans and bottles", Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 4 No. 2, pp. 245-272.



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Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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