A moment in time when corrugated carton came out of the shadows

BY : Nick Howard, C.E.A., President, Howard Graphic Equipment Ltd.

The J.W. Sefton Manufacturing Company’s Chicago offices were buzzing. The 20th century had just arrived, along with a potential new customer: a glassware manufacturer from Oklahoma. The glass, in this case, was shaped in the form of a globe and was popular for street gas lights at the time. Sefton was in a fledgling new sector of making a newly invented corrugated board from yellow straw, referred to as strawboard. Although the company started manufacturing wooden butter dishes, this quickly changed when an employee, Jeffrey T. Ferres, patented a new principle to an existing “corrugator,” known as a pressure-roll single facer. The glass executives were not convinced a rigid and pleated strawboard box would improve their current wood box filled with excelsior (shredded wood).

Wood packing was the only option up to this time, and even though expensive, the glass globes would often arrive at their destination broken. The novel idea of a corrugated box had the additional benefit of reduced weight but was unproven in the days when everything had to travel by train. Despite Sefton’s sales team citing how glass products were already being shipped to as far off as California, the glass executives weren’t biting: they needed a better pitch. Prove it!

Sefton’s design team got to work and designed a square carton with die-cut sunburst trays at both ends. The globe was now firmly suspended without touching the sides of the box. Now for a demonstration. About a dozen glass globes were packed in these newly designed cartons, taped shut, and brought to the top floor of Sefton’s Chicago building. In a stairwell, each box was booted down the stairs, floor after floor, until they arrived in the basement looking battered. One by one, the cartons were opened, and to the glassmaker’s surprise, not one glass globe was broken. This moment in time would be instrumental in bringing the corrugated carton out from the dark shadows of irrelevance and mistrust.

An original patent for first automatic liner application from a roll (1900).

Jeffrey Ferres' improvements on the single-face corrugator, designed in 1895 by Philadelphians Charles Langston and David Weber, added a liner to the open corrugated flutes and would soon develop a double-facer opening up corrugated materials to the modern age. Many hurdles were left to overcome since printing on paper cartons proved difficult. Hooper presses were the only way to print, and these machines were designed for wood boxes, not corrugated. They were unforgiving since they were embossed deeply and, although ideal for wood, crushed corrugated materials. Modifications and new printers soon solved the problems, but with type only being applied. Soon Aniline (flexo) arrived and ushered in improved graphics and rapid ink drying. Flexo remains in widespread use today for printing directly on corrugated double-face cartons. A pizza box is a popular example of flexo in action.

As the wood packing industry slowly fell out of favour, corrugated took another giant leap with litho-printed paper laminated to flat boxes. By the mid-20th century, clerks and salespeople started disappearing from stores, which meant the products on the shelves had to become the salesperson while safely holding the contents. Today we are witnessing the same transformation of retail job losses; only software is the catalyst.

The corrugated straw paper was initially patented in England by Edward Healey and Edward Allen in 1856, however not for making a box but just creating flutes without liners to protect delicate glassware inside a wood box. Their invention was a by-product of the laundry industry, where young women would hand-feed the edges of window curtains or collars of shirts and blouses.

Today corrugated materials are widespread with the recent addition of micro-flutes, specifically F and N-flutes, which can be easily printed while offering rigidity and protection for everything from cosmetics to foodstuffs. In the 1970s, Planeta promoted the ability of their Variant offset press to print on F-flute since the variant could handle over 50-point materials. The genesis of modern corrugated production would begin at J. W. Sefton’s factories in Chicago and Anderson, Indiana. Sefton would eventually be purchased in 1930 by Container Corporation of America. Today the remnants of J.W. Sefton are held by RockTenn, who merged with MeadWestvaco in 2015 to form WestRock, the world’s second-largest rigid and corrugated packaging manufacturer after International Paper.

According to Dublin-based Research and Markets, corrugated board sales are growing fast, with USD262.61 billion in 2019, and expected to grow to USD339.95 billion in 2025. 88% of new corrugated includes recycled materials, a big win for environmentalists and particularly attractive to consumers who are becoming acutely attuned to recycling issues. Easily recycled corrugated has changed the way we buy goods. From such frugal beginnings to today’s modern strong and lightweight box, there is no stopping our love affair with fluted cartons: a win-win for the environment and commerce. Perhaps we can say that WestRock is the father of the modern corrugated shipping carton!