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The History of Corrugated Fiberboard
Diana Twede, Michigan State University, East Lansing MI, USA
Papermaking inventions in the 1800s gave birth to the
corrugated fiberboard shipping container in the 1900s.
This paper tells the story of the technology development of
the material. It showcases the strategic alliances between
the corrugated industry and railroads, as well as the anti-
trust collusion among the corrugated box manufacturers.
These alliances institutionalized the new container which
has, for the past 100 years, been indispensable for modern
Three key technological inventions in the 1800s set the
stage for the mass production of paper based packaging by
the end of that century: the paper making machine, the
process for pulping wood and lithographic printing. The
paper-making machine and the process for pulping straw,
wastepaper and wood provided the cheap materials. (Twede
By the early 1900s, these inventions reduced the cost of
paper enough to make it useful for a wide range of
disposable packages. They stimulated the invention of
many paper-based packaging forms and processes. Most
notable among them is the (now) ubiquitous corrugated
fiberboard shipping container. This invention came at the
right time to supply the growing demand for packaging due
to the growth of manufacturing and distribution of consumer
The corrugated box came to play an essential role in
developing mass marketing and distribution. But the story
of its invention pales in comparison with the story of how
the corrugated box was to become ubiquitous. This is a
story of strategic alliances and anti-trust collusion between
powerful transportation and timber industries and their
customers, as well as with powerful manufacturers with
national (now global) distribution.
For almost 100 years, corrugated fiberboard shipping
containers have almost invisibly carried almost all goods in
commerce. One might argue that modern marketing would
not have been possible without such inexpensive and yet
sturdy shipping containers. One might also argue that
we’ve had precious little opportunity to explore alternatives.
Corrugated boxes continue to play a key role in
marketing systems today: corrugated boxes represent almost
80% of the mass and over half (54%) of the value of
packaging materials in the US (Rauch 2002 and EPA 2003).
INVENTION OF CORRUGATED
[Reference note: The sources for much of this paper
are Bettendorf (1946) and Howell (1940), unless otherwise
noted. They were eyewitnesses to some the industry=s early
development. Howell was secretary to the Robert Gair
Company, and Bettendorf was a writer for the trade press
and industry association staffer. Koning (1995) presents a
more complete bibliography.]
In 1856 in England, the first patent was issued for
making corrugated paper. It was formed on the same kind of
fluted irons used to make ruffled Elizabethan collars, and
was used in men=s hats as cushioning for the hat=s sweat
The first patent issued for corrugated paper as a
packaging material was granted in 1871 to an American,
Albert L. Jones. It was a textured cushioning material for
wrapping glass bottles to protect against breakage. In 1874,
Oliver Long=s patents added the single and double facings
to prevent stretching.
The British hatband patent was used as evidence of
prior art in a patent infringement settlement that led to an
alliance of three entrepreneurs: Robert H. Thompson, Henry
D. Norris and Robert Gair. They maintained a
manufacturing and sales monopoly on corrugated bottle-
wrapping paper for the life of the patents, until the1890s.
The Thompson Norris Company and Gair developed
machinery, processes, and various forms of wrappers.
The early corrugated wrapping materials were made
from thin straw sheets, like the straw wrapping paper of the
period. A sheet was dipped in water and then passed
through heated fluted rollers. A typical bottle wrapper was
single-faced with the facing extending past the corrugated
paper to fold in neatly around the neck and at the bottom.
Some were gummed for convenience, and some were pre-
made into cylinders. The material was also used for nests
and pads as dunnage (void filler) inside wooden boxes.
When the bottle wrap patents ran out in the 1890s,
Thompson and Norris developed the first double-faced
board. Single-faced board would be unrolled, glue was
applied to the second liner by a series of brushes, and the
plies would be combined as they were pulled through the
machine, which was stopped to cut off the sheet; in later
machines, glue would be applied only to the tips of the
flutes. They invented a rudimentary process for setting the
glue under pressure: the machine operators piled up several
sheets, covered them with boards and Awould tramp around
this board to give the necessary weight to make the liners
adhere@ (W. G. Chapin, quoted by Howell 1940).
In 1894 Thompson and Norris produced the first
double-faced corrugated boxes for light express deliveries
in New York City. The new box was tested by a Wells
Fargo office that was Apleased to say has borne without
damage, such handling as it would probably be called upon
to stand in ordinary transportation,@ and their agent
recommended them to other Wells Fargo shippers. (W. B.
Lindsay, quoted by Bettendorf 1946)
ALLIANCES WITH RAILROADS
Throughout history, the makers of shipping containers
have always had a strong relationship with the transport
industry (eg. Twede 2003 and 2005a). But the marriage
between the US fiberboard shipping container industry and
the railroads, which came to ensure the success of
corrugated board, did not start out as a love affair.
The first serious effort to use corrugated fiberboard
boxes for rail transport was about 1903, when a cereal
manufacturer secured an exception to the wooden box
requirement of the railroads in the Central Freight
Association territory. This motivated nine manufacturers to
unite in 1905 in a remarkable cooperative effort between
competitors. The members were Thompson & Norris, Hinde
& Dauch, J. W. Sefton, McPike Paper, Charles Boldt, Hunt
& Crawford, J. N. Hahn, Modes-Turner Glass and
The first association was called The Progress Club and
became the Corrugated Paper Patents Company. Their goal
was to standardize the material and make it fully acceptable
to all of the railroads. Through a series of trade associations
(culminating in today's Fibre Box Association) they drafted
specifications, and in 1906 they applied to the Western
Classification Committee of the railroads to permit the use
of corrugated fiberboard boxes.
At the same time (1904), the solid fiber shipping
container was being developed by the Illinois Fibre Box
Company in Chicago. Solid fiber boxes were made from 3
or 4 sheets of flax or jute board pasted together with animal
glue. The first ones had wooden frames, because the
material was hard to crease, until George Swift developed a
creasing machine in 1909. The W. K Kellogg Toasted Corn
Flake Co. was the largest user of the boxes produced by the
Illinois Fibre Box Co., which moved its manufacturing
operations to Battle Creek, Michigan in 1907 in order to
better meet Kelloggs= demand.
The Illinois Fibre Box Company also petitioned the
Western Classification Committee in 1906, and joined the
corrugated manufacturers in a July hearing at Frankfort,
Michigan. As a result, the Western Committee accepted
both kinds of boxes, as did the Eastern Committee in the
same year, but they also authorized a 10% higher freight
The railroads argued that the higher rate was justified
because fiberboard quality was considered to be mostly
poor, and if goods were damaged in transit, the railroad was
liable. They also argued that they would lose freight
revenue because of the corrugated box=s lighter weight and
In defense, quality standards were developed by the
Corrugated Paper Patents Company and the Illinois Fibre
Box Company, which joined other solid fiber box makers in
1909 to form the Fibre Shipping Container Association.
Thirteen years later, the two industries joined to form one
organization: The National Association of Corrugated &
Fibre Box Manufacturers.
They standardized corrugated board properties and box
weight limits, based on the thickness of facings and bursting
strength. Bursting strength was based on the MullenJ tester.
It had been developed in 1887 by John W. Mullen for
testing paper, and by 1907 a jumbo sized version had been
adopted by the Government Printing Office for testing book
cover boards (Bettendorf 1946). It was also used by the
textile industry for testing knit fabrics. The standards
appeared in all three freight classifications in 1910, and
when the three were merged in 1919, it was published as
Rule 41, which exists to this day.
More and more types of goods began to be shipped in
fiberboard boxes. Mass production and distribution were
multiplying markets. Besides cereal and lamp chimneys,
RSCs were used in 1906 for glass-packed goods, starch,
sugar, baking powder, candy, hardware, housewares, drugs,
stationery, rubber goods, shoes and soap. In 1910, the US
Bureau of Explosives approved fiber boxes for packaging
Strike Anywhere matches. By 1916 they were also used for
canned foods, matches, cigarettes and other tobacco
products, blankets, clothing, chewing gum, chemicals,
kitchen cabinets and other furniture. In the 1920s their use
would extend to products like radios, paint and department
store goods. (Browder 1935)
But the railroads continued to charge a higher freight
rate. The Western railroads were especially resistant,
charging on an Aexception@ basis as much as a 400%
premium for shipments eastbound from California. They
were concerned about more than damage. Due to federal
land grants, the Western railroads had enormous timber
holdings and investments in box-making sawmills, and
therefore had an financial interest in favoring the use of
wooden boxes in the West.
So an angry Pacific Coast boxmaker, R. W. Pridham,
sued the eastbound railroads for discrimination. The
Interstate Commerce Commission=s landmark Pridham
Decision in 1914 was a complete victory for fiberboard
boxes: the ICC found that there were no transportation
differences between the wood and fiber boxes, and it
prohibited all tariff discrimination. The decision moved
fiber boxes out of the position of being a substitute
container. Howells (1940) calls it Athe Fourth-of-July of the
The ensuing cooperation gave the corrugated box the
status it has today. The shipping container manufacturers
and the rail, and later trucking, associations standardized
corrugated fiberboard, and institutionalized it. In 1968,
motor carriers adopted Item 222, similar to the railroads=
Rule 41, for items carried by truck. The cooperative
relationship between the corrugated board and transport
industries continues today.
In the 1920s, corrugated containers overtook solid
fiberboard as the packaging of choice (Fibre Box Assn.
1991). Except for a short increase in demand during WWII,
solid fiber and wooden boxes gradually conceded markets
to boxes made from the now ubiquitous corrugated board.
THE COMMODITY RSC
From its outward appearance, the corrugated regular
slotted container (RSC) that is still the most common box
style used today has changed little from that used in 1914.
But in the following decades there were many changes in
materials and technology and, as a result, in the structure of
the industry. There were new sources of pulp, changes in
the process for making the containerboard, and new
processes for combining the board and converting it into
Thompson and Norris= first board were made from a
thick stiff strawboard corrugated medium. Their first liners
made from thick Aboiled wood pulp.@ They developed the
economical one-piece regular slotted container (RSC). It is
based on the idea of straight line folding and gluing similar
to that used in tube style bag and carton folder-gluer
machines. Experimentation with different liner stocks
continued until about 1906 when jute liners were first made.
From then until 1936, so called jute linerboard was most
common, made from wastepaper reinforced at first with jute
and later with kraft fibers.
After 1895, corrugator machinery developments
quickly multiplied. The first independent machinery
manufacturer was S. F. Langston in Philadelphia; his first
machine, in 1895 was a singlefacer. The first machine to
corrugate the medium and affix both faces was invented by
in 1895 by Jefferson T. Ferres for the Sefton Manufacturing
Company in Anderson, Indiana; he improved it in 1900 by
adding steam-heated hot plates for drying the board and
setting the glue. His machine, although it operated at only
10 feet/minute, is the basis for the corrugating machines
The first board combining adhesives were simple
cooked starches and flours, which were capable of
producing a good bond, but limited the corrugator speed.
Between 1910 and 1920, the industry switched to a quicker-
drying silicate of soda based adhesive, which required less
water and heat to cure than starch. Machine speeds
increased to over 300 feet/minute. But silicate of soda is
abrasive and over time ruined corrugating rolls, so in 1934,
Jordan C. Bauer of the Stein-Hall Company developed a
starch-based adhesive that would cure more quickly. The
Stein-Hall Formula uses cooked starch as a carrier agent to
keep the remaining raw starch suspended as heat at the glue
line solidifies it and creates an instant bond; it is the basis
for the adhesive used for corrugated board today.
RSC box-making equipment was also developed in the
early 1900s. Rotary slitters and scorers were developed in
1905 by George Swift for making the blanks into tubes.
Slotting was mechanized by using saws in 1902, by the
Sefton Manufacturing Company, a dusty practice that
continued into the 1920s along with the up-and-down slotter
developed in about 1905.
In 1910, the invention of the printer-slotter by James
Jones and Henry Gores, employees of the American Paper
Products Company, simplified the manufacturing process.
The concepts were based on rubber printing plates
(developed by John Kerr in 1900), a Along way@ slitter and
scorer that also printed the blank (developed by George
Swift in 1905), and Samuel Langston=s 1908 printing press,
which for the first time fed blanks the short way. Feeding
blanks in the Ashort@ direction would come to simplify
folding and gluing, too.
Automatic tapers were invented in the 1920s for
making the manufacturer=s joint, but the blanks were still
manually folded and fed into the machine. Once folding
machines were developed and glues were improved, a
gluing operation was added in the 1950s. Up until then,
most manufacturers= joints were taped or stitched (stapled).
One of the earliest folder-gluer machines was the Universal
Comet. (Shulman 1986)
The first boxes were closed with string, which was
replaced by the 1920s with case sealing glue made from
silicate of soda. But as it dried, it seeped out and hardened
with sharp edges that cut the fingers of workers. Later,
vegetable based adhesives were used which could be
automatically applied, but the slow setting speeds required
50' long compression belts. (Personal Touch 1977)
The first printing on corrugated board was with oil-
based inks by letterpress. The development of flexography
made possible the use of faster drying low viscosity inks.
Water-based inks have the advantage of being quickly
absorbed by the porous board. Flexography also had the
advantage of not crushing the flutes as much as letterpress.
In 1957-60, a flexographic printing press was first
added to a folder-gluer machine under the direction of
Henry Kulwicki at Hooper-Swift (later Koppers). By 1970
there were approximately 2000 flexo folder-gluers in use
worldwide. Flexo folder-gluers greatly improved
productivity, and were able to run at speeds up to 32 times
faster than letterpress (Shulman 1986). Just as the
development of lithography led to an extravaganza of color
on labels and cartons, the development of flexography has
led to an increasing emphasis on printing for corrugated
fiberboard containers. Today, most corrugated boxes are
formed and printed in flexo folder-gluer machines.
Containerboard pulp and papermaking processes have
changed too. In 1924 all-kraft cylinder machine liners first
appeared in Rule 41. The jute linerboard and strawboard
medium had been produced on multi-ply cylinder machines,
and so was the first kraft linerboard. It was made in a
Bogalusa, Louisiana, juteboard mill in 1915, and in 1923
the Hummel-Ross Fibre Corporation in Hopewell, Virginia
first produced kraft linerboard commercially.
In 1922 a variation on the kraft process was developed
in the South that made the pulp stronger, less expensive and
easier to drain, making it possible to form board on a
fourdrinier machine. In 1927, the Brown Paper Mill in
Monroe, Louisiana, was the first mill to produce kraft board
on a fourdrinier machine. The invention of the double flow
headbox for the fourdrinier machine, in 1934 by John Sale
of Hummel-Ross Fiber Corp., made it possible to put a
smoother (or white) surface on the linerboard or a layer of
virgin kraft atop a recycled layer (as had been done by
cylinder machines for many years), and this is the process
still used today. A smoother and/or whiter surface improves
The introduction of fourdrinier kraft board ignited a
paper industry expansion in the South which fiercely
competed with the cylinder-made jute linerboard producers
in the North. From 1925 to1952, as linerboard production
overall quadrupled, annual juteboard production remained
relatively steady and kraft=s share increased to 80% (Gates
Kraft linerboard, since it was stronger than juteboard,
could be used at a lower basis weight. Whereas the original
jute liners needed an 80 lb basis weight to pass the 200 lb
burst test, A200 lb test@ board made from today=s kraft
liners has a basis weight of half that.
The standard 0.009" corrugated strawboard medium
began to be replaced in 1927 by one made from
semichemical hardwood pulp. The first source was another
waste product, spent chestnut chips which had been leached
to extract tannin for the leather tanning industry. Chestnut
pulp, like that made from straw, made a good stiff medium.
This would prove to be true for other hardwoods as well,
and neutral sulfite semichemical (NSSC) hardwood pulp is
still used in some corrugated medium.
Once there were enough old corrugated containers
(OCC) with high kraft content in service, it began to make
economic sense to recycle them to reclaim their long fibers.
In 1930, bogus medium made from OCC began to be used.
(The term bogus, though rarely used today, refers to paper
made from recovered pulp.) The recycled pulp was also
used in juteboard, to replace imported virgin kraft and some
of the wastepaper.
World War II was instrumental in the development of
wet-strength board. There was a shortage of wooden boxes,
and the regular fiberboard boxes that were sent as
substitutes failed in the South Pacific where they were
stored outdoors. In 1942, the paperboard mills came up first
with AV@ (for AVictory@) water-resistant solid fiberboards:
V1, V2 and V3. When demand quickly outstripped the
capacity for solid fiberboard, the Southern kraft board mills
and box makers developed V3c corrugated board, with
heavy kraft medium and liners, glued with water-resistant
urea formaldehyde resin. Its lighterweight cousin, W5c, was
first used for inner packing of wooden boxes, but later came
to be used for lighter duty water resistant boxes (Lincoln
1945). After the war, the water-resistant boxes were found
to be too costly for most domestic uses (Daly 1971).
COMPETITION AND COLLUSION
The ballooning demand for corrugated board during
and after the War stimulated the building of more virgin
kraft mills. This new kraft supply ultimately crowded out
the juteboard and solid fiber box suppliers. From that time
forward, corrugated board, in the U.S., has been made with
a high virgin kraft content.
The ascension of kraft linerboard dramatically changed
the structure of the industry. The kraft manufacturers,
corrugators and box-making industries grew increasingly
integrated. Further breakthroughs in the pulping of
hardwoods and pine, and the ability to make containerboard
on a fourdrinier machine, brought corrugated board into the
heart of the forest industries.
There has always been a powerful incentive to fix
prices in the industry. Corrugated board is largely a
commodity, and when the market is left to pure competition
and inventory levels are high, prices can fall below variable
costs. The integrated kraft/board/box producers have, since
the 1930s, attempted to use their power and affiliation to
maintain prices of linerboard, boxes or both. Serial
offenders, they have been accused in anti-trust actions
In 1939 the integrated producers were first accused of
violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. They were sued for
price fixing and allocating markets among themselves. In
the 1930s, most of the producers did not know how to use
their accounting systems to determine variable costs, and
much of the early collusion was claimed to be based on
attempts to standardize accounting principles. The suit was
settled by a Consent Decree in which the independents
agreed, without admitting guilt, to abstain from collusion.
Mergers in the 1950s further increased the market
power of the large producers. The incentive to fix prices
continued, and corrugated box salemen developed the
informally agreed upon practice of asking their customers
for a competitor=s priceBand meeting it because beating it
caused the retaliatory threat of reciprocal price cutting. In
1967 the government again clamped down, suing the
industry under the Clayton Antitrust Act. The result was an
order to divest and the industry was ordered not to
communicate between competitors about prices. (Daly
In 1976 one of the largest antitrust class action civil
cases in history (brought by 58 companies on behalf of a
class of over 200,000 purchasers of sheets and boxes) was
brought against 37 corporations for exchanging price
information, resulting in a record $550,000,000 in
settlements. The most certain violations were by the
integrated producers who allegedly conspired to fix the
price of linerboard, although they were also accused of
fixing prices for their largest multi-plant customers
(Goldberg et al 1986). This coincided with an anti-trust
indictment of 23 producers in the folding carton industry.
In the 1990s, when the price of linerboard doubled in
two years, it happened again! Another class action suit was
brought by a group of independent converters and end
users. The suit alleged that the president of Stone Container,
the largest of the integrated producers, had orchestrated a
plan in which his fellow linerboard manufacturers would
close plants and idle mills, in order to drive up the price of
linerboard. Then they could charge the independents an
inflated price for the linerboard as well as undercut the
independents= box prices in the market. By 2003, the
case=s combined settlement was $210,000,000, not
including several of the end users who opted out of the class
action to pursue independent lawsuits. (Duffy 2003).
Much of this litigation stems from the fact that the
integrated producers control the kraft linerboard production.
During the 1950s, they perpetuated the legend of the virtues
of virgin kraft linerboard, which enhanced their power.
The increase in recycling in the 1990s has changed the
materials again. Now most US corrugated fiberboard is still
100% kraft, but the OCC (old corrugated container) content
varies depending on the state of recycling.
By the 1970s, almost every product in the US was
shipped in a corrugated fiberboard shipping container. Wax
impregnating, introduced in the 1960s, even made them
suitable for agricultural products with high moisture
contents, from fruits and vegetables to fish and meat.
Some of the first tests for corrugated board and boxes
were developed by the fiberboard associations from 1916 to
1927 through the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in
Pittsburgh. In 1913 the Forest Products Laboratory in
Madison, Wisconsin, started research and developed the
revolving drum test, which was a little like kicking a box
down an endless set of stairs. (Plaskett 1935) In 1950,
TAPPI (Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper
Industry) developed a Corrugated Containers Division that
has been responsible for developing most of the material
test methods used today. (Coleman 1990).
The low cost and light weight of corrugated boxes
enabled more producers to economically employ wider
distribution than ever before in history. Indeed, the
exponential expansion of distribution throughout the 1900s
would not have been possible without the help of the self-
effacing brown corrugated RSC.
Furthermore, the exponential expansion of RSC use can
be attributed to strategic alliances between the corrugated
industry and transport carriers, as well as collusion between
competitors. This paper has described the historical
context, technology developments and the alliances that
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