Paper may be the oldest form of what today is referred to as "flexible packaging." Sheets of treated mulberry bark were used by the Chinese to wrap foods as early as the First or Second century B.C. During the next fifteen hundred years, the paper-making technique was refined and transported to the Middle East, then Europe and finally into the United Kingdom in 1310. Eventually, the technique arrived in America in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1690.
But these first papers were somewhat different from those used today. Early paper was made from flax fibers and later old linen rags. It wasn't until 1867 that paper originating from wood pulp was developed.
Although commercial paper bags were first manufactured in Bristol, England, in 1844, Francis Wolle invented the bag-making machine in 1852 in the United States. Further advancements during the 1870s included glued paper sacks and the gusset design. After the turn of the century (1905), the machinery was invented to automatically produce in-line printed paper bags.
With the development of the glued paper sack, the more expensive cotton flour sacks could be replaced. But a sturdier multiwalled paper sack for larger quantities could not replace cloth until 1925 when a means of sewing the ends was finally invented.
The first commercial cardboard box was produced in England in 1817, more than two hundred years after the Chinese invented cardboard. Corrugated paper appeared in the 1850s; about 1900, shipping cartons of faced corrugated paperboard began to replace self-made wooden crates and boxes used for trade.
As with many innovations, the development of the carton was accidental. Robert Gair was a Brooklyn printer and paper-bag maker during the 1870s. While he was printing an order of seed bags, a metal rule normally used to crease bags shifted in position and cut the bag. Gair concluded that cutting and creasing paperboard in one operation would have advantages; the first automatically made carton, now referred to as "semi-flexible packaging," was created.
The development of flaked cereals advanced the use of paperboard cartons. The Kellogg brothers were first to use cereal cartons at their Battle Creek, Michigan, Sanatorium. When this "health food" of the past was later marketed to the masses, a waxed, heat sealed bag of Waxtite was wrapped around the outside of a plain box. The outer wrapper was printed with the brand name and advertising copy. Today, of course, the plastic liner protects cereals and other products within the printed carton.
Paper and paperboard packaging increased in popularity well into the 20th century. Then with the advent of plastics as a significant player in packaging (late 1970s and early 1980s), paper and its related products tended to fade in use. Lately that trend has halted as designers try to respond to environmental concerns.
Source: A History of Packaging, CDFS-133, Paula Hook and Joe E. Heimlich