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The History of Food And Drink Packaging

Though the need to create eye-catching, secure and sustainable food packaging has only become an important consideration during the last 100 or so years, coverings have long been utilised to keep items fresh, and to maintain quality. Though there are all manner of packaging options available to organisations and individuals hoping to conserve the quality of meals, this certainly hasn’t always been the case. Join the Marshall Wilson team as we explore food and drink packaging through the ages, covering everything from the origins of humble food wrapping to the very latest industry developments and innovative meal or drink packaging of the future.



Take-away packaging


An Absolute Essential

An absolute essential for any food group, but especially when it comes to fresh goods, meats and dairy items, packaging refers to the enclosing of edible items for the purpose of protection. This prevents harm from environmental factors that may cause contamination, damage or decay in the process of transport, storage and selling. The importance of product packaging in the food industry cannot be understated, which is where we come in!


At Marshall Wilson, we stress the fact that food products must remain free of contamination and damage at all points in the retail process - therefore, product packaging must be durable enough that the food items will not be damaged as they are shipped from the manufacturing facility to shops or takeaways, and again as they are transported from the shop to a consumer’s home. High-quality product packaging is important in every industry. However, it’s perhaps the most important in the food industry, where health and safety is of utmost importance.


The Earliest Forms

Exploring the fascinating history of food packaging through the years, we’ll start at the very earliest point. In prehistoric times, humans of course didn’t have the luxury of popping to the closest shop to bring home a packaged meal, and the seasonal availability of wild plants and animals dictated matters. Whatever nomadic people could hunt and forage, they had to immediately consume. If individuals needed to transport their food, they also had to make do with whatever became available


Often during these times, makeshift containers were made from animal skin, shells, and gourds, while the most creative and resourceful breadwinners would construct and utilise baskets and bags, fashioned out of grass, wood, and natural fibers. It was not until new minerals and chemicals were discovered many eras late that fabrics, ceramics, and woodware were used for food transportation and packaging. The Ancient Egyptians were innovators in this sense, making the most of glass blowing to create containers for food and water storage. Similarly, Chinese emperor Ts’ai Lun of the Imperial Court invented paper at a later date, marking a turning point in the longevity of food. Some foods could then be saved for future meals and less time was needed for seeking and gathering.


Gradual Developments

Another development at this stage, wooden barrels were common packaging come the Middle Ages, as their comparable robustness and size certainly helped merchants transport food for long and perilous periods of travel. This makeshift packaging and storage allowed food to be transported across bodies of water within ships and other vessels. As merchants travelled far and wide, shoppers were further encouraged to bring their own wicker baskets, bottles, or pitchers when purchasing food. Linen and wool rags were used to specifically wrap meats, beans, salted fish, and flour. This may seem odd, but industrialisation was just around the corner, having a huge effect on the viability of food packaging.


The invention of machines caused the birth of new industries and allowed trade to flourish - with an increased emphasis on quality, while quantity was achievable through automated and organised processes. Because of this period’s focus on mass production and distribution, food packaging had to be durable, easy to produce, and accessible too, setting the precedent for Marshall Wilson’s quality food packaging of the future. As mentioned earlier, 200 years after the Chinese invented paper, the first commercial cardboard box was produced in England in 1817 - undeniably a game changer.


Features And Variations

Following the initial Industrial Revolution, recognised to have taken place between 1760 and 1840, technological advancements, a further push for mass production and the invention of the telephone all had a part to play in ensuring food items were adequately secured and distributed around Europe in a business-like fashion. The push towards visually pleasing packaging choices began in the Victorian era, an era in which most packaging was still plain and quite rudimental, but pricier luxury products were now sold in beautiful tins, jars and boxes. Brighter colours, illustrations and figurines started to adorn this packaging, making them more attractive to often-wealthy consumers.


By the early 1900s, wooden crates and boxes were being replaced by corrugated paper and shipping cartons, around the same time that biscuits began to be individually packaged and sold, preserving crispness by providing a barrier. Fast-forwarding to 1933, a new era of plastics began with the discovery of the plastic wrap. This material would cling to almost any surface and paved the way for airtight food packaging. Soon to come were aluminium cans, ring pull cans and plastic bottles for carbonated drinks, laying the foundations for the adaptable and often product-specific packaging we see to this day.


Recent Packaging

Innovations over recent years have built upon the ground-breaking ideas of the 1900s, including active packaging, which gained popularity in the 1990s, benefitting both the manufacturer and consumer. This type of packaging meant better preservation, extended shelf-life, reduced food waste, and easy use for customers. Sachets and pads could be placed inside the packaging to preserve the food, reacting to a common customer complaint. The ready-meal industry also benefited from altered packaging, with materials utilising temperature control and insulation, so food could be heated and eaten directly from the container it arrived in.


The consumer demand for sustainable solutions, reduced plastic use, and a heightened customer experience will contribute to how food packaging continues in the future. Throughout the early 21st century, many packaging companies and big food producers have grown a renewed sense of environmental consideration, and have begun looking for more ecological solutions to their packaging needs. Looking to upgrade your packaging in an environmentally conscious manner? Here at Marshall Wilson, we can provide you with 100% recyclable and water resistant packaging, which abides with all legal requirements within The United Kingdom.


Marshall Wilson: From Paper Lunch Bags To Quality Fast Food Packaging

Founded in March 1991 by Jim Marshall and Gerry Wilson, we’re a Glasgow-based business with a strong track record for quality food packaging products. Starting as a traditional packaging wholesaler before finding our niche and specialising in catering packaging from the 90s, we are now one of the leading independent packaging suppliers in the UK - operating from a 20,000 square foot warehouse. The Marshall Wilson online packaging store is the place to find all your food packaging supplies, with top quality recyclable products at great prices as standard. Offering nationwide delivery from our Glasgow warehouse, we won’t be beaten on value or quality.


With a range that includes catering disposables, retail packaging, tableware, glassware, industrial packaging, and janitorial products, Marshall Wilson is the name to trust when you need the right supplies to contain your food and drink. Keen to expand and assist individuals or organisations nationwide, we supply packaging products to establishments across Scotland and the rest of the UK. If you want to be sure that you’re working with a packaging firm that can provide precisely what you need, contact the team at your earliest convenience!

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