True Tales of Packaging History: The Birth of Breakfast Boxes

H/T Packing

Revolutions in the packaging and converting industries are seeing the rise of digital printing, robotic equipment, and even printable solar panels. To offer some respite from the march of technology, we’d like to take you back to a simpler time when the cutting edge of technology was the hand-powered wrapping machine and boxes came in any color so long as it was brown. Here’s a look at some of the people, products, and processes that shaped the package printing industry from its beginnings–and how better to begin than with a complete breakfast?


At the dawn of the 20th century, the Kellogg brothers operated a health sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan. Dr. John Kellogg was a celebrity physician who attracted notable patients like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and even President Taft. His younger brother, William Kellogg, had only three months of formal education past the 6th grade, and toiled as a combination accountant, secretary, handyman, and janitor.

Dr. John Kellogg’s radical health regimen included exercise, cold showers, fresh air–and a number of less orthodox measures, like yogurt enemas. He also had extreme beliefs on a number of subjects beyond conventional health, including a support of eugenics: “People of greatly disproportionate heights should not marry” is perhaps one of the less offensive quotes from his best-selling book, Plain Facts for Old and Young. Although today many of the Doctor’s views have been debunked and the short and the tall are now free to wed one another without shame, John Kellogg’s interest in well-maintained intestinal tracts led to lasting positive results: the popularization of breakfast cereals and the refinement of their packaging.

The Doctor and his younger brother experimented with varieties of granola, wheat, and bran to serve to patients as an additional measure to ensure clean and healthy bowels. One day an interruption in production led to a sheet of boiled wheat drying out completely. Forced through the rollers of their factory and baked, the result was individual crunchy pieces—the invention of flaked cereal. Easy to produce, effortless to prepare at home, and soon a popular product to ship to patients interested in maintaining a Kellogg-approved diet. The packaging for the product was as bland as its contents: a plain box emblazoned with a rather unappealing name like “Sanitas” or “Kellogg’s Sterilized Bran,” although still an improvement on the common practice of selling cereal directly out of barrels.

With the creation of this popular new product, the brothers began to part ways. The Doctor believed in the value of his health regimen above all and placed its importance above mere profit. William, on the other hand, tired of working fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, for a paltry wage under his domineering elder brother. When John refused to build a proper modern factory for the production of the cereal, William had one built when the Doctor was traveling in Europe. William also continued to develop new recipes, creating corn flakes and even experimenting with sugar, a blasphemous ingredient to the health-obsessed Doctor.

When the sanitarium and the cereal factory grew into separate concerns, William was free to add flair to his packaging that his brother resisted. William chose more appetizing titles for his products and his company would eventually pioneer the use of brightly colored cartoon mascots as an alternative to the Doctor’s rather grim choice of a photo of the sanitarium. He printed his name on every box with the warning, “Beware of Imitations. None Genuine Without This Signature,” to deter the competing cereal companies that had sprung up in Battle Creek, and that same signature is still on every box today. William also pioneered the mail-in redemption of prizes to encourage customer loyalty–save those box tops, kids!

In one way William Kellogg’s cereal boxes were rather different from ours: Kellogg decided to distinguish his boxes from those of his competitors by encasing them inside a heat-sealed plastic bag on which was printed the cereal’s brand name and ad copy. Yes, that’s bag on the outside, box on the inside, and cereal rattling around in the center. It was William’s own son, John L. Kellogg, who developed the now standard practice of putting the bag inside the box. And so it’s been ever since, although there’s always the opportunity for innovation.


The other package that has dominated our breakfast tables for nearly a century is the milk carton. While the creation of cereal coincided with the development of efficient cardboard packaging, milk was hardly a new development and aspiring inventors were aware for decades that glass bottles were a nuisance for distributors and ripe for replacement.

John Van Wormer, the first to patent a “paper bottle,” was supposedly inspired when a shattered bottle spoiled his breakfast one morning, but breakage was just one of the problems. Glass bottles were also awkwardly shaped for transport, empties needed to be collected from consumers who were prone to keeping bottles for their own use, and reusable containers were unhygienic. Finally, to quote the wife of milk carton magnate Victor Farris: “My God, did you ever carry those damn things? They are heavy.”

So there was clear demand to develop a lightweight, disposable package for milk, and the advent of modern packaging machinery made it possible to experiment with a variety of solutions. Innovators offered paper cones, pyramids, cubes, and even bottle shapes; we recommend visiting the Dairy Antiques Web site for a look at breakfast as it could have been.

Despite the obvious problems and abundance of solutions, it took decades for the price of glass to rise high enough to make switching to paper cartons attractive to consumers who were used to milk in glass bottles and disinclined to change their habits. But by that time our friend Van Wormer had perfected the gable-top spout we use today and developed a process of mass manufacture for the complex design. By 1950, he was selling 20 million cartons a day while competing with rivals like Victor Farris’s plastic-coated carton and the minimalist Tetra Pak being produced in Sweden.

Milk cartons are also notable for an unusual package printing trend: The famous “missing child” notices printed on cartons were first placed independently by the Anderson Erickson Dairy, which recommended the practice to the National Child Safety Council, which in turn received the cooperation of major manufacturers including Potlatch, Weyerhauser, and International Paper, who donated advertising space to the initiative. The campaign made a surprisingly large impression on pop culture memory, but it actually lasted only six months beginning in 1984 before being declared a failure–it seems that the people most likely to read and remember the notices were other young children.

Author: deplorablesunite

I am a divorced father of two daughters. I am a proud Deplorable.

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