Victorian Food Packaging
Victorian Maid

How has Packaging Changed Over the Years? Where is it heading?


Since people have grown, caught, harvested, and moved food, there’s been a requirement to package it in some way to protect it and make transportation easier. After all, transporting corn by the handful makes for challenging work! 

But let’s not get into the complete history of food packaging, or we’d be spending hours talking about the most useful leather-satchel methods of storing grains. Instead, let’s focus on commercial food packaging over time.

Why food needs to be packaged

While this may seem relatively self-evident, most food actually doesn’t need to be packaged – or, at least, it doesn’t need to be packaged with the current methods most businesses use. At core, most foodstuffs can be picked and moved with only what we’ll call ‘carrier packaging’ – crates, burlap sacks, baskets, and so on. 

This worked perfectly for thousands of years of agriculture: the local farms would pick their produce a day or two before market day and haul it into the local town, where the locals would get their pick of seasonal produce. But any trip to almost any supermarket will show that this is not how we eat in the modern world.

Local picking and farmers’ markets are still a thing, but it’s usually quite difficult to find a locally-grown, fresh avocado in winter in Surrey. Modern food travels far further than most of us ever will – and food packaging has played a significant role in making that possible over the last century. 

“Packaging science has had a major role in our general good health and increased lifespan. Why? Because it protects fresh and processed food from contaminants, oxidation, microbial spoilage, while generally increasing the shelf life of food and providing an opportunity to transport goods worldwide.” Vanessa Grondin, (watch the TEDx talk here).

Pre-Victorian packaging

As may be expected, the longest-serving forms of food packaging were papers and fabrics. Both relatively cheap to make, they served as great carriers for food as they could be easily folded around items to keep them mostly free from contaminants and mostly preserve a moisture level. Many of these items, moreover, could be reused. Having a handful of waxed-fabric wraps for sandwiches, for example, meant you only needed to buy that handful the one time and use them for years.

Ultimately, these forms were most beneficial because food still wasn’t being packaged to be sent long distances.

Foods that were packaged for long distance travel, such as teas, herbs, and spices, could be dried and stored in sacks or barrels for transport to particular shops, where small amounts of each good could be bought and put into paper wraps for transport from the shop to the home.

Victorian Food Packaging

With rapid urbanisation in the Victorian period, a significant number of London’s poorest didn’t actually have the means to make their own food. The density of housing often meant that there wasn’t much room allocated for kitchens (considering they were also quite likely to set a building on fire at the time) so many working class and poor people ate food directly from street stalls.

There was a proliferation of street vendors selling things like pea soup (by the pint), jellied eels, trotters, or any manner of things that came cheap. And because of the volume of demand and the low cost of produce, street vendors were able to offer sustenance that everyone but the very poorest could afford.

These vendors often had an allocation of utensils, so the food would be eaten nearby and the metal plates, cups, or cutlery would be washed and reused.

In terms of food that was packaged, through advances in plating technology, the Victorians began to see much more food stored in metal for transport. It created the ability to preserve food in cans for longer storage or distant transport. There were also advances in glass mass manufacturing that enabled most liquid goods to be shipped in cylindrical bottles – which meant a lot less breakage in transport.

These methods were largely used until after the Second World War.

Post-War Packaging

In the relative boom after the war, faster, cheaper materials were needed, so plastics – which had been developed in various forms for niche applications since the late 1800s – saw a feverish development. Plastics in different shapes and sizes worked great for so many applications: from box lining, to crate stuffing, to direct product wrapping.

Initially, the direct product wrapping was for things like pharmaceuticals that needed a lot of protection from possible contamination. Fresh produce was still largely bought directly from grocers and eaten before spoiling. Produce was carried in paper bags that could easily be composted. Wrapping food was only really reserved for prepared foods like cereals, crackers, and sweets. Essentially, food that needed to be prevented from going stale before sale.

Most of these products used some form of wax-paper wrapping as you could melt the wax to fashion an airtight seal.

The Plastic Boom

From around the 60s onward, much of the developed world demanded convenience – and, around 1970, the wax paper bag was eclipsed in popularity by plastic bags due to the possible speed of manufacture with machine advances.

The ease of stopping at a supermarket, grabbing a pre-packaged snack, and being able to eat it and throw away the wrappers was – and still is – a significant draw for many. But, as we’re now finding out at an increasingly alarming rate, it has wreaked havoc with environments and ecosystems – polluting food systems for potentially centuries to come.

Something must be done.

Modern, Eco Packaging

It’s high time we take a good look at what still needs to be individually wrapped and what doesn’t. It’s almost as though we’re going full circle to the Victorian methods of packaging and transporting. And this isn’t a bad thing. While wax-paper, wax-fabric, and other organic solutions come at a slightly higher cost, there’s a lot to be said for getting away from the single-use, disposable lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to over the last half century.

Pandemic aside, why shouldn’t sweets be kept in big jars like they used to? Why shouldn’t we expect to get sandwiches in reusable and/or biodegradable wrapping? And why shouldn’t we expect to pick out goods by the ladle rather than the packet?

Single-use packaging certainly has been convenient, and many things will need to be packaged in protective packaging forever (such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals), but it’s time we took reducing waste, reusing it, and recycling it seriously.

Eco friendly packaging may come at slightly higher cost, but at what cost would we accept the alternative?

4 January 2022

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