True Tales of Packaging History: The Birth of Breakfast Boxes
MILK: BREAKING THE GLASS HABIT
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.