Wood has always been a plastic substance, whether carved, pressed, or shredded and mixed with water and chemicals to form pulp. The magazines and books we hold in our hands attest to that transformation, but we don’t often think about their materiality. We’re concerned mostly with the message, the product, or the usefulness of the thing.
But materiality is quite often top of mind when it comes to cardboard. Maybe it’s the fluting, which vaguely channels the tall and slender pine trees it came from, or it’s the woody and fibrous smell. Over thirty-five odour-active compounds — including vanillin (imparted by whisky barrels), dodecalactone (with its notes of peach), and para-cresol (which recalls a stable) — can stimulate the imagination and awaken unexpected emotions. It’s elemental and chemical and a bit magical. Empty, a cardboard box gives both space and structure to a wandering mind. Toddlers often have more fun with the packaging than with the toy it once concealed. And we’ve all seen the cat’s curiosity piqued when confronted with a mysterious coffer (is it the smell?). The contents can be wholly irrelevant: the chest is the real treasure.
Corrugated fibreboard — the stuff of cardboard boxes — was first processed about 150 years ago. On November 1, 1871, one Albert Jones of New York City submitted paperwork to the United States Patent Office, outlining the utility and “various purposes” of his invention: “to provide means for securely packing vials and bottles with a single thickness of the packing material between the surface of the article packed.”
Jones’s application was successful, and within three years, Oliver Long was tweaking the design by gluing liner sheets to either side of the fluted medium. This development happened to coincide with the arrival of mass production.
In 1884, Carl Ferdinand Dahl was awarded a patent for kraft paper (kraft means “strong” in German), which came to be used to line those corrugated boards. Eventually, the cardboard box became vital for shipping delicate items, like medical supplies. The humble but soon to be ubiquitous container even found its way into an Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” published in The Strand Magazine in 1893. Though the titular package itself occupied little real estate in the narrative, especially compared with the acuity of Sherlock Holmes, it was the herald of mystery: “At two o’clock yesterday afternoon a small packet, wrapped in brown paper, was handed in by the postman. A cardboard box was inside, which was filled with coarse salt. On emptying this, Miss Cushing was horrified to find two human ears, apparently quite freshly severed.” (To serve various purposes, indeed.)
There have been a few further modifications since Jones’s invention and Doyle’s story, but by and large we produce the same kind of vessel today.
In Canada, cardboard boxes tend to be made primarily from recycled fibre: the process isn’t 100 percent circular, since the fibre (from old boxes) is mixed with wood chips and sawmill residues, including bark, wood shavings, and sawdust. Nevertheless, the strands that are used are strong enough to be recycled up to nine times, and this recycled material accounts for about 90 percent of a cube’s matter (the rest comes from newly cut trees). The vast majority of timber in Canada is harvested on Crown lands, and in accordance with forest laws (some of the strictest in the world), those stands must be regenerated. This is the good news.
The trees are one part. The pulp and paper mills are another. Federal and provincial laws have been put in place to minimize harm to the environment, but they do not always guarantee safe processing. In 2014, to cite but one example, 47 million litres of wastewater spilled from the Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility, in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, and flowed into Mi’kmaw burial grounds. The following year, the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment took up the increasing deleterious effects on health and ecology that had been linked to the local mill. The upshot: “After decades of local pollution impacts and lack of environmental compliance, corporate social responsibility initiatives need implementing for the mill to maintain its social licence to operate.” (In January 2020, the mill was shut down.)
Of course, rarely is the box maker’s social licence top of mind when we order something — groceries, books, kitty litter — to be delivered to our homes. All that seems very remote and unsubstantial. There’s a subtle irony here: Some seventeen years before Doyle published “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box,” the word “cardboard” had already assumed a metaphorical sense. “Ottawa is not a cardboard city,” John J. Rowan wrote of the new capital in 1876. “There are no shanties, no shoddy. Everything is solid, substantial, and handsome.”
Cardboard, with all of its conspicuous versatility, is entangled in our very imagination. When our small children or our cats play with a box, whatever its size, their forts and dens become the unassailable redoubts of fancy. But material conditions can’t be ignored, and a wish-fulfillment dream can easily mutate into one of anxiety. In our modern accumulation of boxes, are we not creating a darker kind of cardboard city?