An accidental invention, corrugated boxes were initially devised in the late 1800s by Scottish immigrant, Robert Gair. A mistake by an operator who cut, instead of creased, seed bags in Gair’s existing Brooklyn printing and paper-bag company, led to Gair’s creation and development of pleated, creased, and cut cardboard folding boxes.
Gair quickly realized this method could improve efficiency and reduce costs by cutting, printing, and creasing boxes from one piece of corrugated cardboard on the same press. The strength of the resulting prefabricated product provided a more cost-effective solution to other, expensive to produce, packaging materials in use at the time, such as wooden crates.
The advantages of packaging and retaining the freshness of dry goods such as tea, cereal, biscuits, crackers, and tobacco were soon discovered. A marketer’s dream, pre-printed and pre-fabricated boxes provided a blank canvas for branding, imagery, and new ways of product packaging and promotion.
Gair’s early customers included companies such as the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the Kellogg Company, the Lorillard Tobacco Company, and Nabisco (the National Biscuit Company). Thanks to a canny Scotsman, mass production of folding corrugated boxes and a new empire began.
A Good Employer
A New York Times article, by Tom Vanderbilt in 2004, cites Robert Gair’s biographer describing him “as a grizzled giant of a man, as handsome as a portrait and as stubborn in his convictions as Toscanini.” The same biographer stated, at lunchtimes around World War I, Gair would “go into the street and stand near the factory entrance, beaming paternally as he watched employees stream out.”
An earlier New York Times article, from August 1927, endorses Gair as having, ten years earlier, initiated a policy of closing on Saturdays during summer to allow his workers time “to work in their gardens.” Albeit, this was not at the expense of production, with weekday shifts lengthened to compensate for reduced weekend hours.
Despite factory working conditions much harsher and higher risk than would be acceptable or permitted today, Gair’s Piermont factory held an excellent safety record. As a plant employing 1,300 people, the Robert Gair Company Incorporated’s Piermont site proudly displayed road front health and safety signage as “A Safe Place to Work – One Million Man Hours Without Accident.”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ archived documents show Robert Gair Company contributions to employees’ collective health insurance plans, including life insurance, hospital, and surgical benefits.
As George Gair’s business enterprises grew, his company constructed at least ten industrial buildings around the waterfront and downtown Brooklyn, New York, in an area that became colloquially referred to as “Gairville.” Many of these buildings on the corner of Washington Street, Front Street, the Clocktower Building on Water and Main Street, and John and Gold Streets still stand today and bear facades and placards naming Gair and his companies.
Production of boxes subsequently moved to a larger plant Gair purchased upstate in Piermont. Later sold by Gair, the Piermont factory continued manufacturing boxes and paper under various owners until the 1980s.
In Brooklyn, Gair turned many of his property holdings into realty, leasing and tenanting buildings out in the first decades of the twentieth century.
In the Brooklyn-Manhattan area now known as “Dumbo,” Gair’s buildings are currently among buildings used as gentrified residential apartments, commercial premises, and office space.
Ironically, the headquarters of Etsy, the online platform that promotes the purchase of a range of unique products—many of which would require packaging, parceling, and posting in boxes based on Gair’s accidental, yet extremely lucrative, innovation—now occupies a previous Gair building on Washington Street, Brooklyn.
The penthouse apartment in the Clocktower Building (pictured above—the loft apartment is behind the glass clock face) set a sales record in early 2017 as the most expensive apartment ever sold in Brooklyn. Gair originally constructed this landmark as a cardboard box factory in 1914.
The Innovations Continue
Although it might seem a box is just a box, innovations in corrugated boxes have continued since Robert Gair’s initial brainwave almost 150 years ago. As Gair’s enterprise expanded, he, too, moved into different materials and began incorporating corrugated fiberboard into his box range in the 1900s.
Today, corrugated boxes come in a range of materials to incorporate different uses and functions. Hazardous substances and dangerous goods require specialized packing for hazmat shipping. Single- and double-walled corrugated boxes offer different degrees of strength. The current focus on environmentally friendly, sustainable, and recyclable packaging is leading to more creation and innovation for the years ahead.