Chad Dickerson, Etsy CEO and all-around awesome dude, recently had a whim to research the building that currently houses the Etsy offices. Located on the shores of Brooklyn’s DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood, 55 Washington Street sits only a block from the East River, with a view of Manhattan that keeps tourists braving the subway with a folded map in one hand and a digital camera in the other. Chad’s curiosity led him to the Landmarks Preservation Commission where he uncovered the history behind Robert Gair, a Scottish-born emigrant who constructed and occupied many structures along the DUMBO waterfront. Not only was Gair a successful, self-made businessman, he had a surprising hand in revolutionizing the way we consume and receive our goods.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Robert Gair’s family emigrated to Brooklyn in 1853, when Gair was only 14. He spent his adolescence as a plumber’s apprentice, learning his father’s trade. He was quick to develop a sense of American pride; at age 21, he cast his first ballot for Abraham Lincoln. After serving in the Civil War, Gair returned to Brooklyn, acquired a business partner and began manufacturing paper bags. During the war, when cotton had become scarce, flour and sugar were often packaged in paper bags rather than cotton or burlap fabric bags. While bulk-sized flour bags returned to fabric casing after the war, paper bags became the preferred packaging for small portions of dry goods. Gair saw dollar signs. After returning home and opening his factory, he quickly became the leader of the fledgling paper good industry, enabling the world’s first packaged food products to turn up on the shelves of general stores.
Gair found success in his paper bag company, and it was over ten years until a careless mistake by one of his workers would lead to a revolutionary product. In 1879, a pressman in Gair’s factory accidentally cut clean through 20,000 paper seed bags. Instead of exploding in anger, Gair looked at the ruined bags and realized that he could create a die that would cut and crease box board in one fell swoop. Prior to Gair’s happy accident, box making was a labor-intensive process that involved many hands. Most of the assembly work was completed by women working from their own homes. With every single cut and fold performed manually, cardboard boxes also came with a heavy price tag. Gair’s new invention resulted in the world’s first affordable cardboard box.
1890 was a hot decade for boxes. Gair produced cardboard boxes for Bloomingdale’s, Colgate, Pond’s, and a few cigarette companies. The folding box got its true big break in 1896 when the National Biscuit Company, now known as Nabisco, sought to sell its popular Uneeda Biscuits in folding boxes. Before then, crackers were typically stored in cracker-barrels, doled out individually by general store owners. As you can imagine, this often made for stale or molded crackers. Robert Gair’s factory produced the first 2 million boxes for the National Biscuit Company, a moment that contemporary historians still highlight as the birth of consumer packaging.
It wasn’t long before cereal companies came knocking, desiring perfectly folded cartons for their puffed wheat. With the patronage of cereal companies secured, the successful future of the cardboard box was inevitable. However, the real reason Gair’s boxes succeeded wasn’t because of the affordability or manufacturing speed; packaged food companies saw the six, broad expanses on each side of a box as valuable ad space. “By packaging at the factory instead of in the store, advertising directly to consumers in magazines and on billboards, and by making their packages easy to recognize, manufacturers were able to take control of the market,” wrote Diana Twede in an essay on paper based packaging. It seemed that everyone benefitted — with such clean, pristine packaging, retailers were able to make attractive store displays and sell more goods. Candy, crackers and cigarettes were no longer stored in unlabeled tins; cardboard boxes put products in front of buyers’ faces in elaborate and creative store displays.
By the time Gair passed away on his 88th birthday, he had millions of dollars and several patents to his name. After perfecting cardboard boxes, he experimented with lithographic processes to print advertisements directly onto cardboard boxes. Undoubtedly, Gair had a keen eye and savvy foresight, rounding out the Industrial Revolution with innovations that still affect our lives today. The next time you find yourself sneaking a box of Cheez-It crackers into your shopping cart, or carefully packing a hand-knitted sweater into a cardboard box, say a little thank you to the ingenious Scotsman.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.