Time in a box: Museum display traces the history of packaging

August 27, 1991|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

At the Baltimore Museum of Industry, Baltimore's history comes in a box.

In a special exhibit, the museum is featuring the history of boxes from the clay pots used by the Egyptians to cardboard containers protecting computer chips. In the process, the museum, at 1415 Key Highway, is providing a glimpse into the Baltimore of yesteryear.

The familiar red Hecht's jewelry boxes and the yellow Whitman's Sampler boxes are on display along with boxes from the past such as hat boxes from Stewart's and Schleisner's. From an earlier era, there are tin boxes from Tindeco box company in Baltimore.

"We talk about the need for packaging," said Virginia Remsberg, assistant curator of the collection.

The exhibit, which will be on display through the fall, is sponsored by the L. Gordon Packaging Co., a Baltimore maker of rigid boxes that celebrated its 100th anniversary this year.

Although early Egyptians used clay vessels and woven baskets in their trade, until the late 19th centu

most goods were sold to consumers in bulk rather than individual packages.

In a general store, a clerk would measure the amount of tea, flower, prescription drugs and other products and wrap them in paper for the customer to take. At home, people had sturdy metal and wood boxes in which to store the goods.

Purveyors of patent medicines in the second half of the 19th century were the first to begin using individual packages, Remsberg said. As general stores became self-service stores, customers relied on boxes to describe contents and directions for their use. The manufacturers quickly learned to make use of cardboard boxes that not only would protect the contents, but advertise them as well.

Beginning in the 20th century, everything came boxed and a Russian immigrant named Louis Gordon began his own box-making company to take advantage of the trend. He made his hand-cut paper boxes for millinery and clothing from 1891 until his death in 1916. His son took over and operated the company, L. Gordon Packaging, until 1956. He was succeeded by his son, Bertram I. Gordon, who oversaw the company until 1985. His widow, Marjorie Gordon, now is in charge.

In the early part of this century, boxes became more ornate and complicated. Candy and cosmetic boxes particularly were designed to convey luxury and quality. One box in the exhibit features a cosmetic box with a pull drawer. When the drawer is pulled out, a mirror raises.

In the mid 1970s, the use of rigid boxes declined as department stores turned to cheaper collapsible boxes and bags.

Box makers either went out of business, changed to collapsible boxes or found other markets. L. Gordon's, Baltimore's oldest box maker, chose the last route and began making rigid boxes for games and high technology. The company at 1050 S. Paca St. is one of three rigid box makers in the city.

The company has produced the two-pound Whitman's Sampler boxes since 1946. It also has made boxes for Garfinckel's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Woodward & Lothrup.

In recent years, the company expanded into promotional gift boxes. Baltimore used customer-made boxes from Gordon for use in a presentation to William Donald Schaefer and for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

The company also began making boxes for computer software, compact disc collections and delicate microcircuit packaging. One of the company's largest accounts is National Geographic, for which Gordon makes Leatherette slipcases for indexes, magazines and maps.

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